Today’s stage was — at last — an easy day for the general classification men, leading into a finish fit for the all-out sprinters. On paper it was going to be an easy day to control a breakaway, allowing the pure sprinters to fight for points. But, whilst we got to see the sprint we’d been waiting for, some of the riders had a hard time getting there.
The first (and worst) casualty of the day was Cofidis’s Nacer Bouhanni. In an early crash, barely 20km into the stage, Bouhanni and three other Cofidis riders came down hard. Bouhanni, their champion sprinter, was worst affected and was loaded into an ambulance, leaving his tour behind. He was not around for the intermediate sprint at 90km, at which point Greipel extended his lead in the green jersey contest. Later, sprinters Greg Van Avermaet and Bryan Coquard also hit the deck; both, though, were able to rejoin the pack. Thibaut Pinot compounded his bad luck when he became the next cyclist to take a bad fall. And Mark Cavendish suffered a late mechanical, giving Etixx-Quickstep a moment of panic.
On to the final. Despite an enormous fracture in the peloton, leaving a group trailing by over 8 minutes (including Sky riders Porte and Kennaugh), all the General Classification favourites and pure sprinters made it to the front. The last ten kilometres were raced at high speed, thanks to strong trains from the likes of Giant-Alpecin and Etixx-Quickstep. This meant it was heading for a showdown between all the bookies’ favourites: Greipel, Cavendish, Sagan, Kristoff, Degenkolb, and the secondary tier of sprinters like Coquard, Boasson-Hagen, Cimolai.
With Etixx dominating on the front, and Renshaw well-placed for Cavendish, it looked like it was going to be a classic Cav finish. But almost out of nowhere the Giant train reformed around, and then in front, of the Etixx unit. As they swept around the last bend, it looked like Cav was losing ground on Degenkolb. As the final straight opened up, with about 750 metres left of the stage, Alexander Kristoff shot out of the pack and crept up the side of the Etixx/Giant line. However, in his hunt for a good wheel on which to latch, Kristoff seemed to get overexcited, and found himself at the head of the pack. He had no option but to open up his sprint barely past the 500m to go line. This left Cav and Degenkolb in hot pursuit, with Cav momentarily losing Renshaw’s slipstream and going into panic mode. Sagan and Greipel looked boxed in by lead-out men and other sprinters. Predictably, Kristoff faded just as Cavendish and Degenkolb opened their sprints. Boassan-Hagen followed in hot pursuit, and for a moment, with the threat of Kristoff neutralized, it looked to be a Cavendish win. But the headwinds proved too strong for both Cav and Degenkolb. They held off most of the pack but, as the sprint opened up, so too did the wall of riders penning in Greipel and Sagan. Both broke out into the headwind fresher than the Cav-Degenkolb lead-out, and both made impressive sweeps around a number of riders, across the road from left to right, and veered round the fading Cavendish. Greipel hit the front well in time to take stage victory.
Perhaps more impressive than the German’s second stage win, though, was Sagan’s second place. Sagan is becoming notorious for his consistency in taking podium places but rarely winning stages, but today he still showed his strength in emphatic fashion, with probably the finest sprint of the day. Coming from a long way back, he managed to negotiate his way around several sprinters whilst using their slipstreams to maximum advantage, took a lunge forward, and found shelter again in Greipel’s own slipstream. Effectively, he managed to sling-shot his way past at least half a dozen riders within the last 300m of the race, only marginally bettered by Greipel who had been luckier with his placing. This might mean that Sagan is finding something close to his top form as the tour warms up. It sometimes takes these displays of raw power to remind us that Sagan’s usual practice of taking second and third spots in no way represents his full ability — in this year’s Tour of California, for instance, he not only won the majority of flat stages, but he also held on to the summit of the Queen stage and rode the time trial of his life — against all expectations, winning himself the gold jersey. With a further sprint stage days away, and tomorrow’s finish up a short 7% incline, we can expect Sagan to make a strong bid for the green jersey. But, lying only 33 seconds off the yellow and with bonus seconds on the line each day, he might also start to get grander ideas.