Three weeks ago, we were all focused on Liege and the prologue of this year’s Tour. It seems odd that we’re not coming to the finish, with just two stages left before everything’s sorted, and this time next week we’ll be watching the Olympic road race.
And as if in practice for that, yesterday we saw Mark Cavendish at his best, reminding everybody just why he’s the world champion. It was one of the bext wins of his career, and a good way to finally match Andre Darrigade’s 22 wins as the Tour’s leading sprinter. I think the best perspective on it came from Nicolas Roche in an interview afterwards when he said he only noticed that Cavendish had gone past them when Luis Leon Sanchez started coasting to the line, assuming the bunch were about to swamp them. They hadn’t realised just how far he’d leapt from the bunch, and that if they’d carried on going, they’d have got second and third on the stage.
It’s also a signal of how confident Bradley Wiggins is in his overall victory that he was able to lead the chase through the last few kilometres and not worry about conserving all his energy for today’s stage. For anyone who hadn’t guessed it, it’s likely the same tactics Great Britain will be using next Saturday, as they’re the ones that worked out very well in Copenhagen last year. We’ll likely see a replay on Sunday in Paris, which may mean we get the spectacle of the yellow jersey leading the peloton in the last few kilometres, which will be somewhat different to the normal routine of the day.
While it’s a relatively long time trial at 51km, it’s not a very complicated route. There aren’t too many technical parts, and no steep climbs or descents, which makes it the perfect course for the power time trial specialists. It would have been interesting to see how Tony Martin or Fabian Cancellara would have done on this stage, but as it is, I suspect the winner will be either Wiggins or Tejay Van Garderen. Froome’s a good time triallist, but his best results have come on courses where he can use his climbing abilities more, but I suspect he’ll be happy finishing in the top 5, protecting his second place from Nibali.
Barring an absolute disaster, though, Wiggins and Froome will remain first and second at the end of the stage. The real battle will be taking place behind them. Van Den Broeck probably won’t be able to make up three minutes on Nibali, but it’ll be fun to watch him try, and Van Garderen probably won’t move up from fifth, but if he’s on form this could be BMC’s best chance for a stage win this year, and a chance for him to get his first Tour stage and lay down a marker for future years.
The interesting battle comes from seventh to eleventh place with just a couple of minutes separating Zubeldia, Rolland, Brajkovic, Pinot and Roche and all of them looking to grab a place in the top ten, both for the bragging rights and the ranking points. Further down the rankings, some riders will be looking to try and get their moment in the spotlight, or showcase themselves and their time trialling abilities. Others may be indulging in personal rivalries – David Millar was talking on Twitter last night about he and Dave Zabriskie will be fighting to avoid having to say that the other’s a better time trial rider.
Three weeks ago, I think we were expecting more drama on this stage, but Wiggins and Sky have dominated this Tour to such an extent that the final weekend’s a bit of a procession. Perhaps the main enemy Sky have to fight is complacency, losing focus and making mistakes. Two minutes isn’t that big a gap if you hit a crisis.