Yesterday for the Tour meant 23km of painful, hooter-to-the-pedals, flat-out sprinting. Teams started seven minutes apart hitting the deck as fast as possible. The manic pace always ensures casualties and exhausted riders peel off the group as discarded serpent skin. This is all well as the team is awarded the time of the fifth rider to cross the line, ensuring that we generally get to see a bunch of 5-6 riders finishing for each team (am not sure if the dropped riders keep their own time, or are jumped up to that of the team).
Team Sky, HTC-Highroad and Garmin-Cervelo were the favourites for the day, though with little to distinguish between them. It was made up to be a direct face-off between Geraint Thomas, Mark Cavendish and David Millar, with each trying to lead and inspire their team for glory. The proceedings then were begun by Saxo Bank-Sunguard of Alberto Contador. Never the favourites on the day, their main aim was to limit the deficit as far as possible for the Spaniard, who had already had a disastrous start to the Tour the previous day.
They finished in a credible time of 25m 16s with an average speed of 54.6km/h. That sounds freakishly fast to achieve on a bike with pedals, however such is the calibre of the men on the Tour that at the end of the day it was good enough for just eighth place in the standings. Such margins are lost and won in the twinkling of an eye; a few stints on the front from a rider who is below-strength or a couple of misjudged corners. In an event this short with margins this tight, only perfection is good enough.
The first to go from among the favourites were Garmin-Cervelo and they had supposedly practiced for this event in great detail. No surprises then when they posted the best time of the day with six riders covering the circuit in 24m 48s. Team Sky did give them a fight, being a second ahead at the first split, but eventually finished four seconds below the American team.
Last of the main contenders (for the time trial) were HTC-Highroad, but disaster struck early for them. One of their main engines, Bernhard Eisel crashed shortly after the start, and the team never seemed to have recovered from thereon. They finished a further second adrift of Sky, limiting their damage, but would be disappointed with the day’s events for sure.
Performance of the day came from BMC of Cadel Evans and Leopard Trek of the Schleck brothers. Both finished tied with Sky, four seconds short of the best time, that places their top riders in an excellent position for the coming days. Fabian Cancellara stood out of all the rest, the World TT Champion putting in a lung bursting effort for the team from Luxembourg, guiding them almost single-handedly to a remarkable time.
Both these teams seemed to have run a textbook perfect time trial with the riders smoothing along corners like water slipping off a smooth stone. Its one of the many sights of the Tour to watch a stream of riders clad in aerodynamic suits – look like a bunch of aliens to me – banking on corners and gliding along the tarmac as if on wings. While it might look effortless, a closer look at the faces would show the agony each man is going through, even if for such a short distance.
Last to take the road was Omega Pharma-Lotto, who frankly were never expected to save Philippe Gilbert’s jersey at the end of the day. They duly finished 10th fastest and the maillot jaune shifted to the shoulders Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo). The Norwegian is surely having a colourful Tour, which he started in the world champion’s rainbow jersey, shifted to the polka dot (quite an oxymoron for a sprinter) after day one, and today proudly dons the best of the lot.
Alberto Contador’s deficit has increased to 1’42” but that does not seem to have perturbed the Spaniard who yesterday said, “The Tour can be lost every day, but it is won in the mountains.” That is an undeniable fact, but the mountains are still some distance away. For today’s stage 3, we head out of the Vendée and into Britanny, crossing the Loire via the Saint-Nazaire bridge. It’s a largely flat 198km finishing at Redon and is the first chance for the sprinters to fight for glory. Will we see some headbanging like last year, well I can only guess. So till tomorrow then…
Thor Hushovd – 5h 06’ 25” Maillot Jaune – Thor Hushovd
David Millar – 5h 06’ 25” Maillot Vert – Philippe Gilbert
Cadel Evans – 5h 06’ 26” Maillot à Pois Rouges – Philippe Gilbert