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Tour of Britain stages 1-3: Manx Missile and Boom win explosive sprints

A cancelled second stage of the Tour of Britain (due to the effects of Hurricane Katia) was sandwiched by a contrasting pair of sprint victories by ‘Manx Missile’ Mark Cavendish and Rabobank time trial specialist Lars Boom. Both finishes underlined the importance of effective teamwork as HTC-Highroad manoeuvred Cavendish into position to take an easy stage one win, while bungled team tactics by Sky contributed significantly to Boom’s victory.

Stage 1: Peebles to Dumfries, 170.3km

In cool, damp conditions about as far removed as it is possible to get from the extreme heat which forced him out of the Vuelta a España, there was to be no raining on Cavendish‘s parade as he headed a convincing one-two for HTC-Highroad.

The strongest ever line-up at the Tour of Britain set off from Peebles boasting both Cavendish, the sport’s dominant big race sprinter, and the world champion’s jersey of Garmin-Cervélo’s Thor Hushovd. Also present in the 95-strong field were fan favourite Jens Voigt (Leopard-Trek) and a strong British contingent led by the Sky trio of Geraint Thomas, Ben Swift and 2008 runner-up Steve Cummings.

Renshaw's lead-out skills set up an easy win for Cavendish (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The stage through the Borders region took in three third category climbs, including the wonderfully named Devil’s Beef Tub, before a finishing loop into Dumfries. A two-man break of Russell Hampton (Sigma Sport) and Pieter Ghyllebert (An Post) built an early lead of over six minutes before the inevitable chase led by HTC and Sky organised itself, which reeled in the pair with 10km remaining despite a pause after a crash brought down several riders and forced Voigt to abandon with a broken finger.

The charge to the finish was complicated by wet roads, a sharp right-hand corner at 250 metres to go and the fact that six-man teams make it difficult for any one team to have enough numbers to chase down a break and then provide a full lead-out for their sprinter. HTC-Highroad had been prominent in the chase, with Matt Brammeier, Alex Rasmussen and then Lars Bak driving the peloton forwards, with the familiar team of Bernhard Eisel and Mark Renshaw holding back to pilot Cavendish through to the finish. They and Rabobank led the way into the last kilometre, with Cavendish glued to Renshaw’s rear wheel.

The Aussie held back, allowing the Rabobank pair of Lars Boom and Theo Bos to lead into the final corner before hitting the afterburners to move his teammate into position to launch the final sprint, at which point the result was settled. Cavendish won by around three lengths, with Renshaw cruising over the line in second ahead of Bos. Sky’s Thomas and Swift were fifth and seventh respectively.

Cavendish later paid tribute to the large crowds who had lined the route despite the inclement conditions:

We had wicked support today. The amount of cheers and banners along the stage was brilliant. It’s very different to when I last raced here in 2007. It’s very nice. This event is certainly growing.

The win marked the 500th victory for HTC-Highroad’s senior men’s and women’s squads in less than four years. They have won more races than any other team over that period but will disband at the end of the 2011 season. Having delivered so many of those wins himself, it was fitting that Cavendish should register this significant milestone and become the first wearer of the race leader’s gold jersey.

Stage 1 result:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 4:41:06

2. Mark Renshaw (HTC-Highroad) same time

3. Theo Bos (Rabobank) s/t

4. Barry Markus (Vacansoleil-DCM) s/t

5. Geraint Thomas (Sky) s/t

Stage 2: Kendal to Blackpool, 137.7km

The stage was cancelled due to concerns over rider safety after heavy winds and rainfall had scattered debris over parts of the day’s route. The riders completed a parade lap around Kendal to reward fans who had shown up to watch the start.

Stage 3: Stoke-on-Trent, 140km

On a difficult windy day, Lars Boom led Rabobank teammate Michael Matthews across the finish line to take both the stage and the gold jersey after a 28-man group had created a decisive split over the rest of the peloton. British riders occupied the next five places as Sky’s Geraint Thomas and Steve Cummings squeezed Mark Cavendish into fifth.

The day’s initial break again included Sigma Sport’s Russell Hampton. He was joined by Andrew Fenn (An Post) and Boy Van Poppel (UnitedHealthcare), as the trio build a lead of 3½ minutes approaching the mid-point of the stage. Shortly after, Sky ramped up the pace to reel in the break which, coupled with stiff crosswinds, caused the peloton to fracture into several groups. The lead chase group of around 25 riders included Boom and Matthews, Cavendish and all six Sky riders. They soon caught the earlier break and were able to maintain a decisive advantage over the rest of the peloton.

Boom profited from Sky's tactics to neutralise Cavendish

With a clear numerical advantage, Sky’s plan for negating Cavendish was to send Alex Dowsett out on an individual attack with 17km remaining. He quickly built a dangerous 25-second lead, forcing others in the group to burn energy leading the chase while the other Sky riders were able to benefit from a free ride. After a draining pursuit, Dowsett was eventually caught with about a kilometre to go. In a scrappy run in to a twisting finish, Sky set up to lead out the sprint but were taken by surprise as Boom – whose normal role is as a time-trialist and a lead-out for others – hit the front into the closing S-bends and led teammate Matthews to take the win.

Boom later confirmed the original plan had been to lead out Matthews, but was delighted to have won anyway as he seemed to be much stronger than his teammate over the long final sprint:

With 200 metres to go I managed to jump over Cummings and Thomas and then the corners started so they couldn’t pass us any more.  My first aim was to pull for Michael (Matthews) and then I felt good so I am happy to win.

We knew that you can’t bring HTC and Cavendish or the Sky boys to the finish.  We knew we would have to surprise them, and we managed to do that. I am going to try and defend the jersey and win the overall, that is the goal now.

It was a somewhat embarrassing finale for Sky, whose force of numbers should have enabled them to set up a decisive lead-out for either Geraint Thomas or Ben Swift having gained the tactical advantage by putting Dowsett out front on his own.

With the main peloton finishing nearly four minutes behind, the overall race winner will now almost certainly come from the group of 25 riders clustered within 39 seconds of overall leader Boom. The next three days’ racing will further shape the general classification, with each day featuring at least one first category climb. Stage four tomorrow takes the race down through Wales, crossing the Brecon Beacons before finishing in Caerphilly. Stage five through Devon features three categorised climbs in succession in the first third of the route. And finally Friday’s sixth stage includes two tough first category climbs in the last 60km before finishing in Wells. By then the field of genuine contenders should have been reduced to a handful.

Stage 3 result:

1. Lars Boom (Rabobank) 3:23:42

2. Michael Matthews (Rabobank) same time

3. Geraint Thomas (Sky) s/t

4. Steve Cummings (Sky) s/t

5. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) s/t

General classification:

1. Lars Boom (Rabobank) 8:04:35

2. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) +0:03

3. Geraint Thomas (Sky) +0:06

4. Michael Matthews (Rabobank) +0:07

5. Boy Van Poppel (UnitedHealthcare) +0:08

Link: Tour of Britain official website

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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