Many times, post match interviews & the half time analysis interest me more than the actual game itself! Hearing the players and the experts gives you a real insight into their thinking which often is the reason behind the win or loss. Here is my attempt to do the same for this tour. Of course, I do not personally speak to any of the racers, but rely on the interviews available to give my two cents.
This blog will be updated on an everyday basis with analysis.
The roads (climbs) answered the questions around leadership of Team Sky and the Tour. Gerraint Thomas was strong and did not crack, and even managed to gain some more seconds over Tom Dumoulin.
Chris Froome cracked on the last few kms of the stage. Dumoulin attacked and built a small gap to be followed by Thomas and Primoz Roglic. Dumoulin even managed to get some help from Roglic to build on that gap. Egan Bernal from Team Sky dropped back to help Froome as Thomas was able to mark Dumoulin. Towards the end Thomas had enough energy left in him to outsprint the two. Froome has fallen to third position behind Dumoulin.
A wheel damage and two wheel changes did not deter Nairo Quintana to attack and he convincingly won the stage. At the post race interview he mentioned that he had marked this stage as one where he can win and his calm wheel change indicated that he was in control of the situation. He was prepared to win today.
Philippe Gilbert had fractured his patella in his crash on stage 16 and did not start today. His photo of the swollen knee was quite disturbing.
Peter Sagan, one who we all admire for his bike handling skills crashed on a downhill, but managed to finish the stage. He didn't look comfortable and we are not sure if he will be able to start the stage tomorrow. It would be really sad if he can't start.
4 days left for the 2018 tour. Each stage favours a different skill set - flat stage 18, hilly stage 19, ITT stage 20 and the last ceremonial stage 21 leading to Paris. The almost 2 min that Thomas has over Dumoulin should be a comfortable buffer for the TT stage. Froome should in all likelihood ride for and protect Thomas on the hilly stage 19 and if there is no time loss, we should see the Welshman take his first tour win.
A final note to honour the champion in Froome. He has won the last three grand tours and till today was in contention to win the tour as well (We can still not rule him out completely, but it needs a miracle now) . The last person to win the Giro, Tour double was Marco Pantani, a legend. Of course he had his share of doping allegations. Froome came very close to making it this year. He won the Giro 2018 in remarkable style in the last week. It is testament to his strength that very few have been talking about the accumulated fatigue of all the last few grand tours. Great artists make their craft look easy and Froome has done that in what is considered the toughest sporting event. Hats off champion.
The first day on the Pyrenees had a stutter at the start with a farmers protest causing the riders to stop during the early stages. The headwinds carried the pepper spray used by police on the protestors to the riders. The stage was neutralised for a couple of kms after this to ensure riders safety.
The stage also had a couple of crashes on the descents. Philippe Gilbert had a scary looking fall where he fell over the side wall on a descent. He thankfully escaped with nothing major and went on to complete the stage and collect the red jersey for being the most attacking rider. Later on however he has quit from the tour due to the injuries sustained in the crash.
Mitchelton Scot rider Adam Yates was leading the stage when he crashed. Julian Alaphilippe was riding the descents aggressively and applying lot of pressure on Adam. Julian checked with his team director of he had to wait for Adam, but was advised against it and went on to win the stage.
There were no changes to the top four spots in gc. Today's 65 km hilly stage will have a grid start with 5 groups starting one after another. There are some who think it won't make a difference. But I guess it is left to Tom Dumoulin and Primoz Roglic if they want to launch an attack early on. I hate to keep staying it, but hopefully there will be some action that will determine the yellow jersey today.
Julian Alaphilippe has the polka dot jersey and Peter Sagan has to just complete the tour to win his 6th green jersey.
Here is a quick summary of the stage 15 and the rest day. As expected a big breakaway of about 30 riders was formed around the first climb of the 181.5km stage. The peloton was controlled by Team Sky. Rafal Majka attacked on the last climb. However the finish was a sprint between Magnus Cort Nielsen (Astana), Izaguirre and Mollema which was won by Nielsen. So Team Astana suddenly turned around their tour results from zero to two back to back stage wins.
The other news that came by was that Gianni Moscon was evicted from the tour for punching a fellow rider in the first km of the stage. So Team Sky is one rider down. May not make much of a difference to them.
The rest day also saw the press conference of Team Sky which had both Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome in attendance. Both of them seemed evasive to various questions around the leadership. But it has come to be admitted that Geraint Thomas has continued to be strong for the first two weeks and stands a genuine chance of taking the yellow jersey to Paris.
Stage 16 is hilly with a flat start. The stage ends with a 10km descent after the last climb. Froome has pleasant memories of this as he won here in 2016 uncharacteristically by attacking on the descent. Till that time his descending skills were considered poor. He proved everyone wrong with a surprise attack downhill. Now Gerraint Thomas sits in the same position.
Stage 17 is also a very tricky stage as it is the shortest (non time trial) stage of the tour at just 65km. It also features a grid start where the top 20 riders in GC start together and are followed by the rest split into 4 groups. The stage starts with a climb immediately. The young Egan Bernal who has performed the role of a domestique is at 22nd position in GC as of stage 15. Leaving the top 2 there is no other Team Sky rider in top 20. So would there be a strategy to get him in top 20? Will other teams try to exploit Team Sky's lack of support? This stage is more likely to favour Roglic, Froome than Dumoulin. This stage might decide the tours yellow jersey.
Stage 14 saw a big breakaway formed and a winner emerging from that. Team Sky was more than happy that the breakaway with none of the GC contenders had a significant gap. They spent time controlling the peloton.
So in essence there were two races today. One for the stage and the other for the GC contenders. Omar Fraile a spaniard from team Astana won the stage. Jasper Stuyven from Trek Segafredodecided to attack from the breakaway 35km before the finish. This gave him a better opportunity to win. However Oscar Fraile overtook him in the last steep climb and won. The timing of Oscar's attack was inch perfect, if he had crossed Stuyven a little later, he might have contested it as the road flattened soon after he crossed. Julian Alaphilippe who is know to go a little too early attacked a little too late today and missed the stage win.
In the race for GC the top three - Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin finished together. However Primoz Roglic gained 8 seconds on the trio to be in fourth position. There has been lot of debate about Team Sky & its leaders style of riding being too boring. They ride steady with based on their power numbers. Dumoulin has taken this style even further and seems to pace his way through the climbs, just like he paces his time trials. Thomas in an interview mentioned that it is difficult to race with Dumoulin as he is not able to judge his fatigue level. Both Dumoulin and Froome got distanced and climbed their way back. While we suspect Dumoulin to be doing his thing, there were a few question marks about Froome. Thomas on the other hand seemed to be good. However both Froome and Dumoulin have won grand tours before and are likely to have a better idea of the strains of the third week. Thomas will have to sort out his recovery and be ready for the Pyrenees.
The debate about Froome vs Thomas and how the team will manage the resources and for whoose support continues. I have a hunch that Thomas has started to believe that he can win and things can start getting tricky now.
Peter Sagan in his interview about stage 15 mentioned that he will look to survive. His idea of survival is very different. He survived stage 14 and finished 4th ;-). Stage 15 has a Category 1, 2 & 3 climb with the last climb being Cat 1 of 18k followed by a 30k odd descent. The stage is likely to favour a breakaway. Monday is the last rest day before we head onto the Pyrenees.
I have run out of words to write about Sagan and his uniqueness. It is very easy to forget that he has survived the climbs of the Alps in the last three days. The fact that he was still able to launch an attack from so far behind is phenomenal.
Todays stage is a tricky stage. It has the potential to favour a breakaway to win. The climbs are nicely poised for Froome to attack and gain a more comfortable margin over Dumoulin. Team Sky has its strength in numbers. But I am not sure if the other teams would be interested in working together to pose a challenge to them.
Stage 12 to Alpe d'Huez was a fantastic stage as expected. Steven Kruijswijk, from Lotto NL Jumbo broke away 70 km before the finish and built a sizable gap – up to 6 min – before getting caught 3 km before the finish.
Gerraint Thomas sprinted to the finish to win the stage and slightly extended his lead on GC standings. For a change today, Chris Froome tried a few attacks only to be caught by Dumoulin and Nibali. On one such attack on the Alpe d'Huez, there was a very narrow stretch with some smoke from the spectators. Nibali got entangled with a spectator and fell. He was helped up by a spectator and went on to finish just behind the leading group. But it was later found out that he has fractured a vertebra and is abandoning the race.
With Geraint Thomas riding strong and Froome more than a minute behind it is now an interesting battle between the top three with Dumoulin in third. Nibali's presence and attacking style would have probably given a few surprises. But now it is a three-man battle after his exit.
The lone Individual Time Trial is on the penultimate day. All three are good time trialists with Dumoulin having a small edge. So Chris Froome & team Sky would want to build a time gap over Dumoulin.
If Froome attacks what should Gerraint Thomas do? This is probably the most interesting question left in the race for the yellow jersey. Ideally Gerraint Thomas(G) shouldn't follow the attack if Froome is their leader. Dumoulin is capable of marking Froome and if both manage to overtake G there is a small chance that Dumoulin builds a lead over Froome in the ITT and wins the tour.
To draw a distant parallel, in a Formula 1 team, Ferrari asked Rubens Barrichelo to give up first place to Michael Schumacher in 2001 & 2002 at the Austrian Grand Prix to improve Schumacher's chances in the overall season. It wasn't a great moment for sport. There was lot of debate around banning usage of team radio to avoid this. Teams play a more coherent role in cycling. The reason we watch sport is to see athletes push themselves to the edge and see the best win. It is to be seen what this tour brings out. It could also be used as an advantage with Team Sky use the strength of top 2 and their team to tire out Dumoulin and build a gap for both of their leaders over Dumoulin. To an extent this was tried yesterday and Dumoulin did not crack. Will he crack when the tour moves to the Pyrenees?
Peter Sagan is amongst the last few sprinters left in the tour and will fancy his chances for a few more stage wins. He managed to finish today within cut off.
A very touching scene emerged in stage 11. Rod Ellingworth, one of the coaches in Team Sky has been working with some of the British cyclists from their early stages (under 23). On stage 11 two of them finished first (Gerraint Thomas) and last (Mark Cavendish). Rod is still helping G in Team Sky, but he was there 1 hr after G crossed the line to encourage Mark. Mark did not give up on the climb even though he was way beyond cut off and is out of the tour now.
Today's stage 13 is suitable for a sprinter, but since hardly any sprinter is left, there is a likelihood of a breakaway going for it. The teams will also have to go for different strategies to make the best use of the situation.
Stage 11 was highly anticipated with some fireworks from the GC contenders outside Team Sky. But Team Sky worked as a well-coordinated team dousing the few sparks that managed to come. Geraint Thomas won the stage and took over the yellow jersey with Chris Froome second in overall standings.
Alexandro Valverde from Movistar launched an attack and was joined by Tom Dumoulin from Sunweb. They rode well and managed to have a small gap ahead of the Team Sky train. But Team Sky achieved whatever they wanted to achieve
· They got the stage win and yellow jersey for Geraint Thomas. This is huge because it helps in balancing the equation between Thomas and Froome.
· They controlled the race throughout and got a great confidence booster
· They moved Froome to second position in GC standings
The Team Sky strategy was perfect today – they let a small gap develop for Dumoulin & Valverde and as usual rode a high tempo to be within striking distance. Since everyone was watching Froome, Thomas attacked and went away. At an opportune time later Froome attacked and caught up with Dumoulin. Quintana, Nibali and others were just looking at each other and didn’t have the legs to catch up with Froome. At the end, Dumoulin caught up and Froome was denied the third place in the stage. Froome wouldn’t mind the small victory that Dumoulin got.
Dumoulin rode a courageous race and was strong. However, he doesn’t have a team like Sky to support him. In fact he lost a strong teammate in Michael Mathews last week to illness. He just had one teammate for support today in the last climb of the day.
Earlier Thomas crossed Mikel Nieve in the last km to win the stage. Nieve looked completely exhausted as he was crossed by Thomas thundering at roughly 10 kmph more than his speed. Right after the race, during the interviews, Thomas was already having his recovery drink. I am not sure whether it is a nutrition mistake or all the work put in earlier, which left Nieve with nothing to offer in the last km. His power graph for the stage is available @ http://home.trainingpeaks.com/…/…/4B7OMU3YGSDMFREJZPT4HU3BQA.
We need some proper attacks and surprise punches to make the rest of the tour interesting. Otherwise the Sky Train will arrive @ Paris with the entire team in tow. Will it happen? Will it come from the likes of Nibali, Dan Martin, Valverde, Dumoulin? Answers might lie in the ride upto Alpe d'huez today.
The other major news of the day came 1 hour after Thomas crossed the finish line as Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel and Mark Renshaw missed the cut off time and got out of the tour. The Manx missile will be missed. He is just 4 short of the great Eddy Mercx in the total number of stage wins at the tour. Hope he gets a better shot at it next year.
The rest day involved a long road trip for the race officials and a short flight for the riders to the base of the Alps - the four-lettered Mecca for cyclists. After a classic return from a veteran on stage 9, by John Degenkolb, we returned to yet another youngster, Julian Alaphilippe win a stage.
2018 is only the second pro-season for the French youngster, Alaphilippe. Similar to other young stage winners this year, he also demonstrated characteristics of having come of age with controlled aggression. He had broken away earlier and stayed away while also going for each of the KOM sprints to get the polka dot jersey as well.
Greg van Avermaet started the day with an interview stating that he expects to lose his yellow jersey on the first day in the mountains today. But he did not intend to give it away easily and retained his jersey with an impressive ride to finish fourth in the stage. He actually ended up extending his overall lead to survive another day in yellow.
Team Sky was in control of the race and had 4-5 riders up in the front. They decided not to attack or cover any short attacks from the likes of Dan Martin. Chris Froome's early puncture was not even noticed.
On the climbs there was a measured race at the back as well. The race is for the sprinters to survive just within the cutoff time so that they get to continue riding the tour. Mark Cavendish, Fernando Gaviria and others finished just about 29 seconds ahead of the cut off time to stay in the tour.
Peter Sagan had gone on the breakaway early on to get more points and extend his lead in the points classification. He retained the green jersey.
Stage 11 is the second shortest stage of this year’s tour with a 108.5 km ride in the hills. It is essentially three hills, which are to be tackled one after another, and the stage ends on the top of the final summit. Hope to see some action to disrupt Team Sky.
The 2018 La Course, a women’s UCI race organized by the Tour de France organizers ASO was held today and had a dramatic finish with Annemiek van Vleuten beating Anna van der Breggen in the last 20 m. 112 women riders from 20 different teams contested in the 112.5 km of hilly roads similar to the stage 10 of the tour. In the post race interview van Vleuten said "With 200 m to go I thought I was going to come second but then I saw her dying, I always kept on dreaming - I could've given up with 500 m to go but I always believed it was possible. This win is really beautiful."
These are real words of wisdom; the race is never over till you cross the line.
One of the most important things I learnt early on in bike racing is that you need to get up as soon as possible after a fall. We saw way too many falls on one of the most anticipated stages of the tour today. Interestingly many of the falls were not in the cobble sections, indicating the nervousness in the peloton.
The most heartening sight of the race was however the rise.
John Degenkolb went on to win the stage. His win was a classic example of resilience – he’s had his fair share of falls including this year's Paris Roubaix. Many critics had written him off suggesting his career was over. He mentioned that he was always sure that he had at least one big win left in him. So it was understandable to see his emotional response on the win today.
Team BMC had a day to forget with their GC leader Richie Porte crashing in the first 10k and having to abandon the tour with a broken collar bone. It is the second year in running that he has crashed on stage 9 of the tour. My thoughts are with him and I hope he gets inspiration from fellow riders like Degenkolb to recover and come back strong.
Richie's teammate and BMC backup leader Tejay van Garderen lost close to 6 min and had a nightmare of a stage. Greg van Avermaert missed the stage win, but stayed the race leader in yellow.
Romain Bardet had three punctures today and still managed to lose just 6 seconds to other GC rivals.
Peter Sagan & Philipe Gilbert tried a few attacks but couldn't mark the last attack which led to the three podium winners of the stage get away and stay away till the finish.
This weekend also saw the return of another great sportsperson.
Nole (Nova Djokovic) fought tooth and nail to win the Wimbledon semi final over Nadal and a rather easy final win over Kevin Anderson to take the championship. Novak has been struggling to come back after his elbow surgery for over a year. His comeback should give us hopefully another year of a golden period of tennis with Federer, Rafa and Nole healthy and in top form. And I hope that Rafa wins all the matches against them in this period :-).
Today is the first rest day of the tour. In my experience with riders I find that many committed riders give lesser importance to rest and recovery. It is important for adults to have at least 7 hours of sleep per day. And regular workouts without appropriate rest will lead to over training, fatigue and even injury.
So do take rest and recover after your workout.
Stage 8 confirms the change of guard for the sprinters. 2 stage wins to each of Fernando Gaviria, Peter Sagan and Dylan Groenewegen. While Sagan has been around for a few years winning the green jersey for each of the tours he has finished, Gaviria and Groenewegen have shown the power of the youth.
Youth vs experience is a debate in every sport. Sprinters also rely on experience, instinct and leadership which help them use their team to position for the sprint. When done well the sprint is won many times before they start. And in those cases where the start of the sprint is more evenly matched, the youngsters have shown courage to give it all and win.
It is now for the experienced to show their resilience. They have time till next Friday which is the next sprinters stage.
While Gaviria and Griepel came second and third they were relegated for two different incidents for blocking in the last few kms.
The much awaited cobbles stage has finally arrived and it is to be seen how the various GC contenders tackle it. It is going to be a nervous day out there for sure. It's a 156.5 km stage with about 21 km of cobble sections. The cobbles are spread over 15 sections. There are quite a few Paris Roubaix winners. There are differences from the famous classic race as the total distance and the distance of cobble sections are lesser. However the legs are fresher and people can give it all in the one day classic unlike a stage of the tour. So while the winners will have the experience, it is not exactly the same. All I can say is stay glued to the race today.
Stage 7 was from Fougeres to Chartres. It is the longest stage of the tour at 231km. An initial strong breakaway was formed which was brought back by Lotto Jumbo NL. A few solo breakaways were formed and caught back without much fanfare. However a welcome relief was that there were no crashes in the last few kms.
Speed characterised todays stage as it was an explosion of speed towards the end after the sedate mid race. A tight right-hand turn 1.9 kilometres before the finish line lead to a 700 metres drop, while the finale was rounded out by a 600 metres kick-up at 4% before the last 200 metres on the flat. The drop got speeds as high as 70kmph. The lead out trains formed and really increased the speed. It ended with a flat out sprint that Dylan Groenewegen won with over a bike length from Fernando Gaviria. Mark Cavendish seemed to be in a good position, but again didnt really contest the sprint.
There were no changes in the various classifications. Greg van Avermaet retained the yellow jersey and even managed to extend the lead by earning bonus seconds at the intermediate point 30k before the finish. This is an interesting addition to the tour, and while 3 seconds looks too less to contest a bigger time gap may result in much more competition and make the peloton more dangerous.
Stage 8 tomorrow features a 181 km rolling stage which is likely to favour sprinters. There is a downhill section in the last 4.8km ending at a 90 degree left turn 2k before the finish. So there is going to be a mad dash towards the end.
A quick note about todays start point. Fougeres is an important point historically as the person who conceived Tour de France, Henri Desgrange was born here. Henri Desgrange, a French cyclist and journalist, started the Tour de France in 1903. His newspaper, L'Auto (now L'Equipe), sponsored the race for advertising purposes. Fougères is a control point both out bound to Brest as well as back to Paris in the PBP.
A final note is an interview from Peter Sagan. He seems to be so grounded and calm. His mental strength is as important as his skills for his success. Another learning for all young racers. Interview text - "It has been quite a messy sprint today. I’m happy nobody crashed, and overall I feel this has been a positive day. The hardest part has been the sprint, of course. I was lucky I was on Fernando’s wheel, because that helped me reaching the finish line in third position. I didn’t have the legs to be first or second, and third is better than fourth. It was a boring stage, but it was okay to have a stage without stress, under the sun, without wind. I had time to spoke with everybody in the peloton."
Ironically, the start of the climbs in this year’ s tour signified that life is a great leveler. The only 2 GC contenders who were unscathed till now were Tom Dumoulin(Sunweb) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale). They collided with each other, 5.7 km before the finish. Dumoulin needed a wheel change and Bardet took his teammates bike. They ended up losing time. Dumoulin lost 53 sec to the winner of the stage Don Martin. He was further penalized 20 sec for excessive drafting behind the team car while trying to get back to the peloton. It remains to be seen if they will appeal against this time penalty.
Quickstep floors has been a very successful team with fantastic team work. Gaviria has been helping his teammates in the non-sprint stages. Today they tried to take the yellow jersey by trying to split the peloton and even the breakaways. However they were not successful and BMC rider Greg van Avermaet retained the yellow jersey.
The stage involved climbing the Mûr de Bretagne twice. This is a 2 km long climb with the first km at an average of 10%, while the overall climb has a 6.9% gradient. Dan Martin had finished second on one of the previous tours on this climb. He went a little too late on the attack. He went quite early today with 1.2 km to go and won comfortably. He also gained a few seconds and a lot of confidence over some of the GC contenders. He may not pose a big threat to GC this year, but I believe that it is not far away.
Dion Smith was with the breakaway trying to get the points for the KOM classification and the polka dot jersey. However, he got caught just before the climb where he could have earned the points to claim the jersey back. Toms Skujins managed to cross the climb first and gain 2 points over Smith. That battle will continue!
The weekend is coming and I am sure many of us are planning long rides. To make the ride interesting you could role-play todays race, simulating Tom Dumoulins scenario. (I mean the catch up and not the collision ;-)).
Here’s what you can do – Give a few members a head start of 1 min, and the chasers should try to catch up with the leading group. In the second half, reverse the roles.
Stage 7 is the longest stage of this year’s tour. Crosswinds are the only saving grace to offer some mid race excitement. Hopefully we get a proper sprint with Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish, both of whom haven’t had any success showing their speed.
Stage 5 again was gripping and won by Peter Sagan.
Before I start to analyse, the stage, I want to add that today's photo and write-up is dedicated to the teams and their director sportifs who orchestrate their complex team structures.
It was a long hilly stage with a narrow uphill finish, marking the beginning of the transition of the tour from the flat stages. The beauty of the course and the tour in itself is that different riders and teams fight for different things. Sometimes a team was pulled between two different goals and a rider had multiple options to choose from.
Let me explain.
Lilian Calmejane was one of the riders in the breakaway. He has won stages in grand tour before and he joined the breakaway with the aim to win. He gave it his all, but other riders in the breakaway like Toms Skuijns were looking at gaining points for the polka dot jersey. They managed to guess Lilian's motives and rode to meet their goals. Lilian, frustrated, ended up completely spent for no results. He has a stage, which favours his style, tomorrow. But, he may not be able to contest it, since he is not likely to have the legs after today's futile effort. But I am sure he will recover and contemplate victory at a later stage.
In Team BMC, Greg Van Avermaert was in the yellow jersey – they wanted to protect it as well as ensure that their GC contender Richie Porte did not lose time to other GC guys. Greg himself would have fancied his chances for a stage win as well.
Team Sky wanted to ensure that Froome is in the front in the narrow climbs and is protected to keep their goal of him winning the tour. His young super domestiques did exactly that! Geraint Thomas of Sky is the back up leader and had chances of taking the yellow at the end of the day, he also had to protect and work for Froome. So he had his eyes on both Greg Van Avermaert and Chris Froome. Froome had been in the same shoes when he was deputy to Sir Bradley Wiggins in the tour. Images of him motoring and dropping Wiggins at one of the earlier tours is hard to forget.
Quickstep floors had Belgian Philipe Gilbert capable of launching a longer attack to the uphill finish and his French teammate Julian Alaphilippe was better suited for the shorter attack. Both were capable of winning the stage. And they both tried exactly that - each going for their strength and trying to disturb the plans of others and thus actually benefiting Julian, if Gilbert blows up.
While there are plots and sub plots the person who demonstrated maximum awareness – Sagan – took the win. He was the only guy looking around and was able to time his attack perfectly. There was one winner, but there many who achieved their own individual/ team goals and have reasons to be happy.
Hardly could there be any sporting event like the grand tours, which bring in so many layers of complexity. Yet, many don't realize that it is a team sport. To make a running comparison – it is like having team members with traits of Usain Bolt, David Rudisha, Mo Farah and Kipchoge, all in the same team and participating together. There is so much to watch and admire in team management.
But having said that each sport has its own charm. It was a great day to slouch in front of the TV as I got to watch the tour along with the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, finishing with the Soccer World Cup. Sir Chris Hoy, probably the greatest track cyclist was in attendance at SW19 and I was for a moment confused whether it was the tour or Wimbledon.
Stage 6 has more steady climbs and is likely to give the first test to the GC contenders and help evaluate their climbing form
Stage 4 had everything we look for in a flat stage - a long breakaway which almost stayed away and an exciting sprint finish.
The race started in some ways from Monday itself. Team Cofidis had a bad day in the TTT, and made many believe that they were taking the stage very easy. There were suggested rules around removing teams after such poor showing in the TTT. However it came to light that their leader wasn’t doing well and they had to slow down and nurse him through the stage.
Being a French team, they must have had pressure on them and it was decided to put a breakaway out there and win the stage today. Which is what they did. So 4 riders Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (Wanty), Jérôme Cousin (Direct Energie), Dimitri Claeys (Cofidis) and Anthony Perez (Cofidis) started a breakaway almost immediately after the start.
The breakaway rode quite smartly, by conserving themselves initially when the peloton was not bothered while still taking the gap up to 7 mins. They rode like a team time trial with good coordination and load sharing.
The peloton however slowly started increasing the tempo and brought down the gap to about 1.5 mins with 50 km to go. There was a crash with some GC contenders getting caught behind and as a result the peloton slowed down to allow them to catch up. In the mean time the breakaway increased the gap to about 4 min. It looked like they might just be able to stay away from the peloton. They were also helped by the fact that there was no unity in the peloton.
Quick Step's success in the opening stage meant that they were the favourites and no other team wanted to help to catch the breakaway. But Nikki Terpestra & Tim de Clark put in a huge effort to chip away the gap.
The last 4 km was a straight road with head wind, both of which enabled the speeding peloton to catch the breakaway in the last 2 km. It is always a pity to watch the breakaways get caught in the last few kms.
Now the attention turned to the sprinters. Quickstep floors has the only decent leadout train. They managed to thread their way to the front through the left. That maneuver was a chilling reminder of last year's sprint in the stage where Cavendish crashed after being elbowed by Sagan. Both were present in the sprint, Sagan managed to stay behind the Quickstep team. Cavendish on the other hand tried moving through the right and got boxed by his own leadout rider. And his sprint ended before it could start.
Andre Griepel, Fernando Gaviria and Peter Sagan sprinted to the finish from about 300m to go. Griepel managed to move just ahead, but Gaviria just overtook before the line and Sagan was a couple of seconds too late for the final burst. It was a fantastic sprint to watch and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I am a big fan of the Manx Missile (Cavendish) and waiting for him to fire on Friday, which is the next sprint finish.
Stage 5 is likely to favour a breakaway given it is a hilly course. It will be a good race to watch today as the race goes through regions close to Brest. Stage 6 starts from Brest. 2019 should see good representation from India in the PBP (Paris - Brest - Paris) and riders will get an idea about the terrain and features watching these stages.
In an interview the former BMC rider Manuel Quinziato put down training together and fine-tuning the pacing strategy based on wind direction as the primary reasons for the teams triumph in the TTT.
There is a TTT happening in mid September at Bangalore, you can form a team and have a go at it. Refer www.bbch.in for race details.
Enjoy this video of the stage 4.
Stage 3 - Team Time Trial
Owing to my work schedule and laziness the reports are coming out a little later than desirable. But hopefully they are worth the wait.
In a team time trial, even the riders are waiting. Teams start in the reverse order of their standing - with last team starting first and the first team starting last. Given the chaos of the first two stages it meant teams with strong GC contention started much earlier. And the waiting continues after one has finished. Hopefully, it is in the hot seat in full public view as the fastest time till then.
The reason behind the order is that the leading teams will have the advantage of knowing the time to beat. However a well-executed time trial should go based on the preparation and pacing strategy one has rather than react to a previous teams splits.
The first American to win the tour, Greg Lemond famously won the tour in 1986 on the final day in the individual time trial to Paris. He was trailing Laurent Fignon by 50 seconds at the start of the stage. He had given strict instructions to his team that they were not to reveal the splits of the leader; he went on to gain 58 secs over Fignon and won the tour by 8 secs. And it only gets more complicated in a team time trial since the speeds could be close to 60 kmph in flat sections. It is very important to orchestrate and time the way to the back of the paceline after pulling in the front. It is virtually impossible to catch up if one misses getting at the back in time.
However the Quick Step Floors team did a remarkable job of regrouping after they lost a few riders and still finished in the third spot. It was heartening to see a team (BMC), which is not even sure of its existence post the tour, win the stage. There is speculation that a formal announcement about the breakup of the team will come on Saturday. There is also some news going around that Richie Porte, the GC contender from BMC will move to Trek Segafredo. Credit to the entire team that they could live in the moment and literally put their heads down and win today. Greg Ven Avermaet from BMC has taken the yellow jersey.
The recent data release from Team Sky from the Giro mentioned about the tracking of a virtual leader board and how they planned the decisive attack that enabled Froome to win. It’s probably a little too early for doing that now. But I am sure we will start doing that next week.
In one of the podcasts, Jens Voigt was talking of how he would instruct the pure climbers to consider giving a head start of 3 min to the likes of Froome and Dumoulin even before the start of the tour. I am sure some of them would have marked their climbs to attack. But Stage 4 is not one in which they will have that as it is a flat 195 km stage. There is however a possibility of crosswinds and if they do occur teams will try to get their riders into Echelons and there are multiple echelons that will get formed and make it more exciting to watch.
In conclusion, I would like to talk about the new kit that Team Sky used for their TTT. It is called Body Paint 4.2b Speedsuit and is made by Castelli. It has its name because the material is very thin and almost transparent. Castelli brand manager Steve Smith talked about how they used hundreds of panels and shapes before arriving at this. Interestingly they are not sure why this is faster. It is heartening to see this kind of admission. In fact it is common in sports science that scientists observe top athletes and their coaching. Many times some specific training get better results, but the reason it works is later researched and documented.
Stage 2 turned out to be what many described as slow and boring. While it does make one look cool to describe a 40+kmph 182.5km long ride as slow, the reference was probably more towards the lack of any major attacks or challenges from crosswinds or hills. There are still a few important things to note in today's stage.
Like stage 1 there was a crash in the last few kms. The crash isolated lot of the sprinters including the race leader and stage 1 winner, Fernando Gaviria. Peter Sagan won the race. We can say positioning and bike handling won the stage for Sagan today.
Positioning is so important in the sprints. However, it is quite tough since each of the 176 riders is trying to be in the best position. The organizers have done their best to reduce the number of people contesting the sprint by reducing the team size to 8 and establishing the 3 km rule for peloton's time being awarded if there is a crash. But the last two stages still had crashes.
Today's stage showcased two chilled out guys winning - Peter Sagan is his usual self, I saw him fiddling with his sunglasses and stop to get it sorted. He took a nature break to get the cameras off him. After that he rode alone without any team member to catch up to the peloton. Watching him catch the peloton alone in such a casual way showcased his confidence and I hoped that today might be his day.
The other cool rider was Dion Smith who won the Polka dotted jersey for the King of Mountain classification and became the first Kiwi to wear any leader jersey on the tour. Initially, he could not believe it when confronted and had it cross-verified. The media tried to get him excited to give his comments, but failed.
From a team perspective, a flat stage like this bring out various aspects - A team of riders has many domestiques and no rider will want to ride the tour just to carry bottles. A stage like this gives a few of those domestiques to try out things and have their moments of glory.
This stage saw an initial breakaway of 3 reduced to just one rider, Sylvain Chavanel who rode close to 100 km alone. A breakaway has a very small chance of succeeding in a race. The peloton tries its best to keep the gap in control while ensuring that the breakaway is caught only inside the last 10 kms. If they were to catch the breakaway earlier, there is a high likelihood of another breakaway forming.
Then why would a rider get into a breakaway? The primary reason is to win. I am not contradicting myself, even though I just said that a breakaway rider has very less chances of winning - Jens Voigt, a veteran of Tour De France, famously explained this saying that for his style of riding he has no chances of winning in a bunch and even if there is a 10% chance of winning in a breakaway, it is better than 0% he has when he sticks to the peloton. Even if they don’t win, they at least get a load of TV & media coverage for themselves and their sponsors. I am sure you admired the Wilier of Chavanel with its chrome seat stays ;-).
Chavanel is a 6 time national TT champ from France and soloed the 100+ km at over 40 kmph. So he did earn his prime time. Today was also his 350th stage of the Tour.
Talking about the bikes, I have to highlight that both the stages have been won on the new Specialized S Works Venge Vias, which has just been released. This bike is available in a disc only option and as of now there does not seem to be any controversies around the safety of disc brake bikes during pile-ups and we have had our fair share in these two days.
Stage 3 is the Team Time Trial and there are quite a few good teams like Team Sky, Sunweb, BMC which will be contesting to win the stage. It is unlikely that Froome will get the Yellow Jersey even though Team Sky are one of the hot favourites for the stage. In fact interestingly Froome would prefer not to become the race leader so early into the tour. Not only will he be marked more closely but also get more media limelight and the never ending questions around Salbutamol. Additionally every race leader will have media commitments post the podium ceremony and will lose at least an hour every day – precious time they could get for recovery. So GC contenders will actually be happy not to have the Yellow Jersey in week 1. A team time trial is good to watch and a tense affair for the team. No rider wants to slow down the team or cause a crash, so nerves will be high.
PS - Lawson Craddick did start and finish today. Riding a TT bike is going to create more challenges for him. Hope the American can continue to ride over the pain.
This year's opening stage saw the rare occurrence of a debutant - Fernando Gaviria winning his first ever stage of the tour. This might have been his first tour but he is a former world champ in the track and has won stages in last year's Giro. He beat the reigning world road race champion Peter Sagan convincingly. The last km had a small climb but it seems that a few expected the climb closer to the finish line than what it was which tipped the scale in favour of Gaviria. Initially I used to think that international pros focus on specific categories, but there are so many who have moved between track and road eg Mark Cavendish, Sir Bradley Wiggins, MTB and Road eg Peter Sagan and did very well across disciplines. In reality they bring in their own style and uniqueness to the event from their past experiences that gives them an edge. Sagan's bike handling skills has ensured that he has avoided so many potential crashes and given himself a better opportunity to win race and stay safe enough to contest future events. Gaviria prefers to go for a longish sprint, something that he has benefited from his track experience.
It is a great learning for youngsters to do different disciplines and every new trick they learn will help them. Something akin to what Steve Jobs mentioned about being able to connect the dots only looking backwards. In contrast the defending champion Chris Froome crashed in the last 10 km. A tour de France would put marathons to shame in terms of the need of endurance, so it's just a start and knowing Froome, it doesn't really change anything with GC predictions. In fact it might be a positive thing as he crashed in the warm up of the first stage of 2018 Giro d Italia and went on to win the Giro.
They say nobody cares about the person finishing second. A brief mention about the person who finished last is worthy - Lawson Craddock crashed early in the feedzone and continued riding after getting some medical attention from the car. He finished last 7.50 min behind the leader with deep cuts above the eyes and a fractured scapula. I crashed a few weeks ago with a broken collar bone and a similar deep cut above the eyes. I was very proud of having walked to the hospital, but can't imagine how somebody could ride a 100k at 40kmph. There was lot of booing of Chris Froome today, but incidents like this should remind us that these are extraordinary sportsmen with blood and flesh, who demonstrate spirit worthy of far more respect than what we give them.
To conclude I would like to stress the importance of knowing the rules and staying in the moment. Nairo Quintana had a mechanical 3.4 km before the finish. There were some blaming him for not having ridden those few meters to be less than 3km from finish which would have given him the time of the peloton. Later it became clear the team was aware of the rule, but he had hit a traffic Bay and his front wheel was fully damaged and stuck. He couldn't ride any further forcing him to wait for a new wheel and losing precious time.
Cover Image Credit: cpofficial.com