The second stage of this tour, and the first road race proper, looked, on paper, like one of those ‘dull warm up to the real racing’ stages. All but pancake flat, untechnical for the most part, with one intermediate sprint offering mid-race entertainment. Between Utrecht and Zélande, it looked to be 160 kilometres of casual riding, followed by six or so kilometres leading into a sprint win by Mark Cavendish, with no real threat to Rohan Dennis, looking good in yellow. So said the bookies, at any rate.
This was not, however, how the stage turned out, thanks to truly miserable weather conditions and impressive opportunistic tactics by Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo amidst powerful sidewinds. The winds first struck at around 60km into the stage, doing irreparable damage to the day’s first five-man breakaway. Tinkoff-Saxo saw their chance in the winds, and we were treated to footage of Contador barking instructions to his team to pull to the side of the road, minimizing the slipstream effect for riders behind him. The effect of the increase in pace was immediate, with the break losing their two minute advantage in almost less time than that, and splits breaking out at the rear of the peloton. This effort was ineffectual, with the dropped riders quickly bridging back to the pack, but Contador and his team had shown that they were looking for a fight on this, what was supposed to be a non-event stage.
Further attacks were inevitable, and at 100km to go a three-man group, comprising Stef Clement, Jan Barta, and Armindo Fonseca, clawed out an advantage of just under a minute. But the going was tough, and the winds unrelenting. The decisive turn would occur at the 55km-to-go mark. As the riders hit the coast, riding hard across entirely exposed bridges through what was at times driving rain, the peloton began to split once more — but this time, a number of General Classification riders were losing ground. Contador’s team were first to take notice, and suddenly hit the front, driving the peloton at a fierce pace. Sky, on behalf of Chris Froome, easily made the gap, and helped to keep the pace high, along with team Etixx-Quickstep, who had interests in the stage win with Cavendish. Tejay Van Gardenen also had little difficulty holding the pace, and Etixx’s Rigoberto Uran made the cut, which represents something of a change in fortunes for him. Peter Sagan and Andre Greipel, alongside Cavendish, represented the strong sprinters of the group.
The losers, though, were numerous. Slipping into the second group, which had very quickly lost over a minute, were the likes of last year’s winner Nibali, climbing sensation Quintana, and stage-win hopefuls like John Degenkolb (which, for me, was gutting — Degenkolb is a superb rider and charismatic figure, and it’s always good to see him fight it out at the end). The gap held, thanks in part to continually battering winds and unfortunate mechanicals (Nibali, for one, punctured with 13km to go). It was clear by the last 10km that the leaders would hold on to a minute advantage.
The race was looking good for a sprint finish between Sagan, Greipel, and Cavendish, but another race with immediate effect was in play: Rohan Dennis, he of the yellow jersey, was not in the front group. Worse for him, his BMC teammate Van Gardenen was, so BMC had no reason to help Dennis chase the leaders. This left a question as to who would take yellow. The time-trial had been close, so, whilst Tony Martin was in second overall and in the front group, so were Fabian Cancellera and Tom Dumoulin. With sprint bonuses on the line, it began to look clear that Cancellera was going to do all he could to take a few seconds from Martin.
The last kilometre approached, and the group was set up for a relatively messy sprint. Cavendish, I feel, went too early, with the threat of Sagan and Greipel both riding in his wheel. Both riders crept past him; Greipel took first, Sagan second. But Cav, only ever satisfied with first, saw his win slip away and lost his zeal. This gave Cancellera the window of opportunity he needed, and, throwing his full weight into his bars, he managed to barely sneak his front wheel across the line ahead of Cavendish. Third on the day, he took four seconds of bonus time. He looks even better than Rohan Dennis in his new yellow jersey. One has to imagine that there will be words on the Etixx-Quickstep bus about this — Cav may well have just cost teammate Tony Martin his first stint in yellow…
The take-home message of the day, though, illustrated in this early stage of the Tour, is that this is not a sport won by individuals. Froome and Contador both now enjoy a buffer of over a minute over their strongest rivals, but they would never have managed this without a dedicated and strong team following their instructions. That we got to witness Contador decide, on the fly, to split the race this early, and his reliance upon his team to do so, should be instructive to new fans of cycling as to how it all works. Opportunism works, communication is central, and rarely can a race be won without a damn good team. A bloody good stage, despite a lack of hills.