NICE, France (VN) — Argos-Shimano rode together with all nine riders across line together for last place in Tuesday’s team time trial at the Tour de France. A disaster, no? Quite the opposite.
While the top GC riders fought tooth and nail to limit their losses Tuesday, Argos was doing the smart thing: saving its legs for the sprints in the coming week.
“We executed the plan we made, riding safely and not wasting energy or going too deep,” said director Rudi Kemna. “Tomorrow will probably be a sprinter’s day. We are looking forward to it.”
The four opening stages of the 100th Tour have seen an atypical start for the race: no prologue, and few chances for the sprinters. And the one stage tailored for the sprinters was marred by the bizarre incident when the Orica-GreenEdge bus became stuck under the finish-line podium.
Argos’ Marcel Kittel picked up the win and the yellow jersey in stage 1, after surviving the chaos of the closing kilometers, but quickly lost it as soon as the road tilted up Sunday.
Between here and the Pyrénées, the sprinters will step back into the spotlight for the three coming stages.
Hilly parcours don’t necessarily guarantee bunch sprints, but the fact that riders such as André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) and Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) have not yet won a stage almost guarantees that they will get a shot before the first mountain stages this weekend.
“Mark is feeling good. He is ready to win some sprints,” said Omega Pharma’s Ralf Aldag. “He missed a chance in the first stage and the other stages were too difficult for him. Now he has to take advantage.”
This year’s Tour presents one of the deepest and most competitive sprint fields in years.
With his move from Sky to Omega Pharma, Cavendish returns to the Tour with the full support of a leadout train dedicated to setting up the mass gallops.
Right behind him is the ascending power of Argos, as well as established sprinters as Greipel and Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge). All four bring strong teams that will collaborate to chase down breakaways and then set up their fast men.
Kittel is the only sprinter to have a taste of success so far, but that is sure to change in the coming days as the sprinters will be keen to get a win in the bag before hitting the Pyrénées this weekend.
Cavendish comes into this year’s Tour intent on re-establishing himself as the king of speed. Not that there’s any doubt of his finishing speed — five stages and the points jersey at the Giro proved that — but after a troubled season with Sky last year, Cavendish is once again the captain of his train.
Injuries to Tony Martin and Gert Steegmans, two key members of the Cavendish Express, seem to be waning just in time for the coming stages as the Tour pushes west across southern France toward its rendezvous with the Pyrénées on Saturday and Sunday.
Over at Lotto, the team is equally anxious to reassert itself. Last year, Greipel’s Lotto boys more than adequately filled the void left by Sky, which was riding to support Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, and left Cavendish to freelance in the sprints with little support.
Greipel’s train returns, with anchors Marcel Sieberg, Jurgens Roelandts, and Greg Henderson ready to drive “the Gorilla” toward victory.
So far in intermediate sprints, Greipel has looked impressive.
“We want to target one stage first, then we will see,” Greipel said about chasing the green jersey. “We are ready to have some sprints. It has been a difficult start to the Tour on Corsica. We want to make some nice sprints.”
Argos comes with a double-loaded attack, first with Kittel for the flat-out drag races, and John Degenkolb waiting to take his chances in the hillier courses. Degenkolb will surely get his chance this week on the road to the Pyrénées.
Goss, too, will be fighting to punch through with a win. Orica is flying high, winning back-to-back stages and snatching the yellow jersey with Gerrans in the team time trial.
“We hope to keep the momentum going,” said Orica director Matt White. “We have ‘Gossie’ ready for the sprints. Our success has come from working together. The sprints will give us a chance to maybe win another stage.”
Orica will be doubly motivated to set up the mass gallops, riding to protect Gerrans’ yellow jersey as well as looking to set up Goss.
And then there’s Peter Sagan. The Cannondale captain has yet to win a stage, but two second-places have given him a solid grip on the green jersey coming out of Corsica.
“I am satisfied to have green, but I want to win some stages,” Sagan said Monday. “I have been close to victory. I’m just missing some luck. The legs are going well.”
Over the next three stages between Nice and the Pyrénées, the sprinters should see three opportunities.
Wednesday’s 228-kilometer fifth stage, from Cagnes-sur-Mer to Marseille, features four relatively easy rated climbs that shouldn’t slow down the sprinters, especially with fresh and hungry legs.
Thursday’s 176.5km sixth stage, from Aix-en-Provence to Montpellier, is mostly flat, but rolls across the windswept Camargue region. Otherwise, there should be no slowing down the bunch.
Friday’s 205.5km seventh stage, from Montpellier to Albi, is lumpy in the opening half, sure to provoke stage hunters and serious challengers to the yellow jersey, but should see another mass gallop in the end. With the mountains looming, attacking riders will have their best chance Friday, especially if the previous two days have come down to sprints.
Things will change following the Pyrénées. Fatigue will start to set in as the peloton lurches into the second full week, with some tough courses ahead of the final march across the Alps.
Sprinters know these next three stages are their best, and perhaps only, chance to win a stage.
Buckle up. After four thrilling and unpredictable opening stages, a few bunch sprints is just what the Tour needs.