Today’s stage was remarkable for being a mini Paris-Roubaix (a Roubaby?), featuring seven short but intense sections of cobbles — six of which fell within the last forty-five kilometres of racing. It was also, according to the press, the shortest ever longest stage in a Tour de France — get your head around that one. At 220km, it was certainly no Sunday ride.
The race was fairly quiet, as it goes, with early King of the Mountain points handed to breakaway rider Thomas de Gendt. The first section of cobbles, at the 110km mark, was no battleground, but was the stage for a dress rehearsal for the real racing. Teams duly fought for position, greatly upped the pace, and shot across the cobbles on the heels of the break. Incident-free, the peloton allowed the break to take back a bit of distance, and things calmed down for a while before they found the serious cobbles. There was a lovely moment, though, just after the peloton picked up the last points at the intermediate sprint. The world’s top sprinters had all put in an effort, and the likes of Sagan, Degenkolb, Greipel, and Cavendish were several hundred metres ahead of the pack, waiting to be reabsorbed. Sagan gestured to all of them, jokingly, that they should carry on, as if this unit of elite sprinters might breakaway to win the stage. The shaking of Greipel’s head and the grin on Degenkolb added a touching moment to the race, a reminder that there is as much comradeship as there is competitiveness in the world of cycling.
However, the cobbles quickly changed that tune, and friendships were forgotten. The early cobbles were dominated by Astana, who were trying to repeat last year’s trick of launching Nibali across the uneven roads and distancing the other General Classification favourites. But, whilst there were a few slips and a few elbows thrown, no favourites were distanced on the first sections. The most comment-worthy aspect of the first few sections were, in fact, the scraps that broke out between riders. We saw Astana rider lean hard against a BMC rider at the head of the peloton, we saw elbows dug into riders as places were fought over. Later, we saw a Katusha rider drive Froome close to the kerb, a breathless moment for British viewers who remember Froome exiting the tour last year after a slip on the run in to similar cobbles. And Nibali himself, at the head of the peloton, was aggressive in his tactics throughout the last quarter of the race. The stress of the cobbles was fracturing relations between rider, but thankfully (given last year’s display) not bones.
Astana continued to dominate the cobbles, alongside an impressive BMC (riding for Greg Van Avermaet) and Sky, who had classic riders Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas pulling the pack ahead of Froome. Then there were a handful of seeming disasters. Tibaut Pinot, already a few minutes off the leader of the race, lost further time with a mechanical in the last 20km. He was visible enraged, shouting abuse at his support team as he tried to get back to the field. He lost a further three minutes. Tony Martin also suffered a puncture, but received a new bike within a matter of seconds — he caught the back of the lead group in time to ride into the last 10km with the group. Kristoff and Greipel lost ground before the endgame (the former due to mechanical issues), and did not contest the finish. Sagan missed the move into the main group, but managed to put his incomparable power to use and bridged the gap on behalf of ten or twenty other riders. He looked exhausted after the effort, but was around for the finish.
It was shaping up well for the predicted reduced-bunch sprint. The bookies had made calls for powerful sprinters like John Degenkolb and Mark Cavendish, or for classics riders like Zdenek Stybar and Sep Vanmarcke. Personally, I was rooting for Vanmarcke, who put in some of the finest rides in the early season classics this year, but did not come away with the wins to prove it. A series of unlucky mechanicals, and other people’s lucky breaks, belied the fact that Vanmarcke had ridden powerfully throughout the Spring classics, and was always able to adapt his tactics to the movements of the bunch. But today was not to be his day.
As the pace slackened within the last 5km (as riders looked to one another to form sprint trains or to make the winning moves), no one caught Tony Martin’s dig. Martin had oscillated from back to front and back again in the lead group since his mechanical. Now, decently recovered, he gave it his all and shot from the front of the pack, across the road so as not to offer anyone else his slipstream, and turned on the sort of pace that only a world champion time trial rider can achieve. With 2.8km to go, Martin broke free of the pack, who were unimpressively slow to respond. Sky had been leading, and, despite the fact that Froome would lose the yellow jersey to Martin, it was clear that they were happy for him to take the win. After all, Martin is no threat to Froome in the coming mountains, and it always relieves a little pressure to take off yellow in the early days of the tour. BMC were too slow to respond for my liking, as they had everything to play for with Van Avermaet. I would also hold Lotto-Jumbo culpable, as they should have been working for Vanmarcke, but their organization is often poor — certainly not up to the standards of a Sky or BMC train — and Vanmarcke was, as per usual, fighting for himself for much of the race (I have since been informed that Vanmarcke punctured towards the end, no doubt the reason Lotto weren’t pulling). Sagan must have been pained by the sight of the distancing Martin, but with Tinkoff-Sako surrounding Contador, he was not going to get help.
This left the team of bookies’ favourite John Degenkolb, Giant-Alpecin. Giant really have no excuse for leaving the chase so late, but it was they who ultimately picked up the pace (along with, bizarrely, Valverde and Quintana, who were looking to stay safe at the front of the group and ended up riding an absolute blinder). We can only image the grief in Degenkolb’s voice as he shouted desperate instructions for his teammates to chase down Martin, but it was in vain and too late. With about 100 metres between himself and the pack, Martin came in solo to the finish line, punching the air at his impressive win, and at the knowledge that he would be putting on the yellow jersey for the first time in his career. Degenkolb led in the sprint, with Sagan in third, but sprinters are rarely satisfied by second place.
Overall, we can be glad that the weather held off, and that this year’s jaunt on the cobbles was not a repeat of last year’s. Froome is well placed this year, and Nibali, who dug deep, did not manage to gain time on his rivals. Even Quintana held on well. Today’s loser was Pinot, whose frustration was palpable. As he watched the second group on the road go by, and caught the tail of the third group, he must have felt as though he were watching his chances of making the podium disappear up the road. And with his hopes, I think, went France’s hopes. It will once again not be a French win in the Tour.