Sunday 3 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 2 debrief

The 2011 Tour is shaping up to be a vintage year already - not that any Tour is anything but - with the crashes of yesterday and today's incredibly close-run team trial. The racing took place over a short 23km course which seems to add to this sort of competition, encouraging hard riding and high speeds from the moment the bikes leave the starting ramp.

Garmin's David Millar is the highest-
placed British rider in second place

The first team out were Saxobank who managed 25'16", seemingly a respectable enough time, but it wasn't too long before Twitterers began to wonder if anyone was going to crack the 25' mark. They needed to do well today after lead man Alberto Contador finished so far down yesterday, but it quickly became apparent that they hadn't done enough - especially when Rabobank set out because it was immediately obvious that they were operating at an altogether higher level, the team easily and immediately falling into a rehearsed formation and rapidly building up to speed. They maintained their excellent form throughout, finishing on 25' dead which made them the fastest team of the day for a short while.

However good Rabobank looked, there was no doubt that Garmin looked even better. They'd arranged themselves almost before their rear wheels were off the ramp and were accelerating away within a split second. That they would do well was obvious, but just how well remained to be seen. Then the first time check proved beyond all doubt that they were literally flying and on course to easily smash Rabobank's time - which proved to be the case, because although they slowed noticeably in the second half the early effort was enough to see them cross the finish line in an incredible 24'48".

Astana looked wobbly, choosing a bad line into one bend and rapidly losing riders, but the first time check proved they were getting the speed aspect right when they passed by with the second fastest time after Garmin. In the end, they recorded a slower time than Saxobank at 25'20" - not brilliant, but enough to keep them in the top ten by the end. Quickstep also had problems - "Quickstep by name, slow pedallers by nature," as Twitterer bernietb described them.
A shaky start for Christian
Knees could have made the
race awkward for Sky, but
the team's skill got them up
to third place.

There was one team that everyone wanted to see today, no matter what their nationality, and that was Team Sky. This is only their second Tour and their results last year were a long way from being as spectacular as many of us hoped but few teams have ever managed to build the same sense of presence as Sky and it's common knowledge that they've been spending a lot of time on TTT drills, honing their technique and working out the best possible tactics. Christian Knees had a bit of an unfortunate start, apparently finding the pace too high and it wasn't long at all before it became obvious he was going to get left behind. Meanwhile, the remaining riders were hitting the gas; by the first time check came around they recorded the fastest time yet, a second quicker than Garmin. But it all started to fall apart in the second half, especially once it became clear that Xabier Zandio was going to follow suit with Knees and drop off the back, leaving seven men to share the work. Luckily, two of those remaining happened to be Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas who not only excel at this sort of thing but work together exceptionally well. Nevertheless, even they couldn't quite equal Garmin and were 4" slower by the second time check, a disadvantage that remained right up until they blasted  across the finish with a time of 24'52". It wasn't the win that they and their legions of fans hoped for, but it was a very impressive result indeed.

Confidis had the worst start of the day when 23-year-old Frenchman Tony Gallopin's bike developed a mechanical problem as soon as it left the ramp. With the cameras concentrating on the action it was difficult to see exactly what was going on but it looked rather as though the chain was slipping on the cassette - one of the things team mechanics would check before a bike goes out, so it's possible that a bit of rubbish had got caught up in the derailleur or that the chain had been dislodged and put out of line as the bike was lifted onto the ramp, both minor faults but the sort of thing that can very easily be overlooked in the heat of the moment. There were no such excuses for the rest of the team, however, who were unable to match the sorts of speeds already set and they finished in a disappointing 21st place out of 22. Last place was taken by Euskaltel-Euskadi, but the Basques are unlikely to care because for them racing is all about climbing and they'll be looking to exploit the sheer strength of their riders later on when the Tour reaches their home turf in the Pyrenees.

HTC-Highroad were always going to be a team to be reckoned with in this stage, but things were made difficult for them when 30-year-old Bernhard Eisel suffered a crash and the team members behind him only just avoided going down with him. This being a time trial, there was no way they could hang around and help him regain pace so the unlucky Austrian was forced to ride the rest of the way alone. Fifth place was a good result, all things considered.

On a good day - which is most of them for him -
thereis no rider in the world who can take on
Fabian Cancellara, who was instrumental in
LeopardTreks' remarkable fourth place.

LeopardTrek, an even newer team than Sky, were very much an unknown quantity today. Their leader is Andy Schleck, a definite contender and second favourite to win the overall General Classification this year, but Andy is a climber. He's a very good climber indeed, but climbers do not tend to perform well in such high-speed stages as time trials and it's always been his least favourite part of multistage events. Brother Frank is much the same. But LeopardTrek had two time trial weapons primed and ready in the shape of Jakob Fuglsang, Danish TT champion in 2010 and - even more lethal - Fabian Cancellara, commonly believed to be the greatest time trialler to have ever lived. Between them, they managed to drag the team to a far better time than perhaps even they hoped for, reaching the finish in a remarkable 24'53".

It looked like the results were as good as set in stone, but there was one last surprise for the day. BMC left the start line looking efficient and well-rehearsed, mimicking the smooth way that Garmin slipped into their positions which was an early indictor that they were going to shake things up somewhat, which is exactly what they set about doing. By the first time check they'd moved up to third place and appeared to be equaling Sky's effort. Perhaps they delivered just that little bit more or perhaps they made a better decision somewhere along the way, because in the end they finished just a fraction of a second quicker and gained second place.

The big question is, where does leave Tour favourite Alberto Contador? Not in a very good position at all is the answer - he's slipped right down to 75th place behind new race leader Thor Hushovd who will wear the yellow jersey tomorrow, a great honour as the peloton enters Brittany, the region that has produced a large percentage of the pantheon of cycling gods including the great Bernard Hinault. That puts him at a disadvantage of 1'42" behind the race leader and he's going to have to work hard over the coming days if that's not to increase - not good news for a man who specialises in efficiently defeating mountains and who would have been hoping to conserve his energy in preparation for the climbs still to come. Meanwhile, his arch-rival Andy Schleck, aided by Cancallara, moves right up to 10th place, a mere 4" behind Hushovd. If he can maintain that until the mountains, there might not be anyone capable of catching him. But it would be a very foolish rider who discounted Contador - he is, after all, a remarkable rider, and the weather is not the only thing that can change quickly in the mountains.

A great day for British cycling, with Scotsman David Millar holding the second position and Welshman Geraint Thomas in 4th. Bradley Wiggins is just outside the top ten at 12th, Mark Cavendish is 18th and Ben Swift 24th. That's all the British riders in the top 25! Thomas also keeps the white jersey for another day.

Results of Stage 2 (team time trial):

1. Garmin 24'48"
2. BMC +04"
3. Sky +04"
4. Leopard +05"
5. HTC-Highroad +05"
6. RadioShack +10"
7. Rabobank +12"
8. Saxo Bank +28"
9. Astana +32"
10. Omega Pharma +39"
11. FDJ +46"
12. Europcar +50"
13. AG2R La Mondiale +53"
14. Quick Step +56"
15. Liquigas +57"
16. Saur-Sojasun +1'02"
17. Lampre +1'04"
18. Katusha +1'04"
19. Movistar +1'09"
20. Vacansoleil +1'15"
21. Cofidis +1'20"
22. Euskaltel +1'22".

General Classification

1. Thor Hushovd (Norway) 5h06'25"
2. David Millar (UK) same time
3. Cadel Evans (Australia) +01"
4. Geraint Thomas (UK) +04"
5. Linus Gerdemann (Germany) 0:04.
6. Frank Schleck (Luxembourg)
7. Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland)
8. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway)
9. Manuel Quinziato (Italy)
10. Andy Schleck (Luxembourg) 4-10 received same time

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