What a difference 24 hours – not to mention 13.2 kilometres of cobbles – can make to a bike race. Following the controversy of Monday’s stage as the peloton protested what many riders saw as dangerous conditions in the Ardennes, yesterday saw drama, crashes and some immense performances as the Tour de France came to the roads made famous by perhaps cycling’s most iconic one-day race, Paris-Roubaix.
While Monday’s race had no impact on the general classification or points competition, the opposite was true yesterday, with an epic stage that covered 213km from Wanze to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut seeing some big names shine while others stuttered, and confirmation of the continued progress at the very highest level on the road of Britain’s Geraint Thomas.
Among the winners was Cervélo TestTeam, still smarting after the effective neutralisation of Stage 2 on Monday cost Carlos Sastre the chance to put some time into general classification rivals, and Thor Hushovd the opportunity of picking up some vital points in the points competition.
That had resulted in some bitter words on Monday evening, but yesterday the team got to celebrate the Norwegian claiming their first stage victory of the 2010 Tour.
Hushovd’s win puts him on 63 points and back into the green jersey as he seeks to repeat his success of last year, and with HTC-Columbia’s Mark Cavendish having secured a solitary point to date, the Manxman is in desperate need of a win today to kick-start his campaign.
The other man viewed as a pre-race threat to Hushovd, Tyler Farrar of Garmin-Transitions, has fared little better than Cavendish, standing on just four points after his rear derailleur was snapped on the run-in to the line on Stage 1, and is now nursing a fractured hand following his crash in the Ardennes on Monday.
Speaking immediately after the podium presentation, the Norwegian was quoted on the Tour de France website as saying: "My team worked hard without being rewarded yesterday, but today I managed to win the stage and it’s a great satisfaction. Yesterday, I did not agree with the decision to cancel the allocation of points, but this morning I said that it is already ancient history, and I totally refocused on the race.”
Hushovd added that he had specifically targeted the stage some time ago, “because I know my strength on the pavé, and I knew I had a chance to be a factor. So, I decided to ’go to war’ for this stage. It’s not always so simple though because even the best plans can come undone in an instant on the cobbles. And you must be fit. Today I had everything.”
He acknowledged, however, that it is still early days in the points classification, and that eventual success in Paris cannot be taken for granted. “This is a first step for the green jersey. I know that for now, I’m glad I did what I did, and I still have the means to defend the jersey for long. My team is very strong, and I feel very fast, so I think I can still win other stages."
The losers included Team RadioShack’s Lance Armstrong, who began the stage with a five-second advantage over former Astana team-mate and defending champion Alberto Contador, but came in 55 seconds behind the Spaniard after suffering a puncture.
“It’s the nature of the sport,” conceded the Texan afterwards, according to a report on Yahoo! Sports. “Sometimes you’re the hammer, sometimes you’re the nail. Today I was the nail, I have 20 days now to be the hammer.”
An appropriate metaphor, perhaps, for someone whose travails resulted from a puncture picked up on the cobbles, albeit one most likely caused by a shard of gravel rather than a tack, but, if anyone was the hammer today, it was Hushovd – it is his nickname, after all.
Talking of his chances of winning the race for an unprecedented eighth time, Armstrong confessed: “They’ve dropped. No doubt. We lost significant time. We just have to keep our heads up and to take our chances on the climbs.”
Meanwhile, it was a day of extreme contrast in fortune for Team Saxo Bank. Fabian Cancellara, who had sacrificed his yellow jersey in Spa on Monday, got it back as he put in a storming ride at the front of the main group, though he was helped by the fact that Monday’s winner and overall leader Sylvain Chavanel of Quick Step, had the misfortune to puncture twice.
Cancellara, riding the same bike that he won Paris-Roubaix on just three months ago, also towed Andy Schleck through the closing stages, enabling the Luxembourg rider to more than make back the time he lost on Saturday’s Prologue. However, those achievements were overshadowed by the older Schleck, Fränk, crashing onto the cobbles and out of the race with a broken collarbone.
“When you choose to include cobbles in the race, you also choose to include huge risks for the riders,” said team owner Bjarne Riis, quoted on its website. “Undoubtedly, we're gonna miss Fränk in the mountains, but that's life and that's the way the race is. The whole team did a tremendous job out there today and Fabian and Andy's performance was simply exceptional.”
One of the team’s Danish riders, Matti Breschel, said: “We sacrificed the whole team on today's stage and I think we showed everyone that we are the strongest team in the peloton. Personally, I felt great being back on the cobbles and we can be satisfied with the outcome of the stage if you don't count the unfortunate crash by Fränk.”
A glance at the team classification supports Breschel’s view, with Team Saxo Bank currently occupying first place by 11 seconds from Garmin-Transitions, an impressive result for the US team given the crashes and injuries that have affected them.
But for British fans at least, it’s the third-placed team that catches the eye – Team Sky, contesting its first Tour de France, 25 seconds behind the leaders but just shy of two minutes ahead of fourth-placed Astana.
While team leader Bradley Wiggins crossed the line as part of the second group home yesterday, finishing eighth to move up to 14th overall, it was Geraint Thomas who stole the limelight.
The 24-year-old Welshman finished behind Hushovd and in front of World Champion Cadel Evans to move into second place in both the general and points classifications, as well as leapfrogging HTC-Columbia’s Tony Martin to the top of the young riders’ competition.
Thomas, who today swaps the British National Champion’s jersey he won just ten days ago for the best young rider’s white jersey, told the Team Sky website: "It was a massive buzz going across the cobbles with Cancellara, Thor and Cadel."
"You don't get a better group than that,” he continued. “Having the national champion's jersey on my back, and being in the front group with the world champion and some of the other big riders, was amazing. The atmosphere was amazing, too. I'm going to remember that for a while.”
He continued: "The white jersey's a nice bonus, and I'm going to enjoy that tomorrow, but I'm here for Brad."
Indeed, with Wiggins held up behind the crash that ended Fränk Schleck's race, Thomas thought of going back to help his team leader, explaining: "I was in two minds about going back to help Brad but Sean [Yates] told me to stay in the front group."
Not that Thomas is a novice to the cobbles – he won the junior version of Paris-Roubaix in 2004, although as he admitted following yesterday's stage, “It was a bit different being with the big boys, but I get over the cobbles pretty well. It was a good day - I enjoyed it."
With three pretty flat stages until the Alps loom into view on Saturday, Thomas – he was also hugely impressive in last month’s Tour of Switzerland – is set to remain in the white jersey at least until the weekend.
"It's possible I could keep it for a bit," he acknowledged. "But it's all about helping Brad - that's what I'm here for. Today was a good day for the team. Confidence and morale is good, and we're enjoying racing together."
After the drama of the past few days, today’s stage, covering just 153.5km from Cambrai to Rennes, is almost certain to finish in a bunch sprint, and will have been circled in red in Mark Cavendish’s diary ever since this year’s route was announced.
World Champion Cadel Evans, third on yesterday’s stage and now occupying the same position on the general classification, no doubt spoke for many when he wrote on his blog that today’s Stage 4 “will HOPEFULLY see an end to the chaos we have experienced so far,” adding that he predicted “a short intense day for the sprinters.”
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.