Depending on his perspective, American Tyler Farrar enters his second Tour de France with either no pressure at all, or more pressure than he’s faced in his career.
After winning six stages at last year’s race, there’s little question that Mark Cavendish comes to the Tour as the heavy favorite for field sprint wins, as well as the green jersey that often adorns the most dominant sprinter. With an HTC-Columbia squad built around Cavendish’s proven abilities, the 25-year-old Manxman carries the weight of his big-budget team on his shoulders.
However Cavendish has not had the dominant season he had in 2009, registering only three wins thus far, while Farrar has been the sport’s most consistent sprinter over the past 11 months, winning stages at the Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia, as well as registering prestigious one-day victories at the Vattenfall Cyclassics and Scheldeprijs. Two weeks ago Farrar took the overall at Holland’s lightly attended Delta Tour Zeeland.
After missing out on Garmin’s Tour selection in 2008 and finishing second to Cavendish twice (and third twice) at last year’s Tour, Farrar comes to Rotterdam not only as a protected rider, but also as a sprinter with a lead-out train built around him. Battling against the HTC-Columbia train, experienced riders such as Martijn Maaskant, David Millar, Robbie Hunter and finally Julian Dean will work in the final kilometers to deliver Farrar into perfect position.
A stage win at the Tour would be a first for Garmin, now starting its third trip around France, and would also round out Farrar’s grand-tour stage-win tally, making him the second American to win stages at all three; teammate Dave Zabriskie has also accomplished the feat.
Landing that elusive stage win would also lift the “runner-up to Cav’” monkey off Farrar’s back, once and for all.
At a Garmin team press event Thursday morning Farrar appeared fit and relaxed. He spoke of the team’s confidence in him that followed his win at the Vattenfall Cyclassics and three wins at last year’s Eneco Tour, and of his progression over the past 11 months.
“In 2008 I wasn’t proven at the grand-tour level, so the team came to the Tour with different objectives, and I wasn’t included,” he said. “Last year I proved myself at the Giro, I was close, and they brought me to the Tour, where I was also close. The progression continued last year after the Tour, and the team started to believe I could win a stage of the Tour. So far this has been a good season, and I’ve come here with a lot more support than I’ve ever had before.”
Farrar said he’d spent the few weeks following the Delta Tour racing the June 19-20 GP Nobili Rubinetterie, and doing a “tons of motorpacing” with team trainer Mark Quod simulating sprint lead-outs.
“This year we’ve got more of a lead-out train than in the past, which lets me sit back more and let experienced riders like Julian Dean and Robbie Hunter make decisions,” Farrar said. “I think there are a lot of field sprint opportunities in the first week, on every other stage except the mini-Liege (stage 2), which isn’t a day for me, but will be interesting. It would be a dream to win a stage of the Tour. Besides the fact that it would give me a stage win in all three grand tours, the Tour is as big as it gets. It would be really cool. Hopefully it happens this year.”
One stage on Farrar’s radar is stage 3, the feared cobblestone stage that utilizes seven sectors of pavé from Paris-Roubaix. Like Tom Boonnen, Farrar is not just a sprinter but also a man for the classics, evidenced by his fifth place at this year’s Tour of Flanders. With riders like Maaskant and Johan Van Summeren both top-5 finishers at Roubaix, Garmin has a good chance at contending for the stage win; however the team will also need to look out for GC hopeful Christian Vande Velde.
“It will be interesting to see how it plays out,” he said. “I think it’s really important for us to get Christian through without losing time. But we also have myself, Martijn and Johan. We’ll have to split the team a bit between guys who need to look out for Christian and guys who can go for the stage win. Winning stages is always important, and I think we have a team that can be one of the best that day.”
After abandoning the Giro on stage 15, Farrar skipped both the Tour of Switzerland and the Dauphiné Libéré, opting instead to do an “intense block of training” in Spain. In doing so, Farrar avoided a horrific field-sprint crash at the Tour of Switzerland, which Cavendish was penalized for and which kept Heinrich Haussler and Tom Boonen out of this Tour de France. Asked about the crash, Farrar wouldn’t lay any direct blame.
“It was nasty,” he said. “That’s not something you like to see happen. We all know there’s a risk of a crash like that happening. It only happens once or twice a year. Obviously what caused it was Cavendish and Haussler coming together. It was a pretty chaotic-looking sprint. It looked like Mark drifted over more than he intended to. It does happen in sprinting, it’s a risk we take in every sprint. When you’re going that fast, with that many guys fighting at the front, eventually someone is going to make a mistake and guys are going to go down. I certainly don’t think it was intentional. These types of accidents happen really quickly. Sometimes you think a sprint went one way in your head, and then you watch the video and you realize it went quite a bit differently.”
Commenting on Cavendish’s brash personality, which has garnered a growing chorus of controversy and critics this year, Farrar was diplomatic.
“It doesn’t affect us so much,” he said. “Every so often I’ll hear about a quote from him, and I hadn’t known he’d said something like that. He likes to make big statements, and so far he’s backed it up. There’s not much for me to say about it.”
Beyond stage wins, Farrar also comes to the Tour with a realistic shot at winning the green points jersey. Though he’s never won a Tour stage or worn green, his emergence, and consistency, over the past year make him a favorite for the maillot verde.
At a Cervélo TestTeam press conference Thursday, 2009 points winner Thor Hushovd pointed to Farrar, not Cavendish, as the favorite to take green at this Tour.
However, staying true to his noncommittal stance, Farrar downplayed his chances for green, saying victories were of foremost importance.
“Green is not the priority, the priority is to win a stage,” Farrar said. “If it’s there for the taking during the second half of the Tour, it could become a priority, but right now we’re not thinking about green.”