Froome silences the doubters
Much was made about Chris Froome abandoning the Tour de France on stage 4 last year, in comments often accompanied by the slightly derisory reference to him crashing out ‘before he even reached the cobbles’.
Froome, who grew up riding on rough roads and has always maintained he likes the cobbles, might have felt a little aggrieved but he let his riding do the talking on stage 5 this year with a remarkable display on the pavé. He jostled for position, made his presence felt, closed down moves from Vincenzo Nibali and even felt strong enough to put in a brief dig of his own.
In short, he showed all the characteristics many doubted he possessed. It is a similar story for the first week in general, where the British rider was widely expected to lose time but has ended up coming through on top of them all, making the splits, avoiding the mishaps, and showing good legs on the short climbs.
As he himself put it, it’s a “dream scenario” heading into the mountains.
MPCC dealt another blow
The Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Crédible (MPCC) was already reeling from the Giro d’Italia, where it lost LottoNL-Jumbo and Bardiani-CSF from its count of members over cortisol testing.
On the eve of the Tour de France the voluntary body’s credibility was struck by another crashing right hook as Astana started Lars Boom despite tests showing he had abnormally low cortisol levels. The team was suspended from the organisation and became the fifth member to leave this year after Lotto, Bardiani, and Lampre-Merida, who chose to honour Diego Ulissi’s contract over the MPCC’s regulations.
With so much at stake, Astana were unwilling to start the race one rider short after their appeals to swap another man in fell on deaf ears. What was clear was that when it came to the choice between their sporting ambitions and their commitment to their self-styled anti-doping stance, well, there was no choice at all.
Astana was all too happy to enjoy the public relations benefits offered by association with the MPCC but when it came to the rulebook being applied to itself it wanted nothing to do with it.
This, of course, reflects worst of all on the MPCC, who are increasingly becoming an irrelevance. President Roger Legeay is always keen to insist the organisation is voluntary and that it doesn’t matter if teams want to leave, but it’s difficult to hide from the thought that a knockout blow is just around the corner.
Sagan the nearly-man of the Tour
Such is the reputation Peter Sagan has carved out for himself, it would feel perversely anticlimactic were he to actually win a stage of the Tour de France.
The Slovakian’s finishing positions so far in the road stages in this year’s race are remarkable: 2, 27, 3, 2, 2, 3, 4. Little confirmation was needed, but he has cemented his position as the nearly-man of the Tour.
After bursting onto the scene with three early wins in his Tour debut in 2012, he has settled into a familiar pattern, albeit one that has landed him with three green points jerseys. In 2013 he won once but had eight top-five placings, while he topped that last year with no wins but nine top-fives.
He’s on course to better that this year, and another green jersey beckons, but podium placings are quickly forgotten and he will be hungry for some victories as a better reflection of his talents.
Teklehaimanot embodies push for progress
MTN-Qhubeka have been riding a wave of progress and public affection in recent times, but the feel-good factor reached a peak when Daniel Teklehaimanot pulled on the polka-dot jersey after stage 6.
The South African team's sponsor, Qhubeka, is a charity that gives bikes away to encourage participation in social initiatives - a cause to which it is easier to relate than flooring boards or shampoo. The team rode its debut Grand Tour at the Vuelta last year and has become the first African trade team to ride the Tour, with the first Eritrean riders to appear in the race, Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus, being mobbed by adoring home fans.
Teklehaimanot’s achievement, on the sport’s biggest stage, has the feel of a seminal moment. As a white-dominated, European-rooted sport, it has been refreshing to see, and the public warmth suggests there is significant scope for cycling to progress and modernise.
Racist abuse directed at Natnael Berhane at the Tour of Austria, however, provided a depressing reminder that the progress is rarely a smooth process.
French hopes shift focus as Barguil shines and Pinot loses his head
After a two-three of Jean-Christophe Péraud and Thibaut Pinot on last year’s podium, home expectations were heightened this time around. Péraud is 3:30 minutes down and Romain Bardet is at 4:38, but the biggest disappointment is Pinot, who finds himself over eight minutes back.
It was a sorry opening week for the young climber, who missed the split on stage two, was dropped before the Mur de Huy on stage 3, and suffered two late mechanicals on the cobbled stage 5. FDJ boss Marc Madiot suggested seeing teammate William Bonnet damage his neck in a crash on stage 3 had a psychological impact on Pinot. It was certainly questionable whether his head was in the right place on stage 5 he remonstrated angrily instead of taking a bike from his teammate, all the while Tony Martin was riding to victory on a similarly ill-fitting bike of his own comrade.
But that disappointment has been tempered by the emergence of Warren Barguil on the fringes of the top ten and 2:43 down. Stage wins at the 2013 Vuelta a España got people talking, a top-ten on GC the following year confirmed the exciting potential, and the 23-year-old is continuing that upward curve in his debut Tour.
Weighing in at 60kg, the best part of his race should be ahead of him and while he probably won’t win it on the 30th anniversary of the last French winner, he has the chance to position himself as the brightest of a number of emerging French talents.
Tejay van Garderen joins the favourites
The ‘fab four’, ‘big four’, whatever you want to call them, dominated the pre-Tour de France narrative and while they are all still very much in the frame, they are heading into the second phase of the race with company.
It is clear that this is not a case of Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, and Nairo Quintana fighting it out for the top four positions. If they are to end up so, they will have to crack Tejay van Garderen, who has ridden a near-perfect race so far, has shown his resilience in the past, and who came into the race in great form.
Comparisons have naturally been drawn between the American and Cadel Evans, the former BMC leader who won the 2011 Tour. He may not be on par with the top climbers but he never seems to lose much time. That said, he has shown attacking intent in the mountains this year, notably in the recent Critérium du Dauphiné, where he ran Froome very close for the overall.
It won’t just be a case of the other three trying to dislodge him; race leader Froome will be looking over his shoulder.
Crash trend continues
While the race so far has offered up its fair share of thrills, it has also provided more than its fair share of spills. Stage 3 saw a horrific mass pile-up that ground the race to a halt, while stage 4 became almost farcical in the way that riders kept hitting the deck on the slippery roads.
Crashes have punctuated the whole race and have caused two yellow jersey wearers to abandon. Crashes are, of course, part and parcel of cycling but there is no getting away from the fact they are becoming more and more frequent.
With a large peloton containing an ever-increasing number of riders who want to be up at the front at the crucial junctures, it is perhaps no surprise. The issue was thrown under the spotlight at the Giro d’Italia this year, and the Tour has followed in a similar vein, with the racing alive and tensions high across almost every stage.
There isn’t a clear-cut solution but if things carry on this way, even in this age of crash porn, then calls for steps to be taken will only become stronger.
Nibali feeling the pressure
Whether he hurled a bidon or not, Vincenzo Nibali’s confrontation with Chris Froome after a late crash had marred stage 6 was perhaps telling of the reigning champion’s mentality.
After missing the split on the windy second stage and failing to inflict the predicted damage on the cobbles, needless crashes caused by others were not going to be greeted kindly.
Niabli is well and truly on the back foot after an opening week that was meant to be his time to get on top. Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana would be stronger in the mountains later in the race, they said, while Alberto Contador would be looking to conserve himself after an exacting Giro d’Italia.
But Nibali, after losing more time on the Mûr de Bretagne and in the team time trial, finds himself trailing them all, and outside the top-ten. His Astana team don’t look the omnipotent force they did in the Giro and whereas this time last year he was already cruising to victory, he now faces a mountain – several of them in fact – to climb if he’s to defend his title.
Route planners get it right, for now
Last year’s cobbled epic that was stage 4 was so chaotic that some, as we got our breath back, claimed it might actually have been too brutal. When Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, two favourites for the overall victory, crashed out in the first half of the race, there was some debate over route design.
That topic of discussion intensified in the build-up to this year’s Tour, with its opening week of Classics-flavoured racing, replete with cobbles, crosswinds and punchy climbs. Many felt it was all too much and that there could be so many casualties that the second half of the race would be diminished as a contest.
Route designer Thierry Gouvenou must be breathing a sigh of relief now. The opening portion of the Tour has seen some gripping racing, with time won and lost but with all four major favourites still in the frame. There are mouthwatering battles ahead in the mountains but that’s where Gouvenou faces his next challenge. Five summit finishes, and plenty more climbs elsewhere, seems like a lot, and one of those days may see slightly neutralised racing as a result.
Cavendish isn’t finished yet
You sense Mark Cavendish was getting pretty sick of people wondering whether his days were numbered. He hadn’t won a Tour de France stage since 2013 and there was the rise of Marcel Kittel, whispers of a changing of the guard, and question marks over the Manxman’s lead-out and top-end speed.
Cavendish was still relatively young, still winning, but subject to closer scrutiny and doubt. Questions from media that suggested the idea of ‘proving himself’ or ‘bouncing back’ were met with prickly responses and glares of disdain.
Cavendish doesn’t feel he has anything to prove, but his victory on stage 7 of the Tour de France sends a pointed message nonetheless. His Tour de France stage wins tally is ticking once again and in spite of his previous protestations it seems a pressure has been lifted.