Tour de France 2012: Ring my bell

We started yesterday with the news that Peter Sagan had fitted a bell onto his bike in an effort to avoid crashes, and we ended it with him winning another stage as a crash reshaped the race.

The first Friday last year was where the race started to be shaped, with Wiggins the first GC contender to be removed in a crash, followed by Brajkovic, Vinokourov and others over the weekend, and this year the race managed to compound all that chaos into one big crash. A huge chunk of the field were caught up in it, reducing the main peloton to about seventy riders. With so many caught up in the chaos, and a breakaway still to be chased down, it was inevitable that a lot of people were going to lose time, and much of the last 25km turned into a game of ‘spot who’s not in the main bunch.’

It was a prime example of how you can’t win the Tour in the first week, but you can easily lose it. Garmin-Sharp saw their hopes for the race completely fly out of the window – Hesjedal and Vande Velde lost over thirteen minutes, while Tom Danielson was forced to abandon following this (it’s a picture of a broken bike, not a broken person). Others didn’t lose quite as much time, but with Wiggins and Evans safely at the front of the main bunch, Schleck, Scarponi, Brajkovic, Rolland, Mollema, Peraud, Valverde, Gesink and Voeckler have all lost significant time. There still are some contenders within a reasonable time of Wiggins and Evans – Nibali the most prominent, but Menchov, Taaramae, Van Den Broeck and Samuel Sanchez are all within a minute – but the first selection of the race has taken place, though caused by a crash rather than a hill.

We’re running out of superlatives to describe Peter Sagan, though the impressiveness of his win yesterday may have been over-emphasised by the fact that Greipel had dis- and re-located his shoulder in a crash earlier in the day. (Anyone doubting the capacity of cyclists to endure pain should note the casualness with which people discuss dislocated shoulders and other injuries that take people out of other sports) His stated aim is to take the green jersey to Paris, but there’ll be a lot of people watching how he handles the first real mountains this weekend, just in case we’re watching the arrival of the next Eddy Merckx, who won every jersey as he utterly dominated his debut race in 1969.

Today the race heads to the ‘board of the pretty girls’ – La Planche des Belle Filles – as we pass into Franche-Comte and the Jura on the way to Switzerland. It’s a medium-mountain stage, ending with a category one climb that will be the first serious uphill test of the race. It’s not a long Alpine climb that will cause huge gaps, but it will be a useful early indication of relative form and pace. Anyone not feeling well, or suffering from the effects of yesterday’s crash, could find themselves being ejected from the back of the bunch as it hits the steepest parts of the climb.

There are a lot of riders who could challenge for a win today, either by breaking away early and trying to solo up the the climb, or by sticking in the bunch and then kicking out in a sprint at the end. Even if it’s not to win the stage, late kicks could help riders gain a precious few seconds, particularly as Wiggins isn’t noted for his sprints to the line. The question for Sky is how much they want to force the pace on the climb – it’s a tactic that’s worked well for them this year, using power riders like Boasson Hagen, Porte and Rogers to set a constant high tempo on the way up while they see who can hold on. Keeping a high pace, rather than accelerating and decelerating, suits Wiggins’ style, but is also Evans’ preferred method of getting up hills.

Two jerseys could change today – with twenty points available to the winner of the final climb, there’ll be a new King of the Mountains unless Mørkøk surprises everyone by staying with the bunch, and the climb looks like it might be just too steep for Fabian Cancellara, though he may attempt to hold on just so he can wear the yellow jersey home as the race heads into Switzerland tomorrow.

UPDATE: And just after posting this, I was checking Twitter and discovered that Ryder Hesjedal has pulled out of the Tour.