2012 Tour de France - The First Week
Tour de Crash.
Roadcycling.com's analysis of the Tour de France continues with stage 3 and beyond.
These first few stages have shown that the first week of the Tour won't disclose its winners, but it can eliminate contenders in the blink of an eye.
In stage 3 Peter Sagan of Liquigas-Cannondale took his second stage win of the Tour de France with a strong sprint for the line. It was a dynamic display of power, but as usual at the Tour de France there was some excitement before riders shifted into their 53×12s.
A crash split the peloton with 30 kilometers remaining. Depending on your point of view it was either tactical riding or disrespect to a fallen rider as Movistar continued to pull the peloton.
Crashes in a professional bike race are an unfortunate part of the sport. You cram over a hundred riders onto a narrow country road and the rule of physics applies: two solid objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. In the case of cycling when that happens the result is a crash. And as these riders are professionals they have an unwritten rule of how to act during an incident, but it depends on who the victims are and when it occurs in the race. Yeah, it can get confusing.
To be clear - there is no official UCI rule saying that the racers must slow down after a crash. However, if the crash victim is leading the race the unwritten rule is the peloton slows to give the leader an opportunity to catch back up. This is done as a sign of respect. Think Godfather.
However, if the rider who has hit the ground is a domestique then there is hardly a drop of speed as that rider is just a foot solider in the battlefield of professional cycling.
Depending on the stage there is a rule regarding crashes within the last three kilometers. If a rider crashes within three kilometers of the finish they are given the same time as the group they were in at the time of the incident. This rule was created so that the non-sprinters wouldn't have to fight with the sprinters to stay near the front of the fast charging peloton. And that leads us to another "rule of the peloton."
A bunch sprint is a tricky thing. The speeds can reach over 40 miles per hour and a slight movement left or right could send the bunch tumbling down. This type of rider is specialized and doesn't want non-sprinters getting in the way in those last 500 meters. Think of it as throwing in a VW Bug in the middle of an F1 race - the Bug is just going to jam everything up and doesn't stand a chance anyways, so why get involved?
The three kilometer rule lets the non-sprinters slide off the back, not get involved in the "argy bargy" of the final sprint and not lose any time.
While this rule is very popular for non-sprinters, as they don't need to risk their skin in the finale of the race, sprinters don't get the same love on the terrain they hate - the mountains. Who said bike racing is fair? That said, when have we ever seen a muti-rider pile-up at the summit?
Lately we haven't seen too much pace slowing when there is a crash. Back in the early days of the sport its "patrons" led the bunch. That was Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and more recently Lance Armstrong. These three examples of riders were not only dominant riders of their time, but they had a dominant personality to match. If they said the peloton was to ride slow, the peloton rode slow. Today there isn't a patron wielding that type of strong leadership.
What happens when a team breaks the unwritten code of slowing for a fallen leader? Officially nothing - that's bike racing. However, eventually the team that broke the détente will need help: their rider crashes, someone needs a wheel or bottle. Or perhaps they are caught at the back during a crosswind. Riders' memories are long and the offending team will be shown no mercy when their rider goes down or perhaps rides them into the gutter during a cross wind. Revenge is a dish best served cold.
The three kilometer rule saved Team Sky's Bradley Wiggins at the end of stage 3 as he was caught up in a crash on the uphill. Wiggins was in the front group when he hit the deck, so he received the same time as Sagan.
While Liquigas-Cannondale were the big winners Team Sky lost a rider in crash. Belarussian Kanstantsin Siutsou crashed with about 40 kilometers remaining. Some might remember that Siutsou won the final Tour de Georgia in 2008. He sealed his Georgia victory by taking the stage on the steep road to Brasstown Bald.
The result of the crash was a fractured tibia bone in Siutsou's left leg. This bad luck ripples into the team as riders will have to pick up the load he would have carried, which adds a bit more strain to the squad. To win the Tour the less stress and strain to a team the better. Siutsou would have been a capable lieutenant in the mountains and his absence will leave a chink in the Sky armor.
Stage 4 of this year's Tour de France was one for the sprinters. Sure it had a couple of category 4 climbs, but nothing that would prevent the fast men of the peloton from fighting for the day's victory.
We had the obligatory breakaway group of no-hopers going up the road that was caught at ten kilometers remaining. All eyes were on Cavendish, Greipel and Goss.
Curiously Greipel didn't contest the intermediary sprint. Was this a sign he was saving himself for stage wins rather than trying to accumulate green jersey points?
However, this is the Tour and anything can happen. Less than three kilometers to go a huge crash took out sprinters Cavendish and Robbie Hunter.
Not to take anything away from Greipel's win, the big German easily took the stage. I can't help but wonder what would have been the outcome if all the sprinters had been present.
The Tour's stage 5 was quite honestly a yawner - but that's usually the case in the first week of the Tour. We had the usual scenario: four riders up the road with no hope, but with the purpose of getting some television time for their sponsors.
Before the riders rolled out of town a Dutch newspaper claimed that Levi Leipheimer, David Zabriskie, George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde and Jonathan Vaughters had testified to USADA. This story gained more traction than it deserved due to the boring nature of the day's racing. Those names aren't new. Other than Vaughters, the other four names had taken themselves out of selection for the London Olympic Games - a huge clue that they were involved in the USADA investigation. The only other tidbit of "news" was that in exchange for testifying, the four would receive a reduced ban of six months starting in September or December - the two different dates are from two different sources.
Anyways, back to the Tour de France.
With ten kilometers remaining teams started to line up their trains. Team Sky had several riders at the front, but not to help Cavendish. More likely they learned from the other day's crash that it's better to keep your G.C. guy at the front for safety's sake. BMC was lined up on the other side of the road apparently using the same game plan as Sky.
While it was assumed that the quartet would be caught, the escapees didn't get that memo. Ten kilometers to go and they were still ahead of the peloton. Five kilometers they still had a lead. Three kilometers it was still a handful of seconds, but still leading.
With less than two km to go the Cofidis rider Jan Ghyselinck attacked and looked like he might take the stage. Nipping at his heels was the Lotto-Belisol train which was leading it out for Greipel.
With about 400 meters to the line the peloton absorbed the final breakaway rider - a flagging Euskaltel-Euskadi rider who had overhauled Ghyselinck and was probably wondering what the heck he was supposed to do now - keep sprinting?
Greipel proved to be the fastest on this stage and took the win. Surprisingly Cav didn't get off the saddle to sprint as he knew it wasn't going to go his way. A battle for the green jersey was shaping up. The German grabbed the points, but Sagan still had the green jersey and Cav was still hunting for wins to break the record.
It was deja-vu in stage 6 - which is how the first week of the Tour de France usually shakes out - with a four man break, which included the USADA leaked name of David Zabriskie. Perhaps he was scampering up the road so he can more quickly return to the privacy of the Garmin-Sharp team bus.
And staying with the plot of the Tour a huge crash on a straight section of the road brought down about thirty to forty riders about 25 kilometers from the finish. In the pile of torn lycra was the broken dreams of a high placing in the general classification.
Garmin-Sharp's Tom Danielson abandoned - he was the team's highest placed rider in last year's Tour at 8th place. His teammate Ryder Hesjedal lost 13 minutes. Frank Schleck of RadioShack-Nissan lost a little over two minutes to put him out of contention for the overall.
Not surprisingly both Sky and BMC Racing Team had their leaders at the front and out of trouble. That is going to separate them from the rest of the contenders - the ability and luck to stay out of trouble and having the resources to do so.
The yellow jersey battle has been boring as the prologue determined the leader for almost a week. But let's also remember the last 5 kilometers of the stages have been exciting. That said, I'm looking forward to the stages that will finally reshape the G.C. of the Tour.
Tour de Random
- Sagan's stage 1 victory he posted up doing the "flapping chicken" and he said he came up with that salute after talking to friends. His stage 3 victory salute of the "running man" was because his teammates refer to him as Forrest Gump. Stage 6's "Incredible Hulk" salute was a reference to wearing the green jersey.
- After picking himself off the ground in stage 5 Tyler Farrar tried to storm the Argos-Shimano team bus to have some words with Tom Veelers whom he blamed for the crash in the last two kilometers. Looks like Farrar's Tibetan "inner peace" tattoo wasn't working for him. I say it's time for "Love" on one set of knuckles and "Hate" on the other as a tattoo replacement.
- According to the Eurosport commentators the most bottles a rider has transported from the team car to his teammates in one try is 19.
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