Tour de France 2012: Opening Salvos.

Well, we’re already four days in. Time flies when you’re having fun! Thanks to Monsieur Prudhomme, instead of what we’d usually have had by this point, ie a prologue and three sprints with perhaps a TTT thrown in, we’ve instead had a couple of classic hilly days interserped by a sprint to level things up a bit, with lovers of disc wheels well catered for already. This Tour hasn’t quite exploded out of the blocks like 2011, and with three flat days coming up (yes, even with the little bumps in the last few km they seem obliged to put in as a platform to attack), it’s unlikely to get going till the first TT and mountain stage at the weekend. Still, we’ve had our first look at the sprinters and GC riders, and of course at Peter ‘Forrest Gump’ Sagan.

Stage Two – Sprinters

Stage two was the first time the sprinters could get together to make the most of their limited opportunities to defeat one another this Tour. Whilst there arent any of the evil 2011 Giro stages that were flat for 200km and then went up a 1km 25% rise, the flat stages are few and far between once they get the next three days out of the way, so anyone team depending on a sprinter will be desperate to make amends.

For amends are usually made anyway after Sprint Day One, which is oft a day for chaos, as no one really bothers with leadout trains, everyone is fresh, and so the just try and destroy each other. This is basically what happenned, with only Lotto-Belisol really getting anything resembling a train together in the last kilometre, having had the majority of teams thrashing it out sharing the load for the rich number of sprinters in this years Tour. However, this has all quite happily played into the advantage of Mark Cavendish. Having claimed he has lost top end speed, and with a myriad of young sprinters around desperate to test their legs against him, Sky weren’t required to contribute to the chase at all. Cavendish was able to ‘surf the peloton’ and dive onto Greipel’s wheel, and just pip him by half a wheel on the line. Looks like the ‘Curse of the Rainbow Jersey’ won’t be getting Cav as much as it’s affecting Tony Martin.

Of course, as predictable as a Cavendish win might have been, it’s certainly not an inevitability that he’ll swallow up every other sprint finish. For one thing the margin of his victory was probably his smallest ever in a Tour stage, and if Greipel had gone slightly later, he would have won. It certainly made Cavendish’s comment that he only ever sprints at 80%, and that if his rivals got better, he’d got 85%, look a tad daft, although that was two/three years ago now. The intermediate sprints have been equally tight, and Cavendish has only won one of the three (behind the breakaway obviously), with Orica-GreenEdge seemingly having the desire to really work for the points at them.

The questions over Sagan and Kittel have been partially answered – Sagan doesnt quite have the same speed, but can still aim for the top three with some better positioning, whilst we just don’t know with Kittel – a stomach bug that led him to tweet ‘Never trust a fart’ has taken him out of the race in effect, just struggling to finish, which is a great shame for both him and his team. Whether he can hall his 80kilo frame over the mountains when he recovers for a shot at Paris, we’ll have to see.

Still, Greipel certainly looks like having a stage win in him, although I couldn’t say the same for Goss, who doesnt look to quite have the kick required to stay on terms with the Anglo-German paring of Cav and Greipel. It looks like a duel between those two for pure Sprinter bragging rights, with Sagan clipping their wings on any stage with a hill to take green.

Stage Three – Puncheurs

For indeed, this stage was already seemingly destined for the newly christened ‘Tourminator’ after his easy stage one win. Of course though, Phillipe Gilbert would be smarting to take a win to salvage his season, but it turned out that when your luck is out, its seriously out, as Gilbert discovered after being held up by a crash and having to embarrasingly change his left shoe on the move. Another chance gone for Gilbert, although of course with Evans a strong uphill finisher, BMC weren’t overly bothered.

The stage was the best so far, unfortunately due to the volume of crashes that occured, again, oddly, on straight roads. Sky’s strong Belarussian Sivstov crashed out, breaking his leg apparently, although the TV images showed him trying to stand up, so I can only assume he enjoys a suffer fest. JJ Rojas was the other abandon of the day, which is a shame given his impressive perfomance and 2nd on the points competition last year. Tjallingi of Rabobank also pulled out, although only after he had finished with a broken hip.

The crashes however forced the peloton out of the ‘comfort setting’ they seem to settle into on these early stages, seemingly content just to roll in easily, and made them set an infernal pace towards the last hills of the day, each team desperate to avoid being victims of whoever fell next. Chavanel’s little dig was good for the camera’s, but ultimately too early with such a steep little slope to get up. The OPQS man, who now has a tatoo telling us he ‘likes’ the team a la facebook, still looks good for a stage win at some point though – you wonder if these attacks have been vain attempts to snatch yellow from Cancellara.

The last couple of hundred metres were where the action happenend however. First, a crash caused perhaps by Oscar Freire knocked down a few riders and held up men like Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, who were too far back on the climb. Sky have been extremely lucky on both the uphill days – Wiggins was isolated on stage one, and at first, I thought he would lose time on Stage three – after all, Bernard Kohl lost time when he crashed inside the last kilometre on an uphill finish in 2008. Regardless of what Kohl did, it appears that the rule that the 3km rule doesnt apply on uphill finishes has either been rescinded or the finish wasn’t classed as ‘uphill’ – which seems unlikely. Sky have now lost a man and seem to relax in the last hundred metres as if its job done already, and as anyone will tell you in sport, it’s not over till you cross the line…

Of course, it would be madness to talk about the stage without mentioning the glorious Peter Sagan. Already people are getting fed up with him it seems, claiming his celebrations are arrogant. A similar thing occured when Cavendish started winning, although he never pulled the ‘Forest Gump’ run out of his suitcase of celebrations – he just belittled his rivals somewhat. The difference is that Sagan is only 22, and an incredibly shy man – and who can deny that the celebrations are good fun? I’d rather be talking about those then do what Cycle Sport do every week, which is whine on about how they reckon everyone but Sky is doped to the eyeballs.  It’s good for the sport too – people will hopefully tune in to ‘see what he does next.’

People are taking it all far too seriously. Cycling is sport, its enteratainment – if Sagan celebrating upsets you, then you’re probably not watching cycling for the right reasons. Lighten up and enjoy it while you can!

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