The opening week of the hundredth Tour de France has lived up to the billing.
With stunning scenery and full-gas finishes on Corsica, and drama by the bucket load in the Pyrenees, the race organisers have certainly kept their half of the bargain with a parcours equal to the occasion.
The riders have delivered, too. Each of the three sprint stars has bagged a stage win, and the pre-race favourite was forced to make a desperate defence of the maillot jaune on only his second day inside it.
As the riders recover on the first of just two rest days in this year’s 3403km odyssey, here are five observations on the ‘first week’ of the 2013 Tour de France.
Choppy waters for the good ship Sky
It’s rare to see such a total change in fortune for almost an entire squad, but Britain’s Team Sky went from dominance on stage eight to disarray on stage nine. One man steadied the ship under sustained assault from Movistar’s armada, but race leader, Chris Froome, will find the bridge a lonely place for the next two weeks if he is forced to steer it alone.
The safe harbour of a rest day hasn’t been reached a moment too soon by Brailsford’s crew, and it’s likely that first mate, Richie Porte, and cabin boy, Peter Kennaugh, will recover their sea legs. Vasil Kiriyenka, will not however. Chief stoker in Sky’s formidable engine room for most of the season, Kiri finished outside the time limit on stage nine has been cut adrift. The now-marooned Wiggins won last year despite the loss of a matelot (Kanstantsin Siutsou, still pedaling in this year’s edition), and Cap’n Froome will now have to do the same.
Sprint kings deliver
The mouth-watering subplot to this year’s contest for overall victory has been the battle for the maillot vert. On each occasion the three fastest men in the world have lined up to contest a bunch sprint, the result has remained in doubt until the crossing of the finish line.
Mark Cavendish, winner on stage five appears to be the fastest, but the mighty Lotto Belisol sprint train of Andre Greipel is a more efficient unit than the Manxman’s Omega Pharma-Quickstep lead out, and was instrumental in ‘the Gorilla’s’ stage six victory. Stage seven winner, Peter Sagan (Cannondale Pro Cycling), has already established a healthy lead in defence of his green jersey, but three second-placed finishes tell a story of a supremely talented all-rounder suffering against those dedicated to pure speed.
Tomorrow’s 197km stage from Saint-Gildas-des-Bois to Saint-Malo will offer a resumption of hostilities among the flat landers. We can hardly wait.
The Isle of Man’s newest star
It took an astonishing performance from Chris Froome to keep Peter Kennaugh from the headlines on stage eight. While the 24-year-old Manxman would perhaps have preferred it that way, his performance in leading Froome and Porte to the 2,001 metre summit of the Col de Pailhères and down its treacherous descent oozed star quality.
Another hugely talented product of British Cycling’s Academy, Kennaugh already has an Olympic gold medal in his jersey pocket from his role in the men’s team pursuit at London 2012. RCUK wondered aloud whether Dave Brailsford would select Kennaugh for Sky’s Tour squad after impressive performances in the Criterium du Dauphine. His decision to do so looks like another master stroke from Sky’s general manager, despite Kennaugh’s misfortune in crashing yesterday.
Irish eyes continue to smile on Dan Martin
In another era, one in which British riders weren’t routinely contesting the sport’s biggest prizes, Ireland’s Dan Martin would be rightly celebrated beyond the cycling press.
His victory on stage nine was magnificent in every respect: a perfectly timed attack from a group of GC contenders as the brutal La Horquette d’Ancizan reached its zenith, a fearless descent, and tactically astute final kilometre to outfox fellow escapee, Jacob Fuglsang (Astana), showcased all of the many skills of the Birmingham-born nephew of Stephen Roche.
Martin’s triumph at Liege-Bastogne-Liege was only the second by an Irish rider (the immortal Kelly bagged a brace in the 1980s), and his overall victory at the Volta a Catalunya proved his ability, physical and tactical, for stage races. The clamour for Martin to lead Garmin-Sharp at next year’s Tour has already begun.
Geraint Thomas: the Tour’s black knight
The history of the Tour de France is littered with riders who have refused to allow significant injury to displace them from cycling’s greatest race: Vacansoleil-DCM’s Johnny Hoogerland, for example, who in 2011 brushed aside the small matter of 33 stitches in his legs after being catapulted through a barbed wire fence by a car in the race convoy and rode on to Paris.
Geraint Thomas MBE has proved himself Hoogerland’s equal in the toughness stakes by paying scant regard to a fractured pelvis sustained in a crash on the opening stage last week. After interviewing the Welshman in May, we concluded that he might be the most laid back man in professional cycling. Events of the last nine days prove that he might also be the hardest.
Perhaps the ASO could introduce a new award in tribute to the Tour’s Black Knights: a figurine, perhaps, in the style of Oscar, but sans limbs and inscribed with the motto, “Tis but a scratch”. Thomas, like Hoogerland, would be a worthy winner.