Monday, 4 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 3 Debrief

We said earlier that today's stage was the sort to encourage early breakaways, and that proved to be accurate - a five-man group led by Movistar's José Iván Gutiérrez and FDJ's Mickaël Delage got on the case within the first kilometre and kept pumping the gas almost all the way to the end, rapidly building a hefty lead on the main group. Although the gap gradually eroded away they did an admirable job in keeping up the pace, holding it for a lot longer than many people thought they'd be capable (though we'd like to point out that, not long after the breakaway, erm, brokeaway, we Tweeted: "PerezMoreno, Guiterrez, Bouet, Terpstra leading the field by 3'20". They could keep this up for a long time today. #tdf" Yes, we rule).

Vendee is a region that, like a lot of the stages in the north western corner of La France, tends to be a bit overlooked by many fans which in a way is understandable, because the scenery really can't compare to the majestic spectacle of the Haute-Pyrenees and the Alps, nor to the grandeur of Paris and some of the southern cities. However, we saw some of the very finest scenery the non-mountainous bits of the country have to offer today - the landscape is flat but colourful and the Jade Coast is nothing less than stunning, easily making it onto our list of Places Where We'll Live When We Win The Lottery. The shrimp-fishing huts atop stilts on the beaches are particularly charming and the coastal towns remain unspoiled, as they hopefully will unless a load of Lottery-winning Brits gets wind of it and prices the locals out of the housing market.

Pornic. A bit like epic, only better. ;-)
Before too long, that impudent breakaway group were leading the peloton by a full 6'47". Successful though it was, it seemed an odd tactic as far as Gutiérrez was concerned because whilst he was by no means a favourite he could have had an outside chance at a decent GC place today. By taking part so early, he threw away his chances. If that was all in order to get team-mate Jose Joaquin Rojas onto the podium - as was the case when he took third - it's an example of supreme self-sacrifice.

Poor Nicholas Roche got a puncture a little further up the road, but the mechanics were with him quickly and swapped the front wheel so he didn't have to work that hard to get back in the thick of it. The breakaway had a 6'52" lead at the feeding station, flashing through long before the peloton which was now being led by none other than the Tour's only ever vegan, David Zabriskie - and if a vegan is that keen to get his musette, all those people who think vegan food is bland and tasteless are obviously mistaken. Either that or he was just desperate for the small amounts of salmon he says he'll eat to keep his iron levels up.

Garmin, apparently fully recovered from their excellent and victorious efforts in the time trial yesterday, had spent a bit of time at the front of the peloton but Saxobank seemed keen to muscle in, no doubt desperate to get their leader Alberto Contador a few notches up the board after his disastrous start to the Tour. It remains to be seen if his poor placing so far is due to circumstances out of his control, such as the crashes of Stage 1 and a not particularly shining team effort yesterday, or whether it's down to tiredness from the Giro d'Italia and the mental stress of the ongoing doping allegation. Whatever it is, the old cliche about the French supporting the underdog doesn't seem to apply in his case: he started the day in 75th place and would have needed a lot more than 50 picograms/ml of some not-very-effective bronchodilator  in his dinner last night to achieve a top place today, yet the Bertie-bashing that took place in the team presentation continues unabated with one Twitterer suggesting that someone should "fill Contador's feedbag with spiders." At least it's funny. Well, except for spiders.

We were treated today to the sight of one of those traditions that mystifies some people (there were certainly a lot of users on Twitter who had trouble understanding what was going on) - as the peloton passed through the hometown of one rider, the local boy was allowed to ride on ahead of the group and build up a big enough advantage so that he could stop to chat and receive best wishes from family and friends. Once the others arrived, he rejoined in his previous position and was on his way. Can you imagine anything like that happening in any other sport? It's things like this, which exist despite the intense competition, that makes cycling the wonderful thing that it is and reminds fans why we love it so much.

As the sprint section neared, there was no doubt that the breakaway were going to take the lion's share of the points. Delage was first through and collected his 20 points, then Gutiérrez was second for 17 with the 15, 13 and 11 going to their comrades. The main group were there soon after, with Mark Cavendish through in 5th place to take 10. A lot of people - including us - have been beginning to think that perhaps all is not well with Cav, if perhaps the Missile is running out of fuel, but he proved today that he's still got what it takes when he muscled his way through the pack with almost imperceivable effort. Unfortunately, later events saw him lose the points...

Once the sprint was done, it was just a few kilometres before the St. Nazaire bridge came into sight, looking not unlike a sort of skeletal, synthetic miniature Mont Ventoux in the way it rose above the flat landscape. This was the only categorised climb of the day and, realising that the lead group would be hard-pressed to maintain their advantage over it, HTC-Highroad moved to the front of the pack and began putting on the pressure, beginning the final stage of reeling them back and putting them back in their positions while a few riders misjudged a corner slightly and got a bit of mountain biking in over a grassy roundabout. In photographs, the bridge didn't look an especially difficult climb but on the stage profile it showed up as a steep-sided isosceles spike, revealing it to be one to be reckoned with. That Category 4 classification should have been a bit of a giveaway too - though the climb up to the central span was on a very good quality road and, while steep, not too long, the strong crosswinds that howl in from the Atlantic make it more challenging than it at first appears, as reflected by the categorisation. The helicopter footage was every bit as scenic as predicted, and it has to be said that if there's one thing the French do very well it's engineering graceful curves into architecture.

The long cruise back down must have come as a great relief to aching knees and, once down, tyres came into contact with Breton soil. The Bretons love cycling in a way that counts as obsessive even by French standards and had come out in droves to cheer on the riders, a welcome sight to HTC and Garmin who had taken control at the front of the peloton, already jockeying for position ready for the final stretch. Vladimir Karpets of Katusha developed a problem and had to swap bikes - the team car was with him in an instant, but he lost enough time for it to be uncertain if he'd be able to catch up again. Bravely using team cars to assist him, he managed to get in with a small group hanging some way off the back of the peloton and from there, with an heroic effort, clawed his way back up. We got some interesting shots of Lars Baks who, having run domestique duty to the HTC team car, was on his way back to his team mates with so many bidons stuffed into his pockets and up his jersey that he looked like a cross between Quasimodo and a deformed camel.

Round about the 30km to go point was an absolutely exquisite example of the field art produced by French farmers for the Tour - an enormous bicycle with a hay bale frame and rotating wheels each made of twelve tractors. A chainring, also rotating, was made of eight quad bikes and the whole thing finished off to perfection with a vast bottle of wine in the bottle cage - probably the best effort of this Tour and possibly the best ever. If you haven't clicked the link already, do so now - it really needs to be seen to be believed. Twitterer Ms Biscuit Sea Star was "Trying to figure out the haybale gear inches. Tres bon!" Soon afterwards, a BMC rider - we never did work out which one, but it looked like George Hincapie - crashed, taking down two of his team mates with him. Luckily neither riders nor bikes were injured and all were back on and heading off almost as soon as it happened.
Delage deserved the Combativity award,
but so did 
Delage and Gutiérrez were still hammering away, though it was obvious that the gap couldn't last very much longer. The former was awarded the Combativity prize for his efforts, but it's a pity there aren't two because both deserved it and probably wouldn't have done so well without one another's help. Meanwhile, HTC were getting into one of their well-rehearsed formations with 13km to go, guarding Cavendish to prevent him becoming swamped and getting him into the ideal position for an assault on the finish. The pressure built up still further with the peloton accelerating and making it apparent that the final sprint was going to be a good one. Then Confidis' Rein Taaramae experienced every racing cyclist's nightmare - a puncture just 11km from the finish line, leaving him no chance of catching up and getting a good result, probably not helped at all by the legal requirement for all French bikes - including professional racing bikes according to fellow blogger Inrng - to be fitted with "lawyer's lips," those little tabs seen on the drop-outs of some bikes in other nations which are supposed to prevent the wheel falling out if the quick-release isn't fastened (do they actually work? I've never had the opportunity to find out, because I'm not stupid enough to not do up the quick release). He managed 65th overall and was lucky to get that.

The final 6km were fairly technical with a series of tight bends and assorted road furniture/traffic caling measures heading into Redon, but this provided HTC with another opportunity to show off when the split into two groups to negotiate a roundabout and then merged back together like fluid. These guys spend a lot of time practicing this sort of stuff and it shows. By now, they were all set and ready to launch the Missile - it looked like a classic tactical win was on the cards. But then, just before the Flamme Rouge, something went wrong - whilst rounding a bend, someone either misjudged their line or was forced out of it, putting Cav perilously close to the crowd barriers so he had to slow right down and lose 60m or more in the process. Precisely what happened is as of yet unclear - Cav, looking gutted and angry after the race was over, blamed the rider who got in front of him. However, for anyone who watched it on helicopter footage it looked like a Sky rider had made a mistake and forced several riders to swerve, setting up a domino effect with the Manxman at the end. In the end, it was Tyler Farrar who reached the line first, thus becoming the first American ever to win a stage of the Tour de France on Independence Day.

Cav and Thor: controversially disqualified from the intermediate sprint
After the race, the real shitstorm kicked off when judges announced that due to a very minor bit of pushing and shoving during the intermediate sprint, Cavendish and Thor Hushovd were not getting any points - this must have come as a real slap in the face to Cav right after having what looked like a definite stage victory pulled away from him and if there were any camera teams within earshot we'll probably never be allowed to hear an unedited version of his reaction. It has to be said that, in view of their peculiar insistence on saddles being level yesterday, the UCI do seem to be being a bit of  load of arses just lately and there'll be few people who agree this judgement is necessary. Hushovd has subsequently proved himself a big man in more than stature - as Cavendish himself Tweeted: "Just heard that Thor's offered to take the punishment solely. What a true gentleman. I reckon it won't change fuck-all though. But thank you." We haven't heard the last of this one.

Stage 3 results:

1.Tyler Farrar, Garmin-Cervelo 4:40:21
2.Romain Feillu, Vacansoleil same time
3. Jose Rojas, Movistar
4.Sébastien Hinault, Ag2r
5.Mark Cavendish, Htc-Highroad
6,Thor Hushovd, Garmin-Cervelo
7.Julian Dean, Garmin-Cervelo
8.Borut Bozic, Vacansoleil
9.André Greipel, Omega Pharma–Lotto
10.Jimmy Engoulvent, Saur-Sojasun 3-10 received same time

Overall results after Stage 3

1.Thor Hushovd, Garmin-Cervelo 9:46:46
2.David Millar, Garmin-Cervelo same time
3.Cadel Evans, BMC Racing 00:01
4.Geraint Thomas, Sky Pro Cycling 00:04
5.Linus Gerdemann, Leopard Trek 00:04
6.Boasson Hagen Edvald, Sky Pro Cycling 00:04
7.Frank Schleck, Leopard Trek 00:04
8.Andy Schleck, Leopard Trek 00:04
9.Jakob Fuglsang, Leopard Trek 00:04
10.Bradley Wiggins, Sky Pro Cycling 00:04

(That was, shall we say, fundamentally different to our prediction - we reckoned Cav would do well, but even the Asda Extra Special tea-leaves we favour aren't good enough to foresee shenanigans like the one that robbed the Missile of what looked set to be a definite win for him. You could say we failed there. We also liked Sky's chances, thinking either Wiggo or the Welsh Warrior might be in the top three, but 'twas not to be. In fact, it was all quiet on the Sky front and none of them made it into the top ten today never mind the podium. Are you sulking after coming fourth in the TTT, chaps? Our final tip was Swifty, but even his youthful enthusiasm wasn't enough - he finished 66th, but he's a good lad and we still think he'll have some good stages later on. So all in all, we might have to concede that we don't actually rule all that much after all. On the other hand, we weren't too far off the mark with DEVIL WATCH - Didi was sighted just down the road from the 20km banner, not far at all from our prediction at Le Poteau-Vert. You know the best place to come for all your future DEVIL WATCH needs - unless we bollocks that one up over the next few days, anyway.)

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