Nervous start as Tour favourites stay neck and neck
Cadel Evans second in the Giro - is another big year in store for him?
Cadel Evans grimaced as his team-mate Marcus Burghardt led him inside the final eight kilometres of Monday’s second stage two of the Tour.
The BMC pair were right on the front of the peloton with none other than Britain’s Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky sitting in the defending champion’s wheel.
Neither of the race’s big favourites had any aspirations to win the 208-km stage through Belgium to the town of Tournai – they were on the front of the pack simply because it was the safest place to be.
Two of the race’s big names – the German time trial world champion Tony Martin and Spanish rouleur Luis Leon Sanchez – had already suffered big falls in Sunday’s opening road stage to Seraing, won by the supremely talented Tour debutant Peter Sagan.
Both Evans and Wiggins have seen previous Tour hopes go up in smoke due to sudden falls out of the blue – and riding on the front is the only way to avoid the touching of wheels that so often occurs in these nervous early stages.
At one point, Wiggins even pulled up between Evans and Burghardt – much to the Australian’s apparent chagrin – testing his rivals resolve, perhaps, ahead of sturdier tests.
The teams of the sprinters soon came to the fore – and both the race favourites finished safely inside the peloton on a day that the cycling gods were favourable: there were no huge pile-ups – despite ample road furniture, roundabouts and twisting roads.
Monday marked the first bunch sprint of the race – and it was three former team-mates from HTC who dominated proceedings.
The world champion Mark Cavendish took the spoils ahead of Germany’s Andre Greipel and Australian Matt Goss – proving he can win even without a lead-out train.
You see, Team Sky are putting virtually all their eggs in the yellow basket marked “Wiggins” this year – bringing along Cavendish as a “bonus rider” (his words) who will have to fend for himself for wins.
So far, so good for Cavendish and Sky. The 26-year-old from the Isle of Man did have Bernard Eisel to guide him towards the last kilometre – but then he was left isolated as both Lotto Belisol and Orica GreenEdge flexed their muscles on the front of the bunch.
Reunited with the train that delivered him to three stage victories at the Santos Tour Down Under, Greipel looked a safe bet to take only a second career Tour win.
But the German had Cavendish uncharacteristically hitching a ride in his wheel. New scenarios require new tactics – and the British sprinter rose to the occasion, surging past Greipel to win by a whisker. Goss, despite some superb work by his GreenEdge team, was very much third-best of the trio.
Still, he at least featured in the finale – unlike another former HTC rider, the Australian Mark Renshaw, who could only manage ninth place despite strong support by his Rabobank team.
Cavendish’s “solo” win was his 21st on the Tour de France – and his first for Team Sky. “Funny emotions tonight,” Cav tweeted later on. “Regardless how many stages we win this year, I won’t be happy unless we have the yellow jersey in Paris.”
And to think that one of the Roar of the Crowd writers on this website recently published an article entitled, “Are Sky already a team divided?”.
Team Sky have had an extremely active – and successful – start to the race so far. For a team bent on winning the overall, they already have a stage to fall back on through Cavendish – and with him on such promising personal form, the prospect of more victories to come.
In the battle for the GC, Wiggins took a slight upper hand in Liege at the prologue by taking 10 seconds from Evans. But Wiggins, lest we forget, is one of the best time triallists around – and Evans’s ride over the flat 6.4km course was in fact the best-ever prologue he has posted in any Tour.
One day later, Evans showed his strength in the final climb to Seraing – and at one point it even looked like the Australian was going to try and notch an early win like he did in stage four last year.
Evans’s BMC team-mates have been all present and correct – with the American youngster Tejay van Garderen lying in fourth place after an excellent prologue, Philippe Gilbert taking fourth place in Seraing and the others – most noticeably veteran George Hincapie and Burghardt – protecting their man nicely.
Evans sits 17 seconds off the summit in eighth place, while Wiggins is currently second, seven seconds behind yellow jersey Fabian Cancellara, the winner of Saturday’s prologue.
Wiggins and Sky have not had it easy, mind. They may now have a win through Cavendish and a solid GC presence through Wiggo, but the support staff have not had the turn of the green.
Australian Mick Rogers had been riddled with bad luck, crashing inside the final 25km on Sunday and picking up a flat with 8km remaining on Monday, while Chris Froome himself punctured en route to Seraing and lost 1:25 at the finish.
But all in all, things are perfectly poised at the top. The priority for GC riders at this early stage of the race is to avoid crashes, splits in the peloton and punctures – and both Evans and Wiggins have done that.
It will be interesting to see, however, if Evans is tempted by Tuesday’s itinerary: an initially flat 198-km stage three through north France erupts when it approaches the coast of Normandy, with six minor climbs including an uphill drag to the finish in Boulogne – just the kind of finale that favours last year’s yellow jersey.
Felix Lowe is an English photographer, writer and Arsenal fan with a penchant for pro-cycling. Eurosport writer and blogger, Felix has covered the major cycling races in the pro calendar for the past decade and is now taking up the sport himself, at the ripe age of 31.
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