Is this the greatest Tour de France ever? It’s a question that many people have been asking, and with nine days’ racing over and 12 still to come, the simple answer is that it’s far too early to tell.
What is clear, though, is that this has been one of the most dramatic opening weeks the race has seen in recent years, and today’s rest day provides an opportunity to draw breath and look back on what has been an absorbing, exciting and at times astonishing week’s racing, with no end of sub-plots.
Prologue: Rotterdam – Rotterdam (8.9km)
Cancellara powers his way to yellow while rain hits Wiggo’s hopes
Team Saxo Bank’s Fabian Cancellara told UCI officials brandishing equipment to test his frame for a concealed motor that they’d be better off using it on his body, declaring “Le moteur, c’est moi!” after coming within half a second of being the only man to break ten minutes on a technical circuit around the Dutch port.
The last but one rider on the course, Cancellara’s winning ride – the Swiss powerhouse has now won the Prologue on each of the last four occasions the race has started outside France – caused heartbreak for HTC-Columbia’s Tony Martin, who had set the best time of the day very early on and had patiently waited as 185 riders tried and failed to beat him, although he did have the consolation of taking the young riders white jersey.
A good day, too, for two British riders, with David Millar coming home third, and Geraint Thomas of Team Sky fifth. But the big yellow jersey hope among UK fans, Bradley Wiggins, took a gamble on the weather that spectacularly misfired as his early departure coincided with the worst of the rain, leading to him having to take the corners gingerly as he lost valuable time.
Stage 1: Rotterdam – Brussels (223.5km)
Millar dogged by misfortune and Cav comes a cropper as Petacchi takes the sprint
Alessandro Petacchi of Lampre-Farnese Vini joined the likes of Laurent Jalabert, Bernard Hinault and Freddy Maertens by winning in Brussels, visited by the Tour more often than any other city outside France, this being the 12th occasion.
But on a day when crosswinds were expected to wreak havoc as the race rode through the polders of Zeeland, instead it was crashes that made the headlines, three of those taking place within the closing couple of kilometres.
The first involved Mark Cavendish as the sprinters and their leadout men fought to hold their line on the last corner, the second blocked the entire finishing straight, meaning that only 20 or so riders contested the finale, and the third ruined Tyler Farrar’s rear derailleur as the Garmin-Transitions rider prepared to celebrate the Fourth of July by taking the sprint.
Earlier, in a portent of a the calamities that lay ahead for the Colorado-based team, Farrar’s colleague David Millar, wearing the green jersey, was felled together with Giro d’Italia winner Ivan Basso by a dog that had got free from its owner – not that it appeared to have been on a lead to begin with. The dog has since been reported to be making a good recovery.
Stage 2: Brussels – Spa (201km)
Anarchy in the Ardennes but Chavanel reigns on crash-strewn day
This was the first of two stages that paid homage to the Spring Classics with today’s route taking in chunks of the Liège-Bastogne-Liège route, and Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel, who had fractured his skull in that race less than three months ago, proved the strongest survivor of a breakaway as he rode away to the stage win and the yellow jersey.
Behind him, however, there was chaos as an oil spill, apparently from a motorbike, resulted in almost half the peloton being involved in crashes on the descent of the Category 2 Col du Stockeu some 30km from the finish.
If there were a team combativité prize, it would have gone to Garmin-Transitions. Pretty much all of its riders came down at some point and three team members ended up in hospital, with Christian Vande Velde completing the stage but later abandoning due to broken ribs, while Tyler Farrar decided to race on despite a fractured wrist.
Meanwhile, Fabian Cancellara assumed the mantle of Patron du Tour and led a go-slow by the peloton to allow those riders that had crashed to regroup. Beneficiaries included Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong, but more significantly – and perhaps the true reason behind the Swiss rider’s willingness to sacrifice his maillot jaune for the greater good – his team mates and strong GC hopes, the Schleck brothers, who had been at risk of taking a significant hit in terms of time.
Stage 3: - Wanze – Arenberg Porte de Hainaut (213km)
Fränk Schleck crashes out as Hushovd puts down the hammer amid chaos on the cobbles
If yesterday’s stage evoked memories of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, today’s bore the signature of Paris-Roubaix, and on a day of drama fitting of the Hell of the North, celebrations in the Team Saxo Bank camp of Cancellara getting back into the maillot jaune and Andy Schleck putting time into Alberto Contador were muted die to the other Schleck sibling, Fränk, seeing his race end after breaking a collarbone after falling on the cobbles.
Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas stormed home with a leading group that also included world champion Cadel Evans to swap his British national champions’ jersey for the best young rider’s white jersey, while Thor Hushovd took the stage win to begin his defence of the green jersey in earnest.
Sylvain Chavanel’s brief hold on the overall leader’s yellow jersey ended, however, as the Quick Step rider twice suffered a puncture in the closing kilometres, and among the GC contenders, Lance Armstrong too fell victim to the puncture fairy.
Stage 4: Cambrai – Reims (153.5km)
Petacchi wins again with Cavendish off the pace
After the drama of the previous two days, today marked a return to a more typical first week sprinter-friendly stage, and so it proved as the peloton swept up the day’s breakaway inside the final kilometres as HTC-Columbia’s train set up the inevitable Mark Cavendish sprint victory.
However, perhaps as a result of the on and off the bike incidents that had dogged the Manxman’s build up to the race, he ran out of power just when it mattered most, and instead it was Alessandro Petacchi who crossed the line first to take his second stage of this year’s race, and the sixth Tour de France stage win of his career.
Meanwhile Garmin-Transitions’ Julian Dean claimed second place behind Ale-Jet as he fulfilled the role of team sprinter with Tyler Farrar, nursing his fractured hand from two days previously, forming part of his leadout team.
Stage 5: Epernay – Montargis (187.5km)
Third time lucky for Cavendish as he powers his way to win
If Mark Cavendish’s rivals thought he was a spent force in this year’s Tour de France, the HTC-Columbia man proved them and other critics wrong as he put the disappointments of Brussels and Reims behind him with a storming finish in Montargis.
Garmin-Transitions had led the peloton into the last corner of a twisting closing couple of kilometres that for once passed without mishap, but after the riders had passed under the flame rouge, it was Mark Renshaw who powered through to deliver Cavendish to the front and this time, the latter’s finishing was clinical as he picked up the 11th Tour de France stage win of his career.
With tears spilt on the podium, there was no doubting how much this one meant to him as the injuries, illnesses and other problems of the last few months were forgotten.
Stage 6: Montargis – Guegnon (227.5km)
Back-to-back wins for Cavendish as sprinters fight it out
It was 2009 revisited as once again Renshaw timed his lead out perfectly to tee Mark Cavendish up for his second stage win in two days, but Garmin-Transitions were frustrated as Tyler Farrar, this time feeling up to contesting the sprint rather than aiding Julian dean, finished second.
On the longest stage of this year’s Tour, a three man breakaway spent more than 200 kilometres out in front before being reeled in by a nervous peloton as sidewinds threatened to split the field on the run in to the finish.
Afterwards, Cavendish admitted that the unease the wind caused in the peloton as the main GC contenders moved up to the front of the bunch had probably played into HTC-Columbia’s hands as they were able to take control of the front of the race, but with only a handful of potential sprint stages remaining in this year’s race, the big question is whether his return to form has come too late for him to close the gap on Thor Hushovd and Alessandro Petacchi for the green jersey.
Some of the biggest drama took place after the end of the stage, however, as Rui Costa of Caisse d'Epargne and Carlos Barredo of Quick Step set about each other with flailing arms, while Robbie McEwen of Katusha was taken out by a TV cameraman after crossing the line fourth and would struggle to make it through the following day's stage.
Stage 7: Tournus – Station des Rousses (165.5km)
Chavanel solos his way back into maillot jaune
It’s not Bastille Day until Wednesday, but today’s stage may be as good as it gets for French fans this year, with the Quick Step duo of Sylvain Chavanel and Jerome Pineau providing the fireworks as the race headed up into the Jura Mountains.
Pineau had warned the previous evening that he planned on getting into an early break as he sought to hold on to the polka dot jersey for as long as possible with the Alps coming into view, and proved good to his word, cresting the first five of the day’s six climbs ahead of the field until he ran out of steam on the sixth.
The man to take up his mantle at the front of the race was Chavanel, who had broken free from a chasing group and put in a fine solo effort up the day’s last ascent to put himself back in the maillot jaune for another 24 hours as Cancellara once again surrendered the jersey in the mountains.
Behind Chavanel, the main contenders for the overall title marked each other closely, but after an excellent opening few days, Geraint Thomas of Team Sky found the going too tough and dropped off the back, with the white jersey passing to Andy Schleck, who is looking to equal Jan Ullrich’s record of winning it three times – although, of course, he has his eyes on a bigger prize too.
Stage 8: Station des Rousses – Morzine-Avoriaz (189km)
Armstrong cracks as Andy Shleck takes stage and Evans moves into yellow
If Morzine in 2006 will forever be remembered as the stage where Floyd Landis put in the race of his life that turned out to be fuelled by testosterone that was not entirely of his body’s own making, Morzine-Avoriaz 2010 will go down in history as the day his former team leader turned arch-nemesis Lance Armstrong cracked.
Two crashes, the more serious with just 50km left to go as the race headed towards the penultimate climb of the first day in the high mountains left the Team RadioShack rider exposed, and it was his former team, Astana, who turned the thumbscrews.
By the time he came home nearly 12 minutes down on the main GC contenders, Armstrong – and millions following the race on TV – knew that this was one time there would be no comeback.
There was drama up ahead, too. Just how decisive Andy Schleck’s attack under the flamme rouge that left all but Euskaltel’s Samuel Sanchez gasping may not be known until the race finishes in Paris in two weeks’ time.
What may prove crucial come the end of the Tour is not so much the 10-second time advantage that Schleck gained on Alberto Contador, but rather the psychological impact on the Spaniard after he tried, and failed, to grab Sanchez’s wheel when the attack came.
Besides Armstrong, the other big GC challenger to miss out was Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins, dropped with just over 3km to go, who came home the best part of three minutes behind Schleck, and now lies nearly four minutes behind Cadel Evans, who claimed the yellow jersey as Chavanel, too, found the pace too hot to handle in the baking Alpine sun.
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