BOULOGNE-SUR-MER, France (VN) – One of the more interesting story lines in the first half of the Tour de France will be the battle for supremacy among the sprint trains.
With Team Sky riding for the yellow jersey, world champion Mark Cavendish is “freelancing” this year’s Tour, leaving a vacuum inside the peloton in the bunch sprints.
Monday’s barnstorming stage into Tournai, with Cavendish pulling off the win despite Lotto-Belisol’s otherwise perfect lead-out for André Greipel, was just a appetizer of what the Tour can expect between now and next weekend’s climbing stages in the Vosges.
“There is no train hierarchy at the moment,” Team Sky sport director Sean Yates told VeloNews. “Only one train can actually succeed. In HighRoad days, Cav’ had it good. They built that train and they made it very intimidating for everyone else. Now there is a fight to see who can fill that void.”
Lotto-Belisol, Orica-GreenEdge and Argos-Shimano are among the main contenders to fill the space left by the dissolution of Cavendish’s former train at HighRoad at the end of last season.
Argos-Shimano is only racing its first Tour and will not be trying to completely dominate the sprints. Behind them are scores of sprinters who will be also looking to hitch rides in the finales, among them Oscar Freire (Katusha), green-jersey contender Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp), Mark Renshaw (Rabobank), Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD), J.J. Rojas (Movistar) and J.J. Haedo (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank).
Lotto and GreenEdge are fighting an arms race. Both teams bring squads loaded with sprinters and riders to position and catapult their respective captains toward the line.
In Monday’s first “real” sprint, Lotto demonstrated it was ready to take the initiative. Greipel, who won his first Tour stage in last year’s edition, has five riders dedicated to helping him arrive at the sharp end of the action in the mass gallops.
On Monday, it worked out perfectly, except for one small detail — Cavendish was able to squirt around the “Gorilla” to snatch the win.
“Of course I wanted to win, but I am very pleased with how we rode the sprint. The team did everything perfect. We have the most horsepower in the sprints and I am sure we will achieve our goal of winning a stage,” Greipel said stoically. “Cavendish was in my slipstream. It’s like he was riding behind a truck.”
Lotto is taking a page from some classic set-up trains out of cycling’s past, with each rider receiving an assigned role.
Adam Hansen and Lars Bak have the job of doing the hard chasing in the closing 10km to reel in late breakaways and keeping the pace high enough to prevent late-stage counterattacks.
If things go to plan, Marcel Sieberg then surges forward with 2km to go, generating huge watts to ramp the speed up to 60kph.
Behind him, Jurgen Roelandts takes over next, sprinting at full speed at the front of the peloton under the red kite. Kiwi sprinter Greg Henderson then goes balls to the wall from about 400 meters to go to drop Greipel off at top-end sprinting speed within the final 200 meters or so from the line.
Lotto came excruciating close in Monday’s battle, with only Cavendish’s aerodynamic tuck taking advantage of the work on a slightly rising finale against headwinds.
“We’ve been working together and we are confident we’ll get some victories during this Tour,” Roelandts said. “It was perfect (Monday). You have to remember who beat us — Cavendish. He’s the best in the world.”
Cavendish has gallantly accepted his role as a freelancer in what could be an historic opportunity to help a British team win the Tour in an Olympic year with London hosting the 2012 Olympic Games.
Cavendish said the chance to be a part of Bradley Wiggins’ yellow-jersey effort overrides his personal ambitions in this year’s Tour.
“The chance to help the team win the Tour is something special,” Cavendish said. “I know I can still win stages without a full train. I’ve done it before and I’ve shown it again.”
In fact, Cavendish waved off the two riders who are designated to help him in the sprints during this Tour. With about 5km to go, he read the race and decided he didn’t need the help of Bernard Eisel and Edvald Boasson Hagen.
“It’s difficult to move up in the Tour and if I had to do that every day, I’d be killed by the end of the week. It’s easier just to do it on your own,” Cavendish said. “When I am weaving between Denis Menchov and Pierre Rolland, there’s too much going on, too many people. It’s better just to be alone.”
On Monday, Cavendish proved that he doesn’t need a train to win, but the fact that he lacks helpers is giving his rivals their best hope ever of at least reducing his Tour haul while augmenting their own.
Like Lotto, GreenEdge has also brought a team loaded with firepower for the sprints. Sport director Matt White said this year’s Tour opens a unique opportunity to out-run Cavendish.
“Cav’s shown that he’s beatable at the moment and he’s going to have to rely more on his own ability than rely on his teammates than in the past,” White told VeloNews. “It’s a lot easier to win when he has the train, but it’s easier to beat Cav’ without his train, but when you look at the sprints over the past couple years, nine times out of 10, when he got to the finish line, he won.”
Beyond the hilly-stage attackers such as Simon Gerrans and Michael Albasini, the entire GreenEdge lineup will be at the disposal for world runner-up Matt Goss.
Stuart O’Grady takes over with about 2km to go to organize the train. Baden Cooke and Brett Lancaster drive the bunch to within the final kilometer before Daryl Impey surges forward as Goss’s final set-up man.
Or at least that’s what they’re hoping for. It didn’t work that way Monday, when Cavendish muscled onto Impey’s wheel before crossing over to the surging Henderson on rival Lotto.
Despite getting upstaged by Lotto and Cavendish, White insisted he was satisfied with Goss’s third-place sprint.
“We knew that Lotto would take control of the race. They’re in Belgium and they have a specialized team for that,” White said. “The plan was to try to come over the top in the last 2kms, but our guys were not quite able to stick together. Daryl came over the top and dragged Cavendish with him. Gossie was a little too far back when the sprint started.”
Behind those two powerhouses, other squads will be trying their luck in the coming stages.
Teams such as Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank, Rabobank and Lampre will be putting a few men into the battle to try to position their fast men for a shot at victory.
Many are probably quietly hoping that one sprint powerhouse emerges to take control of the final kilometers in the bunch-sprint stages. These are already nervous enough, but things go from dicey to downright dangerous when more than a dozen sprinters believe they have chances to win.
Add nervous and inexperienced GC riders bumping elbows to stay near the front, and the chaos of a train-less peloton only heightens the danger and risk of devastating crashes.
“It’s not only Cavendish searching for the right wheel, right? It’s not as easy as it looks. It showed that there is a lot of competition out there,” Yates said. “When there is no clear train, too many others try their luck.”
With at least three more sprint opportunities likely between Wednesday and Saturday’s first taste of the climbs in the Vosges.
Whether Lotto, GreenEdge or someone else can take firm control of the highly unpredictable bunch remains to be seen.