Tour de France 2014: stage two - five observations
GC contenders show their strength as Vincenzo Nibali claims yellow jersey in Sheffield
by Colin Henrys
A tough, undulating stage from York to Sheffield always promised drama, but few could have foreseen how an enthralling stage played out in the white rose county.
Yorkshire pros such as Dean Downing, who is no stranger to the route, had already told of the brutal ascent of Jenkin Road, while climbs such as Holme Moss ensured any rider off form was quickly put in the hurt zone.
Shows of strength from the chief GC contenders – Chris Froome (Team Sky), Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) among them – certainly gave the millions packing the route something to shout about.
Ultimately it was the Shark, whose late attack earned him the yellow jersey, who took home the stage honours and an early psychological boost.
But what can we learn from the first battle of the GC men at this year’s Tour de France and from the Yorkshire Grand Depart in general?
Read our five observations over the following pages.
[part title="Vincenzo Nibali – shark attack"]
Written off in many quarters, his GC challenge considered a side story to the expected drama of Froome vs. Contador, Vincenzo Nibali took a sizeable bight from the reputations of his critics on stage two.
Flashes of form proved that The Shark was not lacking form in the same way as riders like Andy Schleck (Trek Factory Racing), but a perceived lack of consistency had caused concern among his supporters.
The Astana man looks to have geared his preparations perfectly, however – winning the Italian national road race a week before the Grand Départ of the Tour de France and carrying his form into the second stage.
Nibali showed the benefits of Astana’s strong line-up – Jakob Fuglsang having been the first to attack, before the Italian delivered a perfectly judged attack to take the stage.
It was reminiscent of their cat-and-mouse attacks at Paris-Nice, and this time resulted in huge success. We speculated at the time what impact it might have at the Tour – and it has proved a winning formula already.
Whether Nibali carries the yellow jersey into the mountain stages, or indeed wants to, with the cobbled stage five better suited to the likes of Greg van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale) instead, remains to be seen.
But having struck a telling early blow, Nibali has at least proved he should not be written off just yet.
[part title="Chris Froome – no fear"]
Stage two, we were told by one impeccably placed source, could be the stage on which some riders lost the Tour. So determined were the chief GC contenders to ensure that was not the case, however, that we were treated to a spectacular show of strength from all of them.
And chief among them was reigning champion Chris Froome (Team Sky), whose attack on Jenkin Road was reminiscent of a similar move in Corsica on stage two last year. With no ambitions for the stage, it was merely a reminder of just how dangerous he can be.
A solitary King of the Mountain point was the only visible reward for his efforts, but psychologically it was an unmistakable statement to his rivals.
His attack proved that not only was he physically unaffected by the crash he suffered at the Criterium du Dauphine, but also mentally. Froome is certainly not slowing down – as he proved by attacking again on the fiercely fast descent before settling for a place in the bunch.
Sprinting to sixth place in the bunch on stage one showed just how focussed he is on winning a second yellow jersey. His attack on stage two, meanwhile, shows just how capable he is.
[part title="Alberto Contador – show of strength"]
Alberto Contador has proved himself to be on top form already this season, his climbing ability reminiscent of the rider who has become one of the best Grand Tour riders of this generation.
And his show of strength on Jenkin Road proved that the ease with which he is climbing, and climbing well, has not abated.
Stage two provided the perfect test of legs for the GC men, and El Pistolero passed it with flying (fluorescent) colours.
Minus his chief lieutenant Roman Kreuziger, Contador still has a phenomenally strong support – with Michael Rogers and Nicolas Roche proving as much by featuring heavily in the leading group for much of the stage.
The team as a whole, meanwhile, have been happy to take their turn in the wind – even on stage one when the onus was on the sprint teams to set the pace – as they protected their team leader.
Contador started the race as number one in the UCI world rankings, and if the first two stages of this year’s race are anything to go by, it will take some doing to stop both him and his team.
[part title="The greatest Grand Départ"]
Estimates placed the crowds lining the route on stage one of the Tour de France in the millions, and the Yorkshire public proved it was not just a flash in the pan on stage two.
Again they packed the roadsides, seeking out the best vantage points in the villages and on many climbs ascended by the peloton en route to Sheffield.
We wondered aloud whether the scale of supporr is proof Britain is now a cycling nation, and perhaps it will not become clear until we get chance to assess the legacy.
But at the very least, Welcome to Yorkshire chief Gary Verity will be delighted by the weekend – and with the Tour of Yorkshire to look forward to next year, hopefully, the ASO already have a major new date in the diary to look forward to.
It is only the fourth time the Tour has travelled to British shores and the crowds have certainly not disappointed.
Riders spoke of problems with some fans encroaching on the road for dangerous photos, and a few isolated incidents saw fans taken to hospital.
But the fact we are even talking of such problems shows just how far British Cycling has come in recent years.
It was the Tour’s first visit to northern England, and we can only hope it will not be the last.
[part title="Peter Sagan – white knight"]
The disturbing image of a pair of unblinking eyes (coloured green, of course) staring out from the top tube of Peter Sagan (Cannondale) might be taken as evidence that the Slovakian star is in ruthless, determined mood ahead of this Tour.
But his actions on stage two suggest there is still a space for compassion in the psyche of the current wearer of the white jersey of best young rider.
Asked post-stage why he had not followed Vincenzo Nibali’s attack, he claimed it was because he knew he would bring the rest of the leading group with him if he did – foiling his friend and former team-mate’s chance of victory in the process.
How true those words are, or whether they are just PR code for ‘I didn’t go because I couldn’t’ only Sagan will know.
But if true, it suggests the Cannondale man believes that more opportunities to claim the yellow jersey lie just around the corner.
Two almost pan-flat stages will make it unlikely that Nibali will surrender the jersey until at least stage five – the cobbled stage – so perhaps it is then that Sagan intends to strike?
A career-best sixth place at Paris-Roubaix this year shows it is not just the punchier cobbled Classics at which he excels, and along with BMC Racing hardman, Greg van Avermaet – the duo currently second and third overall – it appears the perfect stage for one of them to claim a maiden yellow jersey.