Tour de France 2012: Opening Weekend

So it’s that time of year again, le Grande Boucle. Time to sit back and enjoy a month of great scenery, drama, intrigue, shocks, and, hopefully, some great racing.

I was going to write a preview of the entire race, but frankly, it would have taken forever and been immediately outdated by whatever happenned in the prologue. Now that the opening time splits that, if we believe some ‘journalists’, are the sole reason that crashes dont happen in the first week, we can get on with the fun. Instead, I’ll have a look at the race in whatever segments seem sensible, so, for the first part, we’ll look at the opening weekend

The Prologue.

Before the event, like everyone else, I was betting on a Tony Martin/Fabian Cancellara showdown, with Bradley Wiggins out to gate crash the party of possible. It would appear this was going to plan, until Martin, riding a new Specialised Clincher tyre that had minimal puncture protection but was supposedly extremely fast to make up for  it, demonstrated why the pursuit of speed shouldn’t be chased at all costs when his rear whell promptly punctured, having gone through the time split in first place. His first split was faster then Cancellara’s, so the three long time trials are still up for grabs. And yes, three – the Olympic time trial is close enough as to make it worthy of being the Tours ‘4th Time Trial.’

Not entirely sure about that New Mclaren-Specialised helmet mind…

The only other dissapointment was Peter Sagan, whom has been an odd figure for journalists – whilst he has cleary ‘arrived’ and has done for some time, especially given he won stages of Paris-Nice as a neo pro, many seem keen on trying to make out he is an prediction only they, in their infinite wisdom, have been able to see coming, and try to claim he may win a couple of stages as he ’emerges’, apparently forgetting that other people watch cycling and that he never finished lower then 5th in any monument he competed in this Spring. Sagan, who is being fantastically imitated on Twitter as @TweeterSagan, managed to overcook one of the roundabouts, although he managed to stay upright, probably due to the BMX handling skills that allow him to do wheelies with no hands…

Still, he’s favourite for the Sunday stage with Cancellara, Chavanel and Gilbert based on the rides they all did in the prologue, so he won’t be that bothered.

The GC Battle

The Prologue is an odd beast for the GC riders – despite being a chance to gain time, if you believe the post race comments, then none of them are actually bothered. For the same line is repeated year after year, regardless of where the man came in the race, so here’s the stock phrase for you all to use once you become Tour contenders: ‘The time gained/lost (delete as appropriate) is irrelevant, I’m not a specialist and the Tour is three weeks long, so time gained/lost (delete as etc etc) will be irrelevant by the end of the Tour.’  It also helps to claim that you weren’t taking any chances, giving an ambience of nochalance, which is rather Euro.

Take, for instance, Bradley Wiggins, who has experienced both sides of the spectrum, having lost chunks of time in the 2010 Rotterdam Prologue when Sky’s God Complex made them try to outfox the elements by guessing the weather, and getting the polar opposite of what they wanted, and conversely finishing 2nd this year:

2010: (Having lost 56 seconds to Cancellara, and placing 77th) ‘The prologue is insignificant in the three weeks. You can lose seconds here, but the difference is going to be minutes in three weeks. I didn’t want to chance anything. I said all along the prologue wasn’t the be all and end all for me, so I’m just pleased to have got round in one piece.”

2012: (Having lost 7 seconds to Cancellara, and placing 2nd) “There’s a commitment in that kind of race for the stage win and there’s a commitment thinking of the three weeks, and I took the second option. I wouldn’t say I didn’t want the yellow jersey. I would have taken it. But I did say to the team last night that there’s one man who could beat me and that’s Fabian [Cancellara]. He’s always king of those things and he’s proved once again that he’s the best in the world.”

You seriously wonder why they bother when its supposedly so pointless! Obviously its all a bit of mind games, but the prologue is always worth it just to start gauging where everyone is, as, despite the protestations of the riders, it does mean something. Thus, its worth assessing how the favourites chances look after the opening 6.3km.

1. Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) –  7.13

2. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) – ‘7 : Anything less then this would probably have been seen as a dissapointment for Wiggins, who will be satisfied with the 10 seconds gained on Evans.

4. Tejay Van Garderen (BMC – ’10 : An impressive ride by the youngster, whom, having finished 3rd in the Dauphine a couple of years ago, is a strong bet for white if he doesnt kill himself working for Evans. The ‘Next Lance’ tags will be out if he does.

8. Denis Menchov (Katusha) – ’13 : The ‘Silent Assasin’, who sneaks in under the rider continually, made an even stealthier approach to the Tour then usual this year, having been unable to compete when Geox weren’t invited last year, and doing nothing in the months leading up to it. On a course that suits him, Menchov will be extremely happy with this showing: whether or not he’ll be able to become the second current rider after Contador to complete the Grand Slam will depend on his climbing legs, and of course whether the persistent doping allegations that follow him (Remember the Humanplasma clinic? The ‘Suspicion Index’?) catch up with him at all.

11. Chris Froome (Sky) – ’16 : Froome has been talked up as a winner since he beat his teammate Wiggins in the Vuelta last year, actually beating winner Cobo on time, but losing on the time bonuses (and no, that’s not an excuse – they all knew they existed before hand). Despite Paul Sherwen calling him a poor time triallist (He beat Wiggins in the long TT  in said Vuelta), he clocked a strong time just 9 seconds behind his leader, and despite his slighlty awkward style. Still can’t see him winning unless Wiggins crashes out in the first week mind, and we don’t know how well he’s recovered from his illness.

12. Peter Velits (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) – ’17 : Velits has been talked up as a contender based on his 3rd place in the Vuelta in 2010 as well as his high placing on the Alpe d’Huez in the past, but to be honest, I can’t see it. Still, he could suprise, and his Prologue time is up there with the best.

13. Cadel Evans (BMC) – ’17 : The defending champion’s best ever prologue ride, and with a loss of just 10 seconds to ex-Team Pursuiter Wiggins, he’s in a great position. Evans is my personal favourite for the Tour, based essentially on Wiggins either falling off at some point or having underestimated his rivals, especially when they figure out that numbers arent the be all and end all of the Tour. Yes, as you’ve figured out, I’m not that keen on Sky. But Evans looks good, and with a strong team, can only be on for a good one.

14. Vincenzo Nibal (Liquigas) – ’18 : The extremely classy Italian (witness his bunny hop before a hairpin turn on a descent in last years Giro on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuGzA_o0HBc) turned out a suprising time trial – I’d hoped he’d do well at the Tour, but suspected he might not have the last 5% required in the climbs and TT’s. Luckily he’s pleasantly suprised me, and so the ‘heart’ option of who I want to win looks good to do well in a Tour that should suit him well.

15. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) – ’18 : The Giro champ hoping to emulate Marco Pantani’s ’98 Giro-Tour double has set out a good stall, but is probably stretching belief by hoping to win the race. Whilst evidently an excellent rider, the level of opposition in the Giro, mainly ageing Italians, isn’t the same at the Tour, and so Hesjedal would seem to be left looking at the podium at best. He’ll probably make me eat my words based on the Giro mind.

19. Andreas Klodern (RadioShack-Nissan) – ’19 : You never know what’s going to happen with the enigmatic German, who doesnt want to be associated with Germany. He would be a divisive victor, and personally, I’d quite like him to win, but suspect the years have taken their toll on this Tour great. Still one of the few current riders to feature who have stood on the podium in Paris however (along with Evans, F. Schleck, Menchov, Basso, Leipheimer, Vinokourov and technically Sanchez, although he never stood on the podium despite finishing 3rd after Contador’s DQ for 2010 for those interested)

21. Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge) – ’20 : Who, you say? Albasini? I admit it’s a long shot, and he won’t be winning, but Albasini could crack the top 10 or 15 based on his season so far. His prologue time is good, and he looks set to be a second fulcrum for orica-GreenEdge if they don’t concentrate soley on Matt Goss.

28. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) – ’21 ; The first of Rabobank’s Dutch trinumverate looks good to show his 4th place at the Vuelta was no fluke, at least if he and Gesink can co exist.

32. Janez Brajkovic (Astana) – ’22 : Has no hope of winning, but a top 10 would be a fantastic result for the mildly overhyped Slovenian, who famously beat Contador in the 2010 Dauphine.

36. Richie Porte (Sky) – ’22 : I’m only putting Porte in to cover a base: he looks strong, and is capable of suprising, as he showed at the 2010 Giro. Probably just going to slay himself for Wiggins though.

37. Rein Taarame (Cofidis) – ’22 : It would be nice for Taarame to continue his development with a top 10, but it will be tricky in a Tour packed with GC guys trying to prove they aren’t over hyped and with two long time trials.

65. Robert Gesink (Rabobank) – ’26 : Has Gesink peaked too soon? Or was he just against rubbish opposition at the Tour of California? Sure, Gesink’s never been the best at prologues, but he looked to have turned a corner at the Dauphine TT. Still probably on route to a good Tour, but can he get on the podium?

77. Jurgen Van Den Broek (Lotto-Belisol) – ’28 : VDB has looked good this year, and with prologues not his speciality, I still have high hopes for him getting on the podium – something he’ll want to do to upstage Thomas de Gendt’s Giro ride!

80. Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) -’28 : Continuing his trend of getting steadily worse in the TT’s by the looks of things, although he’s done suprisingly well in California and Switzerland since breaking his leg. Repeat of his 2007 podium looks unlikely though.

109. Thoas Voecklet (Europcar) -’33 : Everyones favourite Frenchmen (although not in the peloton apparently) did what he normally does in TT’s. Coming off a knee injury, it’s probably going to be a while till we see what he can do.

136. Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) – ’38 : Not as bad as predicted for Schleck, but still a sign that this Tour is not made for him. At the rate he lost time in the prologue, he’ll lose a further six and a half minutes in the TT’s, although the rate of loss in longer TT’s should be lower.

145. Samuel Sanchez (Euskatel) – ’40 : Sanchez complained of feeling ‘blocked’, which is probably fair given he usually does suprisingly well in TT’s. Maybe the ribs still hurt from the Dauphine?

166. Pierre Rolland (Europcar) -’45 : Not a great start for the New Hope of French Cycling. Still, his playground should be the mountains.

Stage One

The uphill stage one finish didn’t quite seperate the field as anticipated, but did give us the best demonstration of Peter Sagan’s incredible talent and ice cool celebration chest. Cancellara blasted away as predicted, but once again, couldn’t get rid of his tail. Still, Sagan took his win well, playing Cancellara well to ensure he took him to the finish despite the Swiss’ continual requests for him to do a turn. It leaves Sagan in a commanding position over Cavendish and co for Green, although Cancellara still leads the competition.

Omega Pharma-Quickstep must be wondering if the Tour has placed a curse on them in recent years. They’ve made no secret that they’ve been chasing a GC rider to do well in the Tour, and the signing of Velits, Leipheimer and Martin looked to have given them a good foundation. However, within two days, Leipheimer has lost 38 seconds to Wiggins based on poor positioning on the climb, and Tony Martin, already having a miserable season following being hit by a car and the Prologue tyre debacle, has managed to break his wrist. He’ll struggle on to stage two, but whether this effects his Olympic campaign, or if he even continues to the end of the Tour, will be interesting to see.

Sky managed third on the stage with Boassen Hagen, but this disguised the isolation Wiggins was left in at the end of the race. Notable through their yellow helmets they’d decided to wear for leading the team classification, Sky were notably abesent when the road went uphill. Supposedly this was because men had gone back to help Chris Froome, who lost a minute and a half with a late puncture, but only two other men were in the same group as Wiggins, and why would you send men back for Froome if Wiggins is the sole leader? It seems odd, but Sky will probably have a reason somewhere, although their list of odd little errors is mounting up. And they need to get rid of those helmets.

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