Every four years, I watch the Olympics, and every four years, I watch sports such as diving, swimming, and gymnastics, and question my life decisions.
Kittel looks unbeatable, Cavendish only has himself to blame, while a glorious opening gambit to the 2014 Tour de France will make everyone involved in bringing the world’s biggest bike race to Yorkshire very pleased indeed.
With the Tour circus taking a mixture of planes, trains, ferries and automobiles over and under the Channel, the race will resume on Tuesday with a mad dash from Le Tourquet to Lille that should see the dominant Marcel Kittel net a hat-trick of wins.
Let’s take a look back at the Great British opening triptych of stages and draw some conclusions from a frantic – but not so fast – opening few days in the saddle.
Kittel is head and shoulders above the rest
Three stages in and the German sprinter already has two wins to his name – that’s half his tally from last year. In both victories no one came close to even ruffling Kittel’s features, Peter Sagan on both occasions finishing second – with a wry smile in Harrogate and by a whole bike length in London.
Not only is Kittel seemingly unbeatable as an individual, his Giant Shimano team looks supreme. Parking Cheng Ji near the front during most of the flat stages, the team usually takes a back seat until the final few kilometres of a race – by which time some of their rival teams have already burned many of their matches.
In John Degenkolb, Tom Veelers and Koen de Kort, Kittel has some of the best lead-out men in the business. And when the fastest man in the peloton is given a free ride to the finishing straight, there’s only ever going to be one outcome. At this rate, Kittel could notch five or six wins this year.
Cavendish will struggle to beat Merckx’s record
Having sat out the Giro to concentrate on the Tour, Cavendish’s enforced six weeks off the bike following shoulder surgery on Monday will jeopardise even a season-saving performance in the last chance saloon that is the Vuelta. What will infuriate Cavendish most is that his crash in Harrogate, the home town of his mother, was so needless – the result of a mixture of mis-channelled aggression, fear of failure and a sudden rush of blood to the head.
Fellow sprinter Alexander Kristoff even claimed that “it looked like he [Cavendish] crashed on purpose” at the conclusion to stage one. The Manxman certainly shoulder barged Simon Gerrans before leaning in quite violently with his head; but for a bite, it was rather Suarez-esque in its execution.
Now 29 and no longer fit of the “fastest man in the peloton” moniker that has stuck with him since his HTC-Colombia days, Cavendish could well struggle toppling Bernard Hinault on the Tour stage hall of fame – let alone Eddy Merckx. The Belgian currently tops the standings with 34 career wins while Hinault has 28 – three more than Cavendish.
But just like the great Roger Federer may find another Grand Slam win beyond him – so too may Cavendish struggle to add another Tour scalp to his name when he returns next year and the new generation are that little bit stronger and he a little more gnarled.
The best Grand Depart in recent history? Quite possibly
There’s no denying that the opening weekend of racing in Yorkshire was ruddy brilliant. With an estimated four million fans flocking to the town centres of Leeds, Harrogate, York and Sheffield and lining the narrow roads of the Yorkshire Dales, Peak District and Pennines, never was a nation’s – nay, region’s – passion for cycling more clear cut. What’s more, unlike Ireland during the Giro the sun actually came out to play, making the Tour’s famous aerial images quite breathtaking.
So many people flocked to the summits of each of the nine categorised climbs in stage two that it felt as if the race had been transported to the Alps. Such was the success, Yorkshire can expect similar numbers of tourists flooding through their door in the years to come.
With the boring format of a prologue canned for a second year running, fans were treated to a wide range of racing – with breaks, climbs and two very different finales in Yorkshire followed by a more traditional bunch sprint on The Mall. The only quibble from the first three days – with regards to the route – was that stage three’s flat and perfunctory stage offered so little drama until the rain started to fall 10kilometres from the finish.
But with two wholly absorbing stages kicking off the 101st Tour, Gary Verity and everyone at Welcome to Yorkshire can be very proud about how things went. Having wowed 3.5 billion fans across the globe, perhaps Yorkshire can now work on bringing the World Championships to the north of England?
‘Selfie’ craze sullying cycling
Why fans can’t just enjoy the spectacle in the moment rather than trying to record it on their not-so-smart phones is beyond me. The latest craze to thwart the safety of the cyclists is people’s – usually teenage girls as opposed to real cycling fans – tendency to take a photo of themselves with their back turned to the action. This is usually followed by uploading said photo onto a social networking platform with a trite comment along the lines of: “Almost killed myself taking this #LOLZ”.
It’s the same kind of person who will spend a small fortune on going to watch their favourite band in concert and then spend the entire duration of the gig peering at the stage via the screen of their phones – just so they can upload a fuzzy, blurred video onto YouTube two hours later.
It was this smart phone brigade that got Ramunas Navardauskas’s goat so much when the Lithuanian was reduced to swatting phones from the prying hands of fans on the ascent of Holme Moss – much in the same vein as Wout Poels grabbing and tossing away an overzealous fan’s sunglasses during the Giro.
And yet the traditional point-and-shooters do not get off lightly: each day in Britain we witnesses collisions with fans encroaching on the side of the road while trying to take a photo. In stage two, Roy Curvers somehow managed to avoid hitting the deck when he sent an old man sprawling, while on stage three to London, Simon Gerrans, Ted King and Andy Schleck were all victims of a spectator trying to do a Graham Watson with their digital camera.
Voigt’s uses experience to outfox French youth
Easily dropped by his fellow escapees on the first climb of the race on Saturday, Jens Voigt took youngsters Nicolas Edet and Benoit Jarrier by surprise at the following intermediate sprint. The German veteran then continued his attack and opened up a big enough gap to take maximum points over the next two climbs.
It looked simple, but Voigt’s face was a picture of pain as he defied the peloton to secure the first polka dot jersey of the race. It was a fine way to start the seventeenth and last Tour of his illustrious career.
Coquard has impressed – but Sagan’s a shoo-in for green
French Tour debutant Bryan Coquard has been a breath of fresh air in the intermediate sprints – giving the more established riders a run for their money in his bid to make a green splash on the centre stage.
Fourth in Harrogate and third in London, the diminutive Europcar rider – who weighs just 58 kilos – is putting on a gutsy show and is currently third position in the green jersey standings, trailing Peter Sagan by 29 points. Sagan shouldn’t be worried – he has far superior staying power in the mountains than Coquard and will pick up more points in the intermediate sprints than Kittel. But Coquard’s exciting impetuousness is cause for excitement – especially given the sudden and unexpected absence of another compact fastman.
Cavendish KO gives others – like Renshaw – a chance to shine
British fans were devastated with the withdrawal of Cav after just one stage – his absence reducing the number of British riders by 25 per cent in one fell swoop. Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas are old hands and expected to be part of the British team that wins the Tour for the third year running – but perhaps this is now a chance for 22-year-old Simon Yates to shine. Yates was a last-minute call-up for Orica-GreenEDGEbut the aggressive rider can now help mend British hearts.
Closer to home, so to speak, Cavendish’s goodbye will open the door to his understudy Mark Renshaw at Omega Pharma-Quick Step. The Australian was reunited with Cav after a troubled time as Rabobank’s main sprinter yielded no major wins; now he has the opportunity to fight for the individual scalps he couldn’t secure before.
The focus of the Belgian team will also shift towards a strong GC finish for the promising Polish young all-rounder Michal Kwiatkowski. Free from having to lead-out Cavendish, Omega Pharma’s riders may now have a very interesting role to play in the race.
Nibali should savour the yellow jersey while he can
The Sicilian’s only win of the season before starting the Tour came a mere week earlier when Nibali became crowded the Italian national champion. Having worn his rather restrained national champions jersey for just two days, Nibali was then forced to swap it for a more fetching yellow number following his victory in Sheffield.
Perpetually strong on the downhills, Nibali’s staying power alongside the race’s big climbers may be a stumbling block as he bids to add the Tour to his near-full collection of Grand Tours. But while it’s all smiles now, you get the impression that wearing the maillot jaune so early will have the same effect on Nibali as the pink jersey did on Cadel Evans a couple of months ago.
Rodriguez hasn’t been the same since Florence
We’re just three days in and already Joaquim Rodriguez is 15 minutes down in the overall standings after suffering something rotten in stage two. Reduced to tears after narrowly losing the world championships to Rui Costa last September, the Spaniard has been out of sorts ever since. Crashes ended his hopes in the Ardennes and the Giro, and Purito still seems well short of both form and fitness. His focus should now be on a stage win before preparing himself for the Vuelta.
This isn’t a fast race
Perhaps it was the rolling terrain or the enforced bottlenecks required by the crazed masses lining the already narrow Yorkshire roads; either way, the opening two stages were not played out at alarming speeds – and even when the race hit the flat Cambridgeshire countryside, the pace was so slow en route to London that the third stage was running well behind ASO’s predicted schedule.
Clearly benefitting from this are the wildcard teams Bretagne-Seche and NetApp-Endura, both of whom fairly active so far. Indeed, the all-French Bretagne outfit have attacked from the outset of each stage – so expect to see more from them once the race takes to the roads of France.