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Every second counts in tense Tour de France opening week – Analysis

The Mûr-de-Bretagne again showed on Thursday that every second counts at the 2018 Tour de France.

The finish atop the Brittany climb, just as it did in 2011 and 2015, created small but significant time gaps among the overall contenders, opening cracks in riders' confidence and perhaps giving an indication of what will happen in the rest of the race.

Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) had the guts to attack alone into a stiff headwind and had the legs to finish off the move and win the stage. His kilometre-long surge tested all of his fellow overall contenders, exposing even the slightest hint of weakness.

Pierre Latour (AG2R La Mondiale) was the closest to catching Martin, with Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) leading home a select 13-rider group of chasers at three seconds.

Chris Froome (Team Sky) struggled slightly, and effectively finished two seconds behind. But that was one second too many. His stage time was calculated on the gap to Valverde and so the race results confirmed he lost eight seconds. Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac) suffered a similar fate, losing 11 seconds, and Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) lost 12 seconds. Martin picked up a 10-second time bonus for his win while Valverde took four bonus seconds.

Froome dismissed his latest time loss, and he may be proved right by Paris. It was also far less than the 31 and 53 seconds Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) lost, respectively, after they tangled in the final kilometres before the climb to the finish.

To complicate Dumoulin's day and Tour even further, he was penalised 20 seconds for drafting behind his team car as he tried to limit his losses. Every second counts, but Dumoulin was giving them away for free. He slipped to exactly 1:00 behind Thomas in the virtual general classification – a classification of only the GC contenders, which doesn't include current race leader Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing).

This first half of the 2018 Tour de France was always going to be a nine-day white-knuckle ride for the many overall contenders in this year's Tour de France, but few expected it to be such intense, nerve-wrenching, leg-hurting racing. The cycling gods are throwing lightening down on the riders for kicks, and few in the peloton are able to dodge them all.

We are six stages into this year's Tour de France, and four of them have caused time losses to at least one of the overall contenders. The fortunate, the strongest and the better bike handlers already seem to be rising to the top. There has been a rotation of cycling karma on a daily basis.

The late crash on the opening stage cost Froome, Richie Porte (BMC Racing) and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) 51 seconds, and Movistar's Nairo Quintana 1:15. Then the Cholet team time trial shuffled the virtual GC yet again, helping some riders regain losses but costing Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) a minute to his biggest rivals. Bardet lost slightly more, with only Uran limiting his losses to the big five teams of BMC Racing, Team Sky, Quick-Step Floors, Mitchelton-Scott and Team Sunweb. Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) lost almost a minute due to a late crash before the finish of stage 4 in Sarzeau, and then the Mûr-de-Bretagne caused further gaps as the game of snakes and ladders continued.

Martin hauled himself up the Mûr, and up the GC, on Thursday, pulling back some of the time his UAE Team Emirates lost in their terrible team time trial. Dumoulin had avoided the crashes and gained seconds in the team time trial, but on the road to the Mûr-de-Bretagne he was punished with a puncture and that time penalty. He slid eight places, from seventh to 15th.

Bardet has shared the front page of L'Equipe with the French national soccer team in recent days. Les Bleus have reached the final of the World Cup, but Bardet was left singing the blues on Thursday, slipping to 23rd overall, 1:42 down on Thomas.

All of this is before Sunday's cobbled ninth stage to Roubaix, which could spark even bigger time gaps and open bigger crevices in the GC, leaving some contenders' hopes and dreams scattered across the fields of northern France.

Will the current gaps mean anything by the time the Tour peloton riders reach Paris on July 29?

Perhaps. Froome beat Uran by 54 seconds last year. In 1989 Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon by eight seconds after the legendary final time trial to Paris. Even in 2007, Alberto Contador only beat Cadel Evans by 23 seconds. Every second counts at the Tour de France.

Team leaders are licking their wounds and trying to convince themselves and their rivals that they will pull the time back in the mountains. But they also know that, once gone, time is notoriously difficult to recapture.

Geraint Thomas has had more than his share of crashes and bad luck over the years, with a terrible run of misfortunate in recent times. Yet, so far, the 32-year-old Welshman has avoided the mishaps that have cost so many of his rivals time, including teammate (not team leader) Froome.

Thomas finds himself in an enviable position as virtual race leader of the overall contenders. As things stand, he will inherit the yellow jersey when Van Avermaet cracks and starts to work for teammate Porte.

Thomas has even made taken advantage of the new 'bonus' point that is positioned late in the stage and offers 3, 2 and 1-second time bonuses.

After picking up a second almost by accident on stage 2 on Sunday, he struck out from the bunch just after the first ascent of the Mûr to pick up two more seconds. He has now picked up a total of three seconds, which is in turn the same amount of time that divides him from taking the yellow jersey.

Thomas seems to be blessed at this year's Tour. Has he perhaps paid his Tour de France dues? Could it be his year? 

The 'virtual general classification', based on Geraint Thomas, with each rider's 'real' overall position indicated before their name - Results

#Rider Name (Country) TeamResult
2Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Sky22:35:49
3Tejay van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team0:00:02
6Bob Jungels (Lux) Quick-Step Floors0:00:15
7Rigoberto Uran (Col) EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale0:00:42
8Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team0:00:48
9Rafal Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe0:00:49
10Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana Pro Team0:00:50
11Richie Porte (Aus) BMC Racing Team
12Mikel Landa (Spa) Movistar Team0:00:52
13Adam Yates (GBr) Mitchelton-Scott0:00:59
14Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky
16Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Bahrain-Merida0:01:05
17Primoz Rogliz (Slo) LottoNL-Jumbo0:01:14
18Bauke Mollema (Ned) Trek-Segafredo0:01:15
19Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Team Sunweb0:01:20
21Daniel Martin (Irl) UAE Team Emirates0:01:24
23Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale0:01:42
25Ilnur Zakarin (Rus) Katusha-Alpecin0:01:59
27Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar Team0:02:07

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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and Cycling Weekly, among other publications.