Yesterday showed how it’s possible to have a great stage of the Tour without having to go up the highest mountains. Oddly, the only marked point on the profile of the stage over 1000m was the sprint point at La Genevez, with all the summits below 1000m. True, that’s still more than 300m above the height of the highest paved road in the UK, but by the standards of a Grand Tour it’s quite low.
With live coverage all day yesterday, it almost felt like watching one of the Spring Classsics, with the main bunch fragmenting into a number of groups and attacks being launched almost continually as the race got strung out along the road, each one of the seven hills changing the complexion of it. It was almost possible to forget this was part of a bigger three-week race, especially watching the intensity of FDJ manager Marc Madiot screaming his rider on towards the finish line.
It was a great victory for Thibaut Pinot, and something to awaken French interest in the Tour after the first week had seen Swiss, Slovak, British and German stage victories. The youngest rider in the race and – like many of the French riders in it now – one born long after the last French winner of the Tour, Pinot looks a promising talent, especially in the way he perfectly timed his attack yesterday, storming past Kessiakoff on his way to the line.
Slightly further back, the Sky train was replaced by the Liquigas one as the riders in lime green took over at the front of the main bunch. For a short time, there was a wonder if they were setting up Peter Sagan for an attempt at the stage, but instead they’d decided that this was a good stage for Vincenzo Nibali and were trying to follow Sky’s example in cracking the pack. What we soon got was an elite group forming, with the race favourites to the fore. Wiggins, Evans, Nibali, Menchov, Van Den Broeck, Froome and a surprisingly large group of RadioShack riders gained time on everyone except Pinot (who’s now an impressive 13th overall) and while there were no huge attempts to break off, there were some interesting small battles as riders tried to slip off the front but got pegged back. Except for Frank Schleck of course, who followed his traditional family way of getting detached from the group on the way to the line and lost four seconds. However, the presence of four RadioShack riders in that final group suggests that they’re not quite as dead as reports might indicate, though their lack of an obvious leader means they might be targeting the team classification.
Today, though, is one of those days when it’s not good to be a Schleck. Yes, it’s the first long time trial of this year’s race, going for roughly the same distance as a marathon, though even the slowest and most tired riders should do it in well under two hours. There are no categorised climbs on the course, but it’s not entirely flat, rising up 140m to the first time check in Abbans-Dessus before a long and bumpy descent into Besançon. It’s not a technical course, but one where effort needs to be managed properly to not peak too early.
Given the race situation, this looks like another stage win for Fabian Cancellara. Usually, you’d expect Tony Martin to challenge him on a course like this, but the German’s still recovering from his early injury, though this will be a useful check on his recovery and whether he’ll be back in top form for the Olympic time trial. It’s also a chance for riders who haven’t been putting in maximum effort in the first week to shine – Gustav Larsson and Lieuwe Westra could set some early benchmark times – while others can use it as a chance to salvage something from a bad race. If they weren’t so battered, you’d look for good times from Garmin riders like Millar and Zabriskie in an effort to give their team something to cheer about.
Of the leading contenders, all eyes will obviously be on Wiggins whose dominance in stage races this year has been built on his prowess against the watch. One thing worth noting about Wiggins’ time trials this year, though, is that he’s tended to put the power down in the second half of the course. For instance, in the prologue in Liege, he was six seconds down to Chavanel at the half way point before finishing ahead of him. It was the same situation in the longer time trials in Paris-Nice, Romandie and especially the Dauphiné, where he was only a few seconds ahead of Evans at the first checkpoint yet almost caught him over a two-minute gap on the run in.
It’ll be interesting to see if the others go for a damage-limitation strategy, knowing there’s another time trial to come before the end, or if they go hell for leather and take the risk of challenging Wiggins, or at least keeping close enough to leave Sky on edge through the mountains. Amongst the leaders, Evans is probably the best time trialist amongst the leaders after Wiggins, and will be hoping to have improved his relative position since the Dauphiné. Nibali set a good time at the prologue, and how much he loses today will determine his mountain strategy. Menchov is a decent TT rider, and a good performance could push him ahead of Nibali, and behind them, a lot of people will be watching Chris Froome’s performance. He beat an injured Wiggins in a hilly Vuelta TT last year, and his performaces this week have drawn a lot of attention. A good ride today could put him on course for a very high position in Paris. There’ll likely be a big shake up of the top thirty or so riders, as the climbers lose time and the all-rounders and power riders see their chance to gain back some of the time lost over the last couple of days.
Cycling News has the full list of start times here and the first riders are already out on the course as I write this. Live coverage is here on the official site. TV coverage starts from 12.30 on Eurosport and 2pm on ITV4 with Wiggins the last rider to start the course at 3.39pm UK time. Expect him to finish around 4.30pm, unless disaster strikes.