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Tour de France stage 2: Hushovd takes yellow as Evans misses out by one second

Stage 2: Les Essarts, 23km team time trial

Garmin-Cervélo took victory in a nail-biting team time trial, allowing Thor Hushovd to depose Philippe Gilbert as the yellow jersey, with Cadel Evans missing out by just one second. Alberto Contador‘s Saxo Bank-Sungard team was eighth, 28 seconds down on the winners, but after yesterday’s unfortunate time loss he conceded further time to most of his key rivals. After the race’s opening weekend, he is already 1:41 behind Evans in third, and 1:38 behind Andy and Fränk Schleck and Bradley Wiggins.

Nine men, one objective

There are lots of fans out there who dislike team time trials, often citing that they can have a disproportionate impact on the general classification and unfairly penalise good riders with mediocre teams. Personally, I like them. They add variety and showcase the importance of teamwork which is critical to all races but is often not as obvious on other stages. In a team time trial, your star rider is only as strong as the weakest link on his squad, with the time of the fifth rider across the finish line being the one that counts.

HTC-Highroad’s Mark Cavendish is a big fan of the TTT, as he mentioned on Twitter this morning:

Love this event. It’s about nine guys getting the most out of the collective group, not each other. Real discipline and perfection needed.

This year’s team time trial was relatively short at 23km – enough to make a difference in timings, but not so much as to cripple those who performed poorly. Regardless of length, the tactics of such a stage are straightforward. The longer a team can keep its full complement of nine together, the faster they will be. Lose men too early, and the remaining riders will have to work harder to compensate, to the detriment of overall performance. It truly is an ‘all for one and one for all’ endeavour.

Garmin set the benchmark as everyone else falls agonisingly short

The 22 teams set off at seven-minute intervals in reverse order of the team classification, meaning Saxo Bank-Sungard had the disadvantage of going first. Attacking a largely flowing course aggressively – its most technical sections were at the start and finish – they set what would turn out to be a common pattern followed by most of the other teams. With the benefit of a tailwind all nine men drove together to the first checkpoint at 9km, after which the course started to turn into a headwind and the weakest two or three riders soon dropped off, ultimately leaving five or six to see it through to the finish. Saxo Bank – who had been expected to do well but not challenge for the win – recorded a time of 25:16.

This looked to be a decent effort without being spectacularly good, but we had to wait 35 minutes to benchmark it against the first of the top teams, Rabobank. The Dutch squad was quicker at both splits before stopping the clock at 25:00 to go top by 16 seconds.

David Zabriskie (right) leads his Garmin-Cervélo teammates to victory in the team time trial (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

World champion Hushovd can now add the yellow jersey to his collection

Three teams later came Garmin-Cervélo who, along with HTC-Highroad, Sky and RadioShack, were among the favourites to win the stage. Led by the unusual sight of road race world champion Thor Hushovd in the polka dot jersey, they were markedly faster at both checkpoints, setting a new fastest time of 24:48, at an average speed of 55.6kph. This provisionally put the Norwegian into the yellow jersey.

Garmin’s time was not seriously challenged until the top eight set off, but five of these would get within ten seconds of their benchmark. Sky, with their black-and-green squad led by the white jersey of Geraint Thomas and the national champion’s jerseys of Wiggins and Edvald Boasson Hagen, were actually a second quicker at the first intermediate, but faded slightly towards the end to finish four seconds off the pace, despite Wiggins pulling some monster turns on the front.

RadioShack gave up nine seconds in the first sector, but effectively held their own after that to come in at 24:58, which would ultimately be good for sixth place.

Eisel's crash effectively scuppered HTC-Highroad's chances of winning (image courtesy of highroadsports.com)

HTC-Highroad had won the team time trials at both this year’s Giro d’Italia and last year’s Vuelta a España, but their bid for a hat-trick of victories got off to a disastrous start when Bernhard Eisel, one of the key powerhouses in their line-up, crashed at the first corner and never regained his teammates. Time trial bikes, with their solid disk wheels, are not easy to negotiate at high speed around tight corners, but this was nonetheless an embarrassing and debilitating start – a bit like starting a football match with ten men. It spoke volumes for the discipline and power of the HTC team that they nevertheless finished just five seconds off Garmin’s time. If not for Eisel’s crash they would probably have won, as their pace over the closing kilometres with just six men was better than anyone else.

That left just the top three with Leopard-Trek, powered by Fabian Cancellara, the best time-trialist in the world, the only serious threat to Garmin’s supremacy. But even with Cancellara doing the work of two men on the front, they were seven seconds off Sky’s pace at the first checkpoint. And although they accelerated towards the end, they still finished four seconds short of Garmin and a fraction slower than Sky.

Cadel Evans set off needing to stop the clock at 24:51 or better to deprive Hushovd of the overall lead. His BMC squad is not widely acknowledged for their time trialling prowess but with George Hincapie, owner of one of the best diesel engines in pro cycling, and Evans highly motivated, they reached the first intermediate just a second slower than Garmin and kept their pace high all the way to the end. As their fifth rider finished, the clock had just broken 24:52. It was enough to edge out Sky for second place, but one tick shy of allowing Evans to seize the maillot jaune.

All that remained was for the Philippe Gilbert and his time trial-shy Omega Pharma-Lotto team to make it round in 25:27. 39 seconds behind Garmin, it was good enough for tenth and as high a finish as the team could have reasonably expected. But it left Gilbert without the yellow jersey, 33 seconds off the race lead and making it impossible for him to regain top spot even if he wins on the Mûr-de-Bretagne on Tuesday.

After the stage Hushovd was delighted with both his and his team’s achievement:

This is a great victory for the team. It’s one thing to win to be on the podium alone, but it’s great for morale to have the entire team to enjoy this victory. I am very happy to have this yellow jersey. To trade the rainbow jersey for the yellow jersey is something special.

Sky’s Geraint Thomas missed out on the opportunity to claim the yellow jersey for himself, but held on to the white jersey as the best-placed young rider:

We attacked it like we said we would and it was a great effort by everyone. We rode it well. We knew we were up [after the first checkpoint] but it wasn’t even a second and we lost two guys quite early. We are a bit disappointed as we really wanted to win but Brad [Wiggins] is still up there in the general classification and that’s what matters.

Gilbert was realistic about losing the race lead, but promised to focus on defending the green jersey for as long as possible:

It was a short day with just over 20 minutes of effort but also a difficult stage. Like many teams, we had riders who crashed yesterday so we were not 100% but we still gave it everything we could and there is nothing to regret.

Now I have the green jersey. It was not a goal but maybe, in the coming days, it can become another ambition.

Despite his unexpectedly poor start, Contador remained focussed on the task ahead:

We knew we’d lose some time today to the better teams. Yesterday was certainly not in the plans. The first two days didn’t go as we would have liked, but the objective remains the same. We just have to keep calm until we reach the mountains.

Overall, just 12 seconds separated stage winners Garmin from Rabobank in seventh. Euskaltel-Euskadi unsurprisingly propped up the timesheets, losing 1:22. This leaves Samuel Sánchez, fourth overall last year, already 2:36 off the pace. Other big losers included Ivan Basso and Damiano Cunego, who both lost about a minute.

Contador, too, will now be forced to be more attack-minded, with the best part of two minutes to make up on several of his major rivals. The pressure is squarely on the defending champion to avoid any further slip-ups before the Pyrenees, and we can probably expect him to try to snatch some time back on one or more of the hilly stages scattered throughout the coming week. It should add some additional tension to what was already looking like one of the more interesting opening weeks in recent memory, and that is no bad thing.

Stage 3 preview

Stage three sees the first true sprinters’ stage of this year’s race, as the peloton travels northwards into Brittany, 198km from Olonne sur Mer to Redon. Most of the day’s route – including the all-important final 2km – is pancake-flat, with a fourth-category climb barely worthy of note the highest point of the day at a mere 66m. However, the top riders will need to be wary of the risk of crosswinds coming in off the sea and causing splits in the peloton. Nonetheless this should finish in a bunch sprint and an opportunity for the fast men such as Cavendish, Petacchi, Greipel and Farrar to stretch their legs. Expect the GC contenders to be finish anonymously in the middle of the peloton. Which, if you’re Contador, would be no small achievement in itself.

Stage 2 result:

1. Garmin-Cervélo 24:48

2. BMC +0:04

3. Sky +0:04

4. Leopard-Trek +0:04

5. HTC-Highroad +0:05

General classification:

1. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 5:06:25

2. David Millar (Garmin-Cervélo) +0:00

3. Cadel Evans (BMC) +0:01

4. Geraint Thomas (Sky) +0:04

5. Linus Gerdemann (Leopard-Trek) +0:04

6. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +0:04

7. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) +0:04

8. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) +0:04

9. Manuel Quinziato (BMC) +0:04

10. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +0:04

Points classification:

1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 45 pts

2. Cadel Evans (BMC) 35

3. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 30

4. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) 26

5. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 22

Mountains classification:

1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 1 pt

Links: Tour de France official websiteSteephill.tv

Tour de France recaps

Stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages

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Tour de France stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 1: Passage du Gois La Barre de Monts to Mont des Alouettes Les Herbiers, 191.5km

The 2011 Tour de France got off to an eventful start as a crash-laden stage was won, as widely expected, by Philippe Gilbert. The acknowledged King of the Classics – he won the three Ardennes classics of Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in the space of eight days earlier in the season – may race in the black, yellow and red Belgian national champion’s jersey, but it might as well be a blue-and-red suit with a big ‘S’ emblazoned on the front when it comes to any race such as this one with a punchy uphill finish. Gilbert claimed his 13th win of 2011 and first ever at the Tour on a day when defending champion Alberto Contador, Samuel Sánchez and Ryder Hesjedal (fourth and seventh last year) were caught on the wrong side of a crash and lost over a minute to their key rivals for the yellow jersey.

The most wonderful time of the year

Regardless of the scandals, allegations and thinly veiled suspicions which continue to circle over the sport like vultures over a dying animal, there is something about France in the month of July to thrill the casual viewer and warm the heart of even the most jaded and cynical of fans. (Personally, I am somewhere between the two extremes.)

It is a time to marvel at the endurance and courage of these men who ride on all terrains and in all conditions – many of whom are paid less in a year than top footballers earn in a week – as they sweep through the telegenic French countryside and small villages dressed up in all their finery. From the familiar images of châteaux and sunflower fields to the farmers who create large-scale bicycles out of hay bales and ride quad bikes in circles to create the illusion of moving wheels just for the sake of the TV helicopters, there is no mistaking this is the Tour de France.

It is not so much a cliché as like being reunited with an old friend. The harsh realities of police raids and pending hearings can go and be damned for the next three weeks.

As seems to be the case in most years the race started in perfect weather conditions, with temperatures of 25°C and bright sunshine smiling upon the thousands of fans who had gathered in the Vendée region to welcome the 198-strong peloton on to the narrow tidal causeway of the Passage du Gois in the neutralised zone before the official start.

The peloton crosses the Passage du Gois before the official start of stage 1 (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Chute! Crashes galore on the first day of term

Straight from the flag, a three-man breakaway group formed. It came as no surprise to see a Europcar rider in the escape, as the team’s sponsor is based in the Vendée. Perrig Quemeneur was joined by fellow Frenchman Jérémy Roy of FDJ and Vacansoleil’s Lieuwe Westra. A disinterested peloton allowed them to shoot off into the distance as they wended their way south along the coastal road.

Other than the usual string of crashes resulting from first-day-at-school nerves – the first of which saw Omega Pharma sprinter André Greipel tumble to the ground while still negotiating the neutralised zone – this turned out to be a relatively straightforward day of bait-and-catch. The break built an advantage of 6:45 before the pack decided to ease them slowly back in, with the only excitement coming at the intermediate sprint.

A new system this year means the first 15 riders score points, with the leader earning 20. The revised rules add a new dimension to the mid-stage sprints, where previously only the top three were awarded points, meaning the break of the day generally swept up the bonuses. Here, however, after the break had taken the big points there were still 13 points available for fourth.

With the sprinters’ teams jostling for position, it appeared that HTC-Highroad’s Mark Cavendish was in pole position to take those points. However, he appeared not to go full gas and as Tyler Farrar swept past him to take fourth, he sat up and earned just five points for 11th place. It seemed an odd piece of decision-making by Cavendish, who was never likely to contest the uphill finish anyway and had little reason to conserve his energy.

The peloton continued to reel in the three breakaway men, completing the catch with 18km to go. Europcar then drove hard at the front of the pack to prevent any counter-attacks and to set up team leader Thomas Voeckler for an assault on the finish.

However, the decisive moment of the stage – and one which will seemingly shape the race deep into its second week – came with 9km to go, as an Astana rider in the middle of the peloton clipped a spectator who was leaning into the road and delayed all those behind him, including Contador. With the defending champion isolated – and with BMC and RadioShack forcing the pace at the front – there was no chance of the deficit being recovered, despite a further crash which delayed other key contenders such as Andy Schleck and Bradley Wiggins. That second crash, however, crucially occurred inside of 3km from the finish. After some initial confusion, race rules dictated they would ultimately be given the same time as the group they were with at the time.

Gilbert claimed his 13th win of a spectacular 2011 season

On the final 2km climb of the Mont des Alouettes, Omega Pharma took up the pace-making, and after speculative attacks by a Katusha rider and Alexandre Vinokourov, world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara surged out of the remaining pack of perhaps 25 riders with around 700 metres to go. Gilbert responded to the threat, calmly eased his way up to the Swiss rider’s wheel, and after a moment’s hesitation and a glance over his shoulder decided to accelerate onwards once he had caught his rival. Even though the slope of the final 200 metres took the sting out of his finish, the fast-closing Cadel Evans never drew near enough to seriously threaten him. The Australian was second, three seconds behind, while Thor Hushovd led the chasers across the line six seconds down on the stage winner.

Europcar, the ‘home’ team who had worked so hard throughout the stage, went away empty-handed as Voeckler’s effort faded in the closing stages. Contador limped home with the main pack 80 seconds in arrears of Gilbert, and more importantly 77 behind Evans and 74 behind the Schleck brothers and Wiggins. The Spaniard won last year’s race by just 39 seconds.

For Gilbert, the first yellow jersey of the race, victory was a dream come true:

I dream of winning big races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne but to win here in the Tour de France is something special. I’ve never won any stages [at the Tour]. I’ve never had this yellow jersey before so, for me, it’s a very good day.

We knew that Cancellara would go [where he did] because it was a perfect place for him – with his big power, he can come from behind – and it’s exactly what happened. I was ready to react and I never panicked, I just moved near to him and rode behind for a moment. When he stopped his effort I told myself, “I cannot hesitate any more.” I had to go then.

Evans was delighted with second place and his handy advantage over Contador:

First place is always better, but second is not too bad. It’s a good start, a pleasant surprise.

Contador’s Saxo Bank team boss Bjarne Riis was quick to minimise the effect of the accident:

It’s one of these unfortunate accidents that often occur in the beginning of the Tour de France. Alberto is simply unlucky now to be behind some of his opponents for the overall victory but the Tour has just begun and luckily, there’s a long way to go to Paris from here.

But a disappointed Contador conceded it was a significant time loss:

It was a difficult day. There was a lot of tension and we kept going forward. But at the time of the crash I was misplaced, the road wasn’t very wide and there were a lot of riders.

That’s cycling. The race goes on and I jut have to look to the rest of the race. Today it was my turn for bad luck, tomorrow it could be someone else’s. I’m going to stay optimistic and motivated, that’s the most important thing. Unfortunately in today’s cycling, races are lost and won by 1:15 and the time I’ve lost to my rivals will be hard to recover.

Already the race is beautifully set up. Contador may well lose additional seconds in tomorrow’s team time trial, which will put the onus on him to attack the moment the race hits the mountains. In the meantime Evans, the Schleck brothers and Wiggins now have an advantage in the days to come. It should certainly guarantee exciting racing in the days to come.

Stage 2 preview

The return of the team time trial will see the 22 squads tackle a short 23km course starting and finishing in the small town of Les Essarts in the heart of the Vendée. The route is pancake flat and not excessively technical, and should result in relatively small gaps between the teams (the time is taken from the fifth man to cross the finish line). No one is likely to lose more than 50-60 seconds on a course which the fastest teams should complete in under 25 minutes. However, the winning team is likely to see their lead man take the yellow jersey, which could have a significant bearing on the shape of the race for the rest of the week. HTC-Highroad – who have won the team time trials at the last two Grand Tours – Garmin-CervéloSky and RadioShack should be among the main contenders, which could well see Tony Martin, Hushovd, Geraint Thomas or Andreas Klöden donning the maillot jaune.

Stage 1 result and general classification:

1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 4:41:31

2. Cadel Evans (BMC) +0:03

3. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) + 0:06

4. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) same time

5. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) s/t

6. Geraint Thomas (Sky) s/t

7. Andreas Klöden (RadioShack) s/t

8. Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) s/t

9. Chris Horner (RadioShack) s/t

10. Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) s/t

Points classification:

1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 45 pts

2. Cadel Evans (BMC) 35

3. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 30

4. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) 26

5. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 22

Mountains classification:

1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 1 pt

Links: Tour de France official websiteSteephill.tv

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages

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