The first question a lot of people were asking about the opening week of this year’s tour was whether Mark Cavendish could win without his HighRoad train. That’s been answered, but had already been replaced by a new one: just how good is Peter Sagan? Back in their preview of the World Tour squads, Cycling Weekly referred to him as a ‘one man race demolition machine’, and while it doesn’t fit as neatly on a top tube as ‘Tourminator’, it’s a fair description of his ability.
So far, we’ve had two stages with uphill finishes, and he’s demolished the opposition in both of them, even managing to get a one-second gap on his pursuers yesterday despite the Forrest Gump impression at the line. On flat sprints, he doesn’t quite seem to have the speed to catch Cavendish and the other top-end sprinters, but he is still only 22. Until we hit the really big mountains, it’ll be interesting to see how he does as the hills start getting longer and steeper – can he hold on and still deliver the power when the climbs are a few kilometres long?
Yesterday saw the first retirements from the race, and both might have ripple effects further down the line. Jose Joaquin Rojas was Movistar’s lead sprinter (and Cavendish’s main rival for green last year) and no longer having him in the squad may limit how much work they’ll want to do on flat stages. Though watching his team mate Gutierrez put the hammer down at the front of the peloton while Rojas lay on the ground behind made me wonder how good their team communication is. Also potentially important is Sky’s loss of Kanstantin Sivtsov. They’ve been having a scrappy first few days despite Cavendish’s win, and losing one of their big-engine domestiques could hurt them later in the race, as it will put a lot more work on Christian Knees and Bernie Eisel if they’re required to power the peloton in chasing down breaks later.
Today’s stage looks relatively straightforward – a bumpy ride across some category 4 climbs then a descent into Rouen for a sprint finish. However, those category 4 climbs are all on a coast road, and the weather’s not necessarily the best for a ride by the sea. Winds blowing in off the Channel (Le Manche to the French, of course) could cause some havoc and split the peloton, especially if a team at the front want to push at the right time and make it happen. Once the peloton splits in the wind, it can be hard to keep it together, and a lot of time can be gained. HTC-HighRoad pulled it off in stage 3 of the 2009 Tour de France, and the 41 seconds the front group gained there was bigger than the gap between Armstrong (in the front group) and Wiggins (who missed the break) at the end of the race.
If that doesn’t happen, then we will likely get another sprint finish, as the run in looks far too long for any breakaway that forms over the hills to stay away until the finish. A sprint will be interesting to see how the trains deal with Cavendish as a lone wolf after his success on Monday. This is the first of three almost completely flat stages, which Michael Mørkøv will be happy about, as his lead in the King of the Mountains can’t now be overtaken until Saturday. Though I do wonder if the title should be one of lesser nobility in these early stages, with King not coming out until they’ve crossed a Hors Categorie climg. Perhaps he’s just the Baron of the Mountains now?