And they're off! 3430.5 kilometres to go and lots of obstacles to clear - this was what the first week of the Tour has brutally reminded everyone of. The replacement of the prologue with a road stage was a strange choice and looking at it from an entertainment point of view, not entirely a successful one. A short time trial might not suit some riders but it can be dramatic for the right reasons, unlike the first stage which was dramatic for the wrong reasons: Crashes (or as Radio Tour says so eloquently, "Chute").
It's so expected that there will be people on the floor that they even have a classification for crashing, which surprisingly isn't yet sponsored: chute grave (serious), chute massive (crash with lots of riders involved), chute avec consequence (someone got hurt) and chute sans consequence (someone fell off but it didn't draw enough blood to worry about).
That Cadel Evans didn't fall off whilst almost everyone else did must have been a pleasant surprise for him, just as much as his stellar form to finish second to an impressive Philippe Gilbert on Mont des Alouettes. Contador and Co. must have been spitting fears that night at Saxo Bank because the next days' team time trial looked a bit panicky. On the other hand, BMC looked solid and Evans showed his strength, unlike the Schlecks over at Leopard. I bet they didn't enjoy the embarrassment of swinging on the back of the Cancellera train. The time differences were never going to be that big amongst the top teams, but Alberto hadn't planned on being more than a minute and a half back after just two stages.
It was good to see Garmin take their first Tour win in the discipline they love so much, putting Hushvod in yellow and then Tyler Farrar confirming with the sprint win into Redon the following day. Of course, the HTC sprint system had miscalculated their resources after taking it up too early and that, combined with a bit of rough and tumble on the last bend, left Mark Cavendish in the wrong place for once. Still, this wasn't as bad as the race commissaires deciding that he and Hushvod merited a moment on the naughty step for what looked like normal sprinter behaviour at the mid-stage sprint.
The Mur-de-Bretagne stage showed a number of interesting things. Firstly, Cadel Evans was impressively strong. You don't often see no-one able to move off the wheels in a sprint, and that proves that they were all flat out behind just to be on Evans' wheel. Secondly, Contador is good but not that good. His acceleration on the steepest part of the last climb hurt everyone but it also hurt him, which isn't what we are used to seeing. Thirdly, when all the other favourites had a teammate or two to move them up in the closing stages, the best example being George Hincapie of BMC, there wasn't a Saxo Bank rider to help out Contador. It was noticeable that he was moving himself up in the wind and that will cost him later on.
If you ever wanted the perfect example of what a Tour stage in Brittany, first week of the race, does to the riders' health, then the day to Cap Fréhel encapsulated it in all its glory. 'Nervous' doesn't really describe how bad those kinds of days are - they are just horrible, seemingly unorganised chaos. In terms of energy they can cost more than a decent mountain stage, and though it may be more mental than physical energy, it 's energy all the same. The crashing lark must be getting to Contador and Saxo Bank by now, and everyone else for that matter. Nicki Sörensen getting whipped off his Specialized was nasty. I know it's called a Tarmac SL, but that's no excuse. At the end of the day of madness, Mark Cavendish's sprint to victory looked like it hurt as much as bouncing down the road.
Another horrible day for stage six and finally Sky get their first win. They might have hoped to get the TTT but history will have it down as the longest stage of the 2011 Tour and Boassen Hagen produced the goods. The slightly wider roads might have meant marginally fewer crashes but it still looked desperately nervous under all the rain. And though you slide better and usually with fewer consequences, I'm sure no-one wanted to spend so long getting wet.
Evans still looks good, Gilbert looks like he wants to be in green in Paris and Contador looks vulnerable, so all in all it's been a typical first week of the Tour de France. The time gap Contador has to make up after the first two days ought to see him on the attack when the race reaches the mountains and hopefully that'll be a show worth watching.
On trend during the first week are Thor Hushvod and the Garmin-Cervelo gang, as well as Cadel Evans and his BMC team. Gilbert and Van den Broecke at Omega-Lotto are looking very strong, Geraint Thomas and Bradley Wiggins have been present when expected and quiet when they needed to be, and Klöden is the only Radioshacker staying out of trouble. Tony Martin and Tejay Van Garderen are doing a lot of work for Mark Cavendish so that might impact on the rest of their Tour but generally HTC are good, too. Surprises are the Vacansoleil crew and Jeremy Roy of FDJ animating the breaks.
Fending off the questions are the Schlecks, Leipheimer, Horner, Gesink, Petacchi, Basso, Vino, Nicolas Roche and most of the AG2R boys, Thomas Voeckler and Samuel Sanchez.
Bending under the strain (or broken already)...: Kreuziger, Gadret, Taaramae, Cunego and Sylvain Chavanel.
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Robert Millar was one of the last pure climbers of the Tour de France, winning several stages in the mountain stages and finishing fourth overall in 1984. He is also the only English speaker to have ever won the prestigious polka-dot jersey climber's competition jersey.
Millar retired in 1995 but has continued to follow the sport closely. He was often critical of the media and quickly cuts through the excuses and spin to understand why and how riders win and lose.