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24 hours from the Tour de France

The title of the Gene Pitney song is actually 24 Hours from Tulsa, but what the hell? For both die-hard and occasional cycling fans, the biggest day in the sport’s cycling calendar is now just one day away. Tomorrow, in Liege in Belgium, the 2012 edition of the Tour de France begins. Three weeks of hell. Two wheels. One amazing race.

Will Sky’s Bradley Wiggins live up to his billing as the bookies’ favourite and become the first British rider to wear the coveted yellow jersey in Paris (let alone the first to finish on the Paris podium)? Or will Australia’s Cadel Evans be able to defend the title he won with such battling panache last July?

Will the combination of Mark Cavendish‘s preparations for the Olympic road race and Sky’s focus on Wiggins compromise his effectiveness as he seeks to add to his 20 Tour stage wins in defence of his green jersey? Or will we see a new sprint king crowned in Peter Sagan or perhaps Andre Greipel, Matt Goss or Mark Renshaw, all former teammates of Cavendish at HTC-Highroad?

Who will delight us with their daring attacks on the steep climbs and equally precipitous descents of the Alps and Pyrenees? And who will provide us with the drama and romance which featured protagonists such as French media darling Thomas Voeckler and Johnny ‘Barbed Wire’ Hoogerland?

In previous years I have provided stage-by-stage recaps and analysis here. However, all cycling coverage has now transferred over to our new dedicated site velovoices.com, where you will find full previews, daily recaps, stats and analysis throughout the next three weeks. Just click on the banner above and come and join us!

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The week in numbers: w/e 18/9/11

Djokovic improved his record against Nadal in 2011 to 6-0 in winning the US Open

6Novak Djokovic‘s 6-2 6-4 6-6 6-1 victory over Rafael Nadal in Monday’s US Open men’s singles final improved his 2011 record against the Spaniard to 6-0 and made him only the sixth man to win three Grand Slam singles titles in the same year, joining Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander, Roger Federer (three times) and Nadal.

97.0%Djokovic‘s win percentage in 2011, currently the best single-year record ever. He has lost just twice in 66 matches this year.

26Federer (12), Nadal (10) and Djokovic (four) have now won 26 of the last 27 Slams between them, dating back to the 2005 French Open. The only man to break the sequence is Juan Martín del Potro, who won the US Open in 2009.

77Lancashire won their first County Championship in 77 years after beating Somerset by eight wickets.

3AC Milan became only the third team in Champions League history to score in the first and last minutes, as they drew 2-2 at Barcelona. Alexandro Pato‘s opening goal after 24 seconds was the fifth-fastest in the history of the competition.

17 – Borussia Dortmund’s late equaliser in a 1-1 draw extended Arsenal‘s run of Champions League away games without a clean sheet to 17 games.

Giggs has now scored in 16 separate Champions League campaigns

16Ryan Giggs‘ goal for Manchester United in the 1-1 draw at Benfica means he has now scored in a record 16 of the 17 Champions League campaigns he has played in, failing only in 2007-08.

2Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake recorded the fastest times of 2011 in the 100 and 200 metres respectively at the Diamond League meeting in Brussels. Bolt clocked 9.76s in the 100 metres, while Blake’s 19.26s in the 200 metres was also the second-fastest run ever, 0.07s behind Bolt’s world record.

1Jonathan Trott became the first ever English cricketer to win the ICC Cricketer of the Year award outright. (Andrew Flintoff shared the award with Jacques Kallis in 2005.) Alastair Cook also won Test Player of the Year.

8Barcelona‘s 8-0 win over Osasuna in La Liga on Saturday night marked the first time they had scored eight times in a game at the Camp Nou since October 2003. Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick.

3 – The HTC-Highroad pair of Mark Cavendish and Mark Renshaw recorded three one-two wins during the Tour of Britain‘s eight stages. Cavendish won the final sprint in London to claim his second stage. Dutchman Lars Boom won the overall race by 36 seconds.

58:56 – Kenya’s Martin Mathathi broke the men’s record for the Great North Run, winning in a time of 58:56 – nine seconds faster than the previous record and the sixth-best half-marathon time ever.

The Premier League in numbers

3 – All three promoted sides won on Saturday: Swansea beat West Bromwich Albion 3-0, while QPR and Norwich won 3-0 at Wolves and 2-1 at Bolton respectively.

Arteta has scored for both Everton and Arsenal at Ewood Park this season (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

2Mikel Arteta‘s goal in Arsenal’s 4-3 defeat at Blackburn marked the second time he has scored in the Premier League at Ewood Park this season. He had already scored the only goal when Everton won 1-0 in August.

3 – Shots on target by Blackburn, who scored four goals.

373 – Scott Sinclair’s 14th-minute opener for Swansea was their first Premier League goal, ending a run of 373 minutes without scoring.

5Bolton‘s 2-1 defeat at home to Norwich means they have lost five consecutive top-flight home matches for the first time ever.

5Norwich equalled Wimbledon’s feat (in the 1999-2000 season) of conceding a penalty in each of the first five games of a season.

14Liverpool‘s 4-0 defeat at Tottenham, in which they finished with just nine men, was the 14th consecutive away game in which they have gone on to lose after trailing at half-time.

4Stoke‘s 4-0 defeat at Sunderland means they have failed to score in their four Premier League visits to the Stadium of Light.

5Wayne Rooney became only the second player to score in each of first five matches of a season, scoring the last of Manchester United’s goals in the 3-1 win over Chelsea. Former Arsenal player José Antonio Reyes was the first to achieve the feat, in 2004/05.

6Martin Jol remains unbeaten as a manager against Manchester City as Fulham recovered from two goals down to draw 2-2. However, the draw did end his perfect record of six wins out of six against City prior to yesterday’s game.

1 – Four of the five teams who started the weekend winless – Blackburn, Swansea, Sunderland, Norwich – won their matches. Only Fulham remain waiting for their first victory.

The Rugby World Cup in numbers

11 – Penalties committed by England in an ill-disciplined first half of their 41-10 win over Georgia. They conceded just three after the interval.

Shaw became England's oldest ever World Cup player

38 – At 38 years and 17 days, Simon Shaw became the oldest player to play for England at a Rugby World Cup.

0 – Number of tries scored in Scotland‘s 15-6 win over Romania.

1Russia lost 13-6 to the USA in their debut World Cup match, as Mike Petri scored the only try in the first half. It was also only the third ever win in the competition for the USA.

83New Zealand‘s 83 points in their 83-7 win over Japan was the 14th highest score in Rugby World Cup history. In total, they have posted six of the top 14 individual scores.

3Australia‘s 15-6 defeat to Ireland was only the third time they had failed to score a try in their 36 World Cup matches.

6South Africa and Argentina both scored six tries from six different players as they beat Fiji 49-3 and Romania 43-8 respectively.

The NFL in numbers

11 – New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady became only the 11th man to pass for over 500 yards in a single game as he registered 517 yards and four touchdown passes in a 38-24 Monday night win over the Miami Dolphins. One of Brady’s four touchdown passes was a 99-yarder to Wes Welker, a former Dolphin.

358 – However Brady did throw one interception, ending his NFL record streak without an interception at 358 pass attempts.

Janikowski tied the NFL record with a towering 63-yard FG (image courtesy of raiders.com)

63 – The Oakland Raiders’ Sebastian Janikowski tied the NFL record by kicking a 63-yard field goal in their 23-20 win over the Denver Broncos. New Orleans’ Tom Dempsey (in 1970) and Denver’s Jason Elam (1998) also landed 63-yarders.

5 – The Buffalo Bills scored on all five second half possessions as they overcame a 21-3 half-time deficit to beat the Oakland Raiders 38-35. The lead changed hands five times in the last 14:10, the last on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to David Nelson with 14 seconds remaining.

45 – The Detroit Lions‘ margin of victory in their 48-3 win over the Kansas City Chiefs was the largest in the team’s history.

16Santonio Holmes‘ first quarter score in the New York Jets‘ 32-3 win over Jacksonville broke his team’s streak of 16 consecutive games without an offensive touchdown in the opening period.

11 – Rookie running back Ben Tate became only the 11th player in NFL history to rush for at least 100 yards in his first two games as the Houston Texans defeated the Miami Dolphins 23-13. Tate gained 107 yards on the ground.

7 – Both Carolina Panthers rookie Cam Newton and New England’s Tom Brady had their second consecutive 400-yard passing days, becoming only the sixth and seventh quarterbacks ever to achieve the feat. Carolina have lost both games (they lost 30-23 to the Green Bay Packers last night); New England have won both (they beat San Diego 35-21).

(Some statistics courtesy of Opta Sports, The Times, StatManJon, Infostrada, nfl.com and rugbyworldcup.com.)

Tour of Britain stages 4-6: Boom extends his lead

The Tour of Britain‘s three most mountainous stages ended in contrasting sprints won by world champion Thor Hushovd, lead-out specialist Mark Renshaw and overall leader Lars Boom. Ahead of the final two flat stages and individual time trial Boom – a specialist against the clock with two prologue wins to his name this year – holds a commanding 28-second advantage over the field and has established himself as the odds-on favourite to defend the gold jersey all the way to Sunday’s finish in London.

Stage 4: Welshpool to Caerphilly, 183.7km

World champion Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) prevailed after the concluding first category climb of Caerphilly Mountain shattered the leading group ahead of the finish. Lars Boom (Rabobank) finished a strong second to preserve his overall lead.

An Post’s Pieter Ghyllebert was prominent in the day’s breakaway as he sought to consolidate his lead in the sprinters’ competition, which he duly did by winning at each of the three intermediates. He was joined in the escape group by Jack Bauer (Endura) and Kristian House (Rapha Condor). The trio established a 5½-minute lead until Sky started driving the chase behind, looking to set up Welshman Geraint Thomas for a win on home soil.

Ahead of his defence of the rainbow jersey, Hushovd showed he is in fine form with a strong win

The break was caught inside the final ten kilometres as the peloton headed for the steep final climb. Sky’s Steve Cummings was the first to attack, joined quickly by Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (Rapha Condor) as the bunch shattered behind them. They were gradually reeled in, and a selection of around 25 riders tackled the resultant descent together.

In the final sprint Hushovd took the final corner with around 200 metres remaining in first place, and easily held off Boom by at least four lengths to claim the win. Thomas was forced to slow as Hushovd beat him to the corner and finished 11th, although still in the same time as the stage winner.

With Mark Cavendish finishing in a chasing group 31 seconds down Thomas moved up to second overall, 12 seconds behind Boom. Boy van Poppel (UnitedHealthcare) is third at 14 seconds.

Stage 4 result:

1. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 4:32:22

2. Lars Boom (Rabobank) same time

3) Cesare Benedetti (NetApp) s/t

4) Ian Bibby (Motorpoint) s/t

5) Boy Van Poppel (UnitedHealthcare) s/t

Stage 5: Exeter to Exmouth, 180.3km

The best double act in the business – if comedy had the Two Ronnies, when it comes to cycling sprints their equivalent is the Two Marks – notched up yet another one-two on the HTC-Highroad farewell tour. But this time it was Mark Renshaw who raised his arms in victory as Mark Cavendish gifted his lead-out man the win in Exmouth.

The Devon stage featured three categorised climbs in quick succession in its first third before a long and largely flat run to the finish, and constantly ebbed and flowed for much of its length. Rapha Condor’s Jonathan Tiernan-Locke was the main protagonist early on, breaking away and collecting the maximum 22 points from the day’s three categorised climbs to take over the lead in the King of the Mountains competition. He was eventually caught by two chasing groups to form a 13-man escape. This in turn was reduced after the final sprint 26km from the finish to the trio of Alex Wetterall (Endura), Preben Van Hecke (Topsport Vlaanderen) and Damien Gaudin (Europcar).

Renshaw seized a rare moment in the limelight after a classy gift from teammate Cavendish (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

With HTC-Highroad – minus Alex Rasumssen, who was dismissed for missing a third doping control – and Garmin-Cervélo leading the peloton, last man Gaudin was left dangling off the front until being finally swept up with less than 4km left. In a frenetic run to the finish, Garmin took over the pace-setting with HTC keeping a watching brief, but were challenged at the front by both An Post and UnitedHealthcare, with the latter jumping to the front inside the last kilometre.

But as the leaders swung round the final right-hander on to the sea-front in Exmouth with 250 metres left, the familiar white-jerseyed pairing of Renshaw and Cavendish accelerated and took over. Renshaw opened up his lead-out as usual but Cavendish delayed his own sprint to hold the rest of the bunch at bay, allowing the Aussie to claim only his second individual stage of the year at a canter. Just to prove a point, Cavendish easily outsprinted the rest of the field to take second ahead of UnitedHealthcare’s Robert Förster and Sky’s Geraint Thomas. Thomas remains second overall, 12 seconds behind Lars Boom.

The finish was a classy gesture by Cavendish in recognition of Renshaw’s three years of service as the pilot fish nonpareil to the best finisher in the sport. It also made a point to the Australian selectors who have chosen not to include him in their squad for the upcoming World Championships.

Renshaw acknowledged Cavendish’s generosity after the stage, telling journalists:

I dare say he wasn’t giving 110% [at the finish]! There’s been a lot of times I’ve helped him to victories so it was great to see him help me win a stage.

The plan was to work for Cav like all the time. I made sure I was first through the corner at 250 [metres to go] and put the head down and went from there. I maybe put one or two lengths into him through the corner and he probably hesitated a second or two to give me a few metres advantage.

Stage 5 result:

1. Mark Renshaw (HTC-Highroad) 4:17:38

2. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) same time

3. Robert Förster (UnitedHealthcare) s/t

4. Geraint Thomas (Sky) s/t

5. Andrew Fenn (An Post) s/t

Stage 6: Taunton to Wells, 146km

Lars Boom strengthened his grip on the gold jersey by claiming his second win of the race after a crash-marred stage that climbed Cheddar Gorge before finishing in Wells.

There was plenty of early action, with the first King of the Mountains and sprint intermediates coming within the first 20 km. Climbing classification leader Jonathan Tiernan-Locke led a small break over the top of the opening third category climb before returning to the bunch. The key GC contenders then went after the three bonus seconds available at the first sprint. Boom already looked to be on his way to securing the maximum bonus when behind him second-placed Geraint Thomas attempted to squeeze into a small gap and appeared to touch pedals with sixth overall Ian Bibby (Motorpoint), causing the pair to go down heavily. Although Thomas eventually remounted and was able to regain the peloton after they neutralised racing, Bibby was forced to abandon and taken to hospital with a broken collarbone.

Boom is now firmly in command at the top of the GC after his second win

The day’s main breakaway subsequently formed, comprising Ben Swift (Sky), Lars Bak (HTC-Highroad), Mark McNally (An Post) and Paul Voss (Endura), although the Rabobank-led peloton kept them on a tight leash and never allowed them much more than one minute’s advantage. Swift yo-yoed off the back on the climb of Cheddar Gorge before being dropped on the descent, leaving the other three to continue out in front before being finally caught on the final first category climb of the race, Old Bristol Hill, with less than 30km remaining. Tiernan-Locke was first over the summit, ensuring victory in the King of the Mountains competition.

On the run-in to the finish the peloton shattered, leaving a front group of 21 including Boom to contest the finish, while a struggling Thomas found himself cast adrift in the main bunch. Endura’s Iker Camano launched a late solo attack, but he was reeled in before the final sprint. Garmin-Cervélo’s Gabriel Rasch and Julian Dean led into a tight right-hander with 200 metres to go. However both overcooked it, with Rasch piling straight into the barrier. Immediately behind them, Boom was able to profit from the resultant confusion to win the sprint as he pleased by at least six bike lengths ahead of Europcar’s Alexandre Pichot and NetApp’s Leopold König.

With his time bonuses and with Thomas finishing 1:24 down in the main bunch, Boom extended his overall advantage to 28 seconds over new second-place man König, with Garmin’s Daniel Lloyd now the best-placed British rider in third, a further second back. Thomas dropped out of overall contention to 12th overall.

With a comfortable cushion and his biggest strength, Sunday’s short time trial, to come, Boom is now in complete control of the race and should clinch overall victory barring an accident. Having won two stages and added a second place, there is no question that he has been the strongest and most consistent performer this week, and throughout today’s stage he was always well placed at the front of the bunch ready to cover any moves his rivals threw at him.

After five completed stages, the winners provide some insight into who is carrying good form into next week’s World Championships in Copenhagen. Boom will enter the time trial on a wave of confidence and form, and poses an outside threat in the road race. The latter, which is more suited to pure sprinters than in recent years, will see Mark Cavendish installed as the man to beat, backed by a very strong British team which includes Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins – second and third at the Vuelta a España – veteran David Millar, Thomas, Steve Cummings, Jeremy Hunt and Ian Stannard.

Stage four winner Thor Hushovd is sure to put in a strong defence of the rainbow jersey and Peter Sagan, who is not racing here but was the dominant sprinter at the Vuelta with three wins, will also feature at the sharp end. Neither can rely on a team as strong as Britain’s, but both will be riding on others’ coat-tails ready to pounce at the finish. Mark Renshaw will, of course, be absent from the Australian squad.

Stage 6 result:

1. Lars Boom (Rabobank) 3:19:02

2. Alexandre Pichot (Europcar) same time

3. Leopold König (NetApp) s/t

4. Jan Barta (NetApp) s/t

5. Steve Cummings (Sky) s/t

General classification:

1. Lars Boom (Rabobank) 20:13:18

2. Leopold König (NetApp) +0:28

3. Daniel Lloyd (Garmin-Cervélo) +0:29

4. Linus Gerdemann (Leopard-Trek) +0:31

5. Steve Cummings (Sky) +0:32

Link: Tour of Britain official website

Tour of Britain recaps

Stages 1-3: Manx Missile and Boom win explosive sprints

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

Vuelta a España: Sagan and Kittel debut wins promise end to Cavendish domination

Contrasting maiden Grand Tour stage wins by a pair of Vuelta a España debutants – Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel – punctuated what should have been a relatively quiet couple of days for the big names, but turned out to be anything but. A late team attack by the Liquigas team of defending champion Vincenzo Nibali on Thursday’s stage was followed by a crash within sight of the finish today to leave many riders cursing a combination of unexpected time losses and crash injuries.

Stage 6: Úbeda to Córdoba, 196.8km

Stage six to Córdoba saw a four-man break reeled in by the peloton with 27km remaining, just before the final second-category climb. Stuart O’Grady (Leopard-Trek) set a fierce pace on the front which soon had several riders hanging on desperately at the back, including the now familiar sight of a struggling Igor Antón. It’s safe to say now that the Euskaltel-Euskadi leader’s general classification hopes have vanished.

Defending King of the Mountains David Moncoutié predictably popped off the front to collect maximum points over the summit and was joined early on the subsequent descent by Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad), David de la Fuente (Geox-TMC) and Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick Step). However, with just under 10km to go to the finish, Liquigas launched a pre-planned attack, with four men – including 2010 champion Vincenzo Nibali – breaking away from the bunch at speeds touching 90kph and flying past the Moncoutié group. Only stage three winner Pablo Lastras – who had previously won in Córdoba back in 2002 – was able to go with them as the Liquigas attack put clear daylight between themselves and the other GC contenders.

Having executed their plan to perfection, you would imagine that in the final few kilometres there would have been a communication from the Liquigas team car to its four riders saying something along the lines of:

Right, we want Vincenzo to get as many bonus seconds as possible, ideally the 20 seconds for the win. So let’s set him up for the sprint. If he can’t beat Lastras, make sure none of you finish ahead of him so he gets second place and 12 seconds. Okay, everybody got that?

Sagan won a stage on his Grand Tour debut (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

But no. As the lead quintet approached the finish, the four Liquigas riders seemed unclear what to do and as Lastras opened up his sprint Sagan shot forward to cover the move and at least ensure the stage victory stayed within the team. Lastras crossed the line two lengths behind as Nibali, Valerio Agnoli and Eros Capecchi all looked at each other and, having already shot themselves in one foot, promptly put a bullet in the other as Agnoli took the four bonus seconds for third ahead of his team leader. It was, quite simply, a comedy of basic errors at the end of a superbly executed tactical move.

The key GC contenders all finished in one of two groups, either 17 or 23 seconds behind – red jersey Sylvain Chavanel was in the first of these – meaning a Nibali victory would have effectively doubled his gains and earned him enough time to put him into the overall lead.

At 21 years 203 days, Sagan claimed his first Grand Tour stage on his debut, making him the youngest winner at one of the three biggest races of the year since Heinrich Haussler at the 2005 Vuelta.

Stage 6 result:

1. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 4:38:22

2. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) same time

3. Valerio Agnoli (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

4. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

5. Eros Capecchi (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

Stage 7: Almadén to Talavera de la Reina, 187.6km

Today’s stage had ‘bunch sprint’ written all over it, and first year pro Marcel Kittel delivered not only his own maiden Grand Tour stage victory but a similar first for his Skil-Shimano squad in their sixth year of racing. However, the finish was marred by a massive high-speed crash near the front in the final 100 metres when Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervélo) drifted right as Michał Gołaś (Vacansoleil-DCM) edged to his left beside him. The two touched wheels, immediately went down heavily, and set off a domino effect which sent several other riders tumbling to the ground.

A first Grand Tour win for both Kittel and Skil-Shimano

Earlier, a four-man break had built a lead of nearly nine minutes, but on a flattish day with a predominantly downhill final 40km a mass finish was always going to occur. With the sprinters’ teams all jostling for position, Skil-Shimano moved decisively to the front under the flamme rouge and provided a strong lead-out for Kittel, who held off yesterday’s winner Peter Sagan by a bike length as the carnage unfolded behind him.

Leading contenders Vincenzo Nibali, Joaquim RodríguezMichele Scarponi and Jurgen Van den Broeck all came down in the crash – none appeared to suffer anything more than cuts and bruises – but red jersey Sylvain Chavanel was able to pull up in time to avoid being unseated. Farrar did not remount for several minutes and was taken to hospital immediately afterwards with muscular and tissue injuries to his left leg, but reportedly no broken bones. However, it seems likely he will be forced to abandon.

The crash held up more than half the peloton, but because it occurred in the final 3km everyone in the bunch received the same time. Even without the accident, Kittel would have won anyway as he was in pole position already. Chavanel retains his 15-second lead over Daniel Moreno, with both Nibali and Rodríguez in close attendance. That is likely to change after tomorrow’s finish in San Lorenzo, which features ramps of 27% and 28% on a climb which rises 200 metres in the final 2.4km.

An end to Mark Cavendish’s sprint domination?

For the past four years, the combination of the world’s fastest pure sprinter, Mark Cavendish, and cycling’s best lead-out train in HTC-Highroad have dominated the bunch finishes in every major race they have entered. Cavendish alone has won a remarkable 30 individual stages in nine attempts at the three Grand Tours in that period, while André Greipel added six more before leaving for Omega Pharma-Lotto last winter.

Degenkolb's departure from HTC-Highroad will add to the competition next year

However, HTC-Highroad is disbanding at the end of this season, and Cavendish and arguably the finest collection of sprint talent the sport has ever seen are being scattered across the professional peloton. That roster includes Matt Goss (winner of Milan-San Remo), lead-out man extraordinaire Mark Renshaw, and 22-year old John Degenkolb, who won twice at the Dauphiné and will be joining his compatriot Kittel at Skil-Shimano next year.

Cavendish has yet to confirm who he will ride for next year – Sky are assumed to be his most likely destination – but no matter where he goes he is unlikely to have the kind of well-drilled train that the likes of Renshaw, Goss, Tony Martin and Bernhard Eisel guaranteed him. The Manxman will still win races next year – and plenty of them – but the break-up of his team means the stranglehold he has had on flat stages, where his rivals have generally been racing only for second place, will be broken. That can only be a good thing for the sport.

Already this year we have seen Greipel, Farrar and Edvald Boasson Hagen win their first Tour de France stages, and the addition of Sagan and Kittel to the winner’s circle at Grand Tours will ensure a broader spectrum of potential winners at the biggest races next year.

At 23, Kittel is in his first season as a professional, but announced his presence immediately with a victory at January’s Tour de Langkawi. But it was at the Tour of Poland earlier this month where he really sprang to prominence, winning four stages with devastating final bursts. His win today was equally impressive.

The 21-year old Sagan is already in his second year, and emerged as the overall winner at the Tour of Poland after two stage wins and some dogged defensive climbing on the hillier stages. The Slovakian is well suited to finishes requiring power as well as speed, and had already enjoyed a hugely successful 2011 before the Vuelta, winning three stages at the Giro de Sardegna, one at the Tour of California and two at the Tour de Suisse. He is also a two-time stage winner at Paris-Nice.

The elite group of sprinters will soon be saying goodbye to veteran stalwarts such as Alessandro Petacchi and Robbie McEwen but now includes newcomers Kittel and Sagan. Add to that the established Greipel and Farrar, powerful classics men such as the Norwegian pairing of Thor Hushovd and Boasson Hagen and a number of others who are not quite in that top bracket but are all potential big race winners on their day – Degenkolb joins the likes of Daniele Bennati and J J Haedo in this category – the sprinters’ field looks deeper and stronger than it has done for several years. Bunch sprints in 2012 should be quite a sight to behold.

Stage 7 result:

1. Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano) 4:47:59

2.  Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) same time

3. Óscar Freire (Rabobank) s/t

4. Daniele Bennati (Leopard-Trek) s/t

5. Lloyd Mondory (AG2R La Mondiale) s/t

General classification:

1. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 27:29:12

2. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +0:15

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:16

4. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) +0:23

5. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:25

6. Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) +0:41

7. Maxime Monfort (Leopard-Trek) +0:44

8. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:49

9. Sergio Pardilla (Movistar) +0:49

10. Marzio Bruseghin (Movistar) +0:52

Points classification:

1.  Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 50 pts

2. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 48

3. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) 48

4. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 41

5. Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano) 41

Mountains classification:

1. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 20 pts

2. Chris Anker Sørensen (Saxo Bank-Sungard) 15

3. Koen De Kort (Skil-Shimano) 13

4. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) 10

5. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 10

Link: Vuelta a España official website

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Stage 2 recap & analysing the sprints

Chavanel leads as heat picks up in GC competition

Rodríguez floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee

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