The 104th edition of the Tour de France kicked off this weekend in Germany with an individual time trial. The Tony Martin victory many expected in Dusseldorf didn’t quite go to plan for the German. A brilliant ride from Geraint Thomas putting the disappointment of the Giro behind him took the stage and yellow jersey by 5 seconds to BMCs Stefan Küng. Heavy rain meant what should have been a routine race against the clock turned into a treacherous TT with dozens of riders taking a tumble. Izagirre and Valverde had to abandon, the two big GC contenders crashed hard and had their tours ended after only a matter of kilometres. Most of the other GC riders decided to take a cautious approach in the race for yellow willing to lose some time but keep the bike upright. Even so Froome still managed to put some time into his rivals with a 35 and 36 second lead on Porte and Quintana and 50 seconds on Aru , Fuglsang and Bardet. There was some controversy after the stage however with some teams suggesting that Teams Sky’s skinsuits and there use of vortex generators to smooth the airflow around the rider broke UCI regulations and gave an advantage of 15 seconds on the time trial . The request for punishment from Team FDJ was rejected. Which could have an interesting impact on stage 20 the next TT effectively giving the green light for open season on all the teams skinsuit design. On the topic of UCI regulations something that should be banned is Team Fortuneo all white top and bottom skinsuit which was a brave if not unwise move in the rain.
If you’re like me and love bike racing so much and lack other social activities to fill your weekend that you even enjoy watching hours and hours of the long flat and some would say uneventful sprint stages. Then this year you will be extra pleased, as now you can watch live from kilometre ZERO even the excitement of the neutralised zone!!!!!!!
Sundays stage was a cliche sprint stage a small break got away but was never given too much time. The intermediate sprint came and went with the break taking the first number of points and the sprinters mopping up behind although with the exception of Kristoff and Colbrelli the rest of the sprinters were visibly holding back for the final. The rain was once again a factor, causing a brief scare when there was a crash at the front of the pack bringing down Froome, Porte and Bardet. Although with still 30 km to go and the break barley hanging out in front there wasn’t too much chasing to be done for the GC guys to get back into the pack. The run for home was pretty messy with no team really perfecting their lead out train and only just catching the two remaining break away riders with 3 km to go. The bundle for the line was a tight affair, Marcel Kittel surged through to take the win from a top 10 of sprinting power houses. A strong showing from Arnaud Demare in second could be a sign of things to come and the long wait for a French sprint win in the tour nearing an end and a fourth place for Mark Cavendish still finding his form after illness could he break the record number of wins this year?
Stage 3 saw the Tour move through three countries from Belgium to Luxembourg and finishing in France across the 212 km parcours, but the real focus of the race was on the last 1.6 KM uphill finish and who, if anyone, could beat Peter Sagan. Despite a undulating course and even with Thomas De Gent joining the break away there was a sense of inevitability that the race was going to be decided on that final climb. For 210 km the most entertainment was seen in the crossing of a few borders and a lap of the Spa Formula 1 circuit taken in by the peloton. The business end of the race however did not disappoint as a reduced bunch contested the final climb. There was a number of big names in the mix with the likes of Van Avermaet, Martin, Contador to name a few. For a brief moment a last ditch attack from Ritchie Porte seemed to have out foxed Sagan with no one willing to chase him down. This followed by an uncustomary bike handling error from Slovakian with his foot unclipping it looked as if he had thrown his chances of a win away. That was for a brief moment.. until the world champion just casual reclipped and effortlessly pulled up along side before opening up his sprint to the line. Surely the first of many wins this tour ? and almost certainly heading towards a record equalling sixth Green jeresy in Paris .
Come catch up on all the action in the Lab and remember to pop into the Lab to check out kit from both Omnium and Threo. They’ll be in the Lab from 6 in the reception area so if you’re in a session or work nearby and need some summer swag then feel free to pop in and peruse the rails.
A long sprint stage of 207 kilometers on flat roads lay in store for Wednesdays race. The break escaped early with 200 km to go and contained just a single rider. Although escaped is probably a slight exaggeration as with the peloton just averaging 30 km/h early on, a snail would of had a good chance of making it into the break. The lone rider, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck must obviously not be the most popular chap with his fellow professionals as not one single rider attempted to join him out front and he was in for a long solo day out. I would imagine despite this being his first tour the romance of a solo break that was always going to be reeled in wore off fairly quickly. Bravely he pushed on for over 180 KM on his own with just the voice of his director sportif whispering in his ear “think of the sponsors” for company. In the peloton there wasn’t much to report for the majority of the stage, except how ridiculous Team Sky’s yellow helmets as the leading team are, Chris Froome resembling something like a daffodil isn’t a great look for him.
Van Keirsbulck was caught with 16 km to go and the drive for the line started. Again similar to stage 2 there wasn’t much in the way of organisation. The rival teams lead out trains were fighting for space and inside 3 km to go there was a fall that took down a large number of riders including Thomas in yellow who thankfully managed to dodge any serious injuries.
The final 400 meters and with all the big sprinters except for Kittle left standing in the reduced group. The riders started to swing right towards the barriers, with space at a premium Cavendish tried to go for an ever closing gap past Sagan. Who moved further across to block the space and stuck out an elbow causing Mark to smash straight into the advertising boards breaking his shoulder. Demare capitalised and powered through to win and take a first french sprint victory in the tour since Jimmy Casper in 2006. At first it looked as if Sagan would be demoted to back of the bunch and fined his lunch money . However a while after the stage it was announced that he would be removed from the tour, with the race organisers shooting themselves in the foot by putting out their main attraction. The expulsion from the race is particularly harsh punishment when he didn’t take his hands off the bars flicking the elbow and was only following the wheels across the road. Plus anyone who has ever raced a cat 4 race will know that would just be described as a minor scuffle !!
A last thought for the stage is who should have been awarded the most combative rider ..Van Keirsbulck for the solo 180 km or a leaving present for Sagan with the perfectly executed elbow ?
After the Sagan saga of yesterday it was back to the racing for stage 5, the first mountain top finish of this years tour. Although not a classic mountain stage the category one climb of the Planche des Belles Filles 5.9 km at an average gradient of 8.5% would be enough to shake up the race and provide a first real test for the GC men.
A strong break went clear including Philippe Gilbert celebrating his 35th birthday and the face pulling Tommy Voeckler rocking, rolling and shouting his way through the french countryside. Despite being of no real threat to the overall standings they were never given much of a gap due to some very questionable tactics by the BMC team. The thought that sprung to mind was can Richie Porte ever stop being a domestique for Froome? His strong performance in the Critérium du Dauphiné seemed to suggest that he had broken out of his bad habits but this looks to be short lived. It was bad enough last year with Porte acting as a personal chaperone for Froome but now it seems that he has got his whole team working for sky. To try and control the break that would have no significant bearing on the general classification and use up their riders when they did not have the yellow jersey was not a good call. The aim was the bonus seconds on the line but surely a much better plan would have been to let the break go and leave all the work down to Sky.
As the riders hit the climb the peloton reduced in size dramatically, even with some top climbers being distanced. Those who had rode the Giro looked fatigued Pinot and Mollema faded quickly not to mention my pick for the stage Fuglsang. Aru hit out first with no one was willing to follow, potentially believing that he wouldn’t be long falling back to them. On a slight side note it made a nice change to see Aru decked out in a proper national kit with the full tricolori a bit of a throw back to the 90s and none of this modern minimalist rubbish that some teams have opted for recently. He showed his strong form as he maintained the momentum from his attack holding on to his gap all the way to the line winning by 16 seconds. Dan martin finished fast and grabbed second with Froome third and Porte just behind. Its difficult to read much into the results as its the first climb of the tour and with many more tougher and longer climbs to come there is plenty of opportunity for those who dropped time on stage 5 to mount a challenge against Froome . Richie Porte however needs to think smart and save his team where possible if he wants to win the tour giving an already super strong team like Sky an easy ride will not help his cause.
This one will definitely not go down as a classic stage, the 216 km roll to Troyes on flat, long straight roads was destined to end in nothing but a bunch sprint. I will stop short of calling the stage dull as no bike race could possibly be that…but when the early highlights include appreciating some nice stretches of tarmac and what width tyres riders are using you know the stage is lacking in excitement. A break of three riders went clear early on and in exceedingly hot temperatures the peloton was happy for them to build up a gap of four minutes.
There was more news on the Sagan exclusion from on Stage 4. Bora- Hansgrohe team launched an appeal to the Court of Arbitration of Sport to review the decision made by the commissaries. Unsurprisingly this was rejected and the ruling upheld. The storm that would have been caused by a decision reversal would not be worth thinking about and the Tour really needs to move on from the whole event.
Back to the race and there was not much report between the break going up the road and being caught at the 4 km marK. All the action was saved for the last few hundred meters. Following a familiar pattern from other sprint stages in years this Tour de France, the run in was a bit chaotic with sprinters losing contact with their lead out trains and all fighting for space. After the crashes and near misses of previous sprints there was quite a lot of tension among the riders. Demare`s lead out man had some rather unpleasant things to say about Bouhanni, that I am unable to quote on here . Claiming that he tried to push him off his bike in the final and his dangerous riding and anger is down to him always losing. This probably isn’t the smartest move as Bouhanni is infamous for his bad temper and his love of boxing. So watch this space if we thought a little elbow from Sagan was bad we may soon be seeing some full on fist fights in the closing stages. The sprint itself was taken just by Marcel Kittel who with 250 meters to go had a lot left to do after losing his lead out train. The German pulled out an immensely powerful effort to push past Demare and Greipel just before the line to claim his second stage win of the Tour.
I will leave you with some photos from yesterdays stage taken on the road side by Lab member Justin Goold. Only 6 stages in and already got our own photographer. Might have some exclusive interviews before the end of the tour !!
Another flat sprinters profile was in store for stage 10. A slightly shorter run than the previous fast finishes at 178 km in length. The road book pointed towards a predictable start of the stage playing out like every other flat stage in this years tour. I guess with several of these stages under the pelotons belt everyone is well rehearsed in settling in to a pretty pedestrian pace, letting a small break going away before easily bringing them back in time for the bunch sprint.
I would love to tell you stage 10 was different but unfortunately not. The flag dropped and off went the two man break of Elie Gesbert and Yoann Offredo, with the pack putting their feet up untill the gap hit five minutes. Although there was little entertainment in the early part of the race, Elie Gesbert of the break provided the story of the day. The youngest rider at this years tour aged only 22, had a bit of a disaster on the rest day. Gesbert may have been suffering from the same temporary loss of sight Aru had on stage 9 not seeing the waving hand of Chris Froome.
The previous day the young French rider also decided to ignore the “please do not cover the radiator” signs and placed a damp towel over it before heading down for lunch. The smell at the dining table a few minutes later wasn’t burning toast! Thankfully the fast responding pompiers averted anything more serious than some light smoke damage. This slight mishap was probably the reason Gesbert was sent into the break as punishment for disturbing everyones rest day and earn back the hotel room redecorating costs. Although I’m sure he was glad to be a few minutes up the road as he avoided being the centre of all the pelotons jokes .
The break was caught in the closing stages of the race as the sprint teams started to line up for the finish. Lotto Soudal were well organised in the classic lead out formation hoping that Andre Greipel could mount a serious challenge to Kittle and his domination in the sprints. The green jersey wearer went for a slightly different tactic, despite having an extremely strong Quick Step team, he chose to freelance his way into the last few kilometres. When you’re as strong as this German who needs a team anyway. Holding back slightly he gave the others a slight head start before opening up his sprint and demolishing the field with ease. Claiming his 13th tour stage win gives him the all time leading number of German Tour de France stage wins. Putting him one ahead of Erik Zabel.
Although my race winning predictions haven’t been exactly spot on, don’t lose faith just yet. I did predict that Nacer Bouhanni would land a punch this tour and he has come up trumps. He delivered the goods on stage 10 resulting in a time penalty and fine.
Broken record… That is what springs to mind for stage 11, I will resist the temptation to just put please see stage 10 review for details and instead try to find some excitement and intrigue in what was another flat, largely uneventful and predictable stage.
Firstly I think it’s time for a moan, the genius who included 6 flat stages in the opening 11 days of the tour isn’t going to win any prizes for imagination. I love a sprint finish as much as the next person but to have so many so close together on stage profiles that do not even give a break half a chance doesn’t make for much of a spectacle. There must have been alternatives maybe a slightly lumpy day or a high chance of cross winds maybe even bring back the cobbled chaos seen in 2014. It’s the Tour de France not the tour of French flat main roads and A roads. I understand that the premature departure of Sagan and Cavendish hasn’t helped things but for large parts of Stage 11 the historical background through the ages of the passing chateaux was more exciting than the racing.
The teams must also take some of the blame for this lack of excitement. After several convincing Kittel wins to continue to repeat the same tactics over and over again doesn’t make any sense. Stage 11 saw the same small break being brought back with all the sprint teams doing the chasing. Thankfully Maciej Bodnar did provide a slight ray of hope pulling clear from his breakaway companions holding off the peloton all the way till 200 meters to go, before the inevitable happened with Kittel crossing the line in celebration. The logical move for the other big teams needs to be focused around making life hard for Quick Step. This includes putting riders into the break not just letting one or two riders from the wildcard teams make a fruitless move. If the break was 10 riders strong or if they put the pressure on to make a move stick over the opening 30 to 40 km it would wear Quick Step down. Then make attacks in the last third of the race whilst refusing to assist Quick Step fully in any chase. At least we can look forward to some exciting racing for stage 12 as the race heads back to the mountains.
12 headed back to the mountains and back to some full on racing. The stage profile of 214 km with 6 climbs was set up for the GC contenders to test each other and potentially for a break to grab the stage.
A strong break went away early; including Steve Cummings, Thomas De Gendt, Marcel Kittel and Michael Matthews. The intermediate sprint was surprisingly taken by Matthews, however, with Kittel a close second he only moved 2 points closer to the German in the points competition. As the road climbed upwards Kittel fell backwards. Eventually so did the rest of the break untill only De Gendt and Cummings remained out front. The British national champion winner of a stage in the last two tours had been hinting at a classic break victory all tour. When, on the 30 km mark, Cummings dropped De Gendt it looked as if a third victory in three years was on the cards. Back in the reduced peloton team Sky were ramping up the pressure to prevent any attacks from rivals. Alberto Contador tried to dance away in his familiar style but was effortlessly caught by the Sky climbing train. Not a complete surprise as this year he has left his dancing shoes at home and is severely lacking form. High Team Sky pressure was the story for much of the race until the last climb. Team Sky driving hard on the front catching Cummings and cracking the heavily fatigued looking Quintana and Contador. With massive time gaps now has zero hopes for GC and needs to look towards individual stages for any joy out of this years Tour.
There was a slight scare for Aru and Froome at the bottom of the descent both over running a bend and taking a slight detour between some caravans, spoiling a families picnic. This time however the rest of the riders sat up and waited for them to rejoin. Although the stage had been much more exciting than the previous days racing, Team Sky on the front and Froome sitting pretty in yellow still didn’t cry out excitement. The big GC battle finally light up in the last 2.4 km climb when Bardet and Aru attacked on the steepest gradient. Froome couldn’t respond and for the first time he looked in serious trouble. When Bardet crossed the line first and looked back, he was probably wishing he didn’t leave his attack so late. The time he and Aru gained could have been so much more had they pushed on a little earlier.
An interesting development after the stage was the time penalties given to Bennett and Uran for feeding in the last 20 km. The officials were quick to punish the two riders with a 20 second time penalty. Yet Bardet who was clearly seen on the cameras taking a drink escaped any punishment. Which I’m sure has absolutely nothing to do with him being French…..
I would like to start by claiming my 10% fee on all winnings for those who backed Michael Matthews. I am not sure what is more of a shock, the fact I got a prediction correct or that there was a relatively flat stage that Marcel Kittel didn’t win. Stage 16 was probably a little less straight forward than the road book suggested. The first 25 km was all uphill and with a fast start by Team Sunweb they put pressure on Quickstep with Kittel dropping out of the peloton. A further climb before a tricky descent meant the German had lost too much time and all hope of the stage win. Sunweb`s plan worked perfectly with Matthews taking full points in the intermediate sprint points and winning the stage. The green jersey competition which had looked all but over is now wide open. If Matthews can take some more points in the coming mountain stages the race for green will go all the way to Paris.
I had a moan a few stages back about the lack of imagination and animation on the flat stages seen in the first two weeks of the tour. Stage 16 is exactly what fans want to see. A difficult start giving riders the incentive to attack and then the chaos of cross winds approaching the finish. This not only opened up opportunities for the stage win but also for moves to be made in terms of GC. Team Sky held their nerve until the final 20 km and pushed on into the cross wind. All the favourites knew it was coming but to be in the right place when it kicks off is the difficult part. Unfortunately for Louis Meintjes and Dan Martin they were caught out in the splits. Quickstep held too many men back to look after Kittel leaving Martin short of support and he lost more than 50 seconds. Throwing away all the hard earned time he gained in the last few stages. Froome, Bardet and Aru all looked very strong coming across the line together in the front group. Setting the race up nicely for the podium positions in the next two stages in the mountains.
This was one of the two remaining chances for Aru, Bardet and Uran to try and put some time into Froome before the time trial on stage 20. Despite the top 4 positions being so close, they all know to have any chance of wearing yellow in Paris they need to make more time somewhere in the mountains.
The first action of the stage came from the green jersey competition. A fast early few kilometres with lots of riders trying to get into the break made for a nervous start. A touch of wheels in the peloton brought down a number of riders including Kittel. Despite getting back on his bike and getting patched up, he abandoned a little under 50 km down the road. Just as the race for green was heading towards an exciting finale. Matthews just needs to finish the next four stages to win green. Although he will not be celebrating just yet, as the list of sprinters who haven’t finished this years tour is pretty extensive. One flying elbow and he could be on the plane home too.
More big loosers of the stage were team FDJ. Having already had a bit of a disaster after loosing Arnaud Demare, who decided to take a bus load of team mates home with him, had further misery placed upon them. Thibaut Pinot who has been doing his best impression of the pink panther in this years race, finally abandoned. This leaves the team with more wheels on their team car than riders in the race. Definition of a nightmare.
The GC contenders shadowed each other for much of the stage. Remaining together until the final climb of the Col du Galibier. It was Romain Bardet’s attack that really split the race up. It was that sudden acceleration that only Froome, Uran and Landa could follow. Aru let a gap go and was unable to bridge back across before the descent to the line. The Italian slipped down to fourth and with his weak time trialling ability it looks as if his chances of a podium place has gone. Primoz Roglic the soul survivor from the days break had over a minute lead on top of the Galibier and held off to win the stage. Roglic, the former Junior World Ski jumping champion in 2007 only started professional cycling in 2013, has now two grand tour victories to his name. Not a bad transition!
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