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WHAT’S AHEAD AT THE TOUR–PHASE 2: NORTH FRANCE

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July 6, 2015 – We saw on Sunday’s stage of the Tour de France along the Dutch coast how strong side/tailwinds can split apart the peloton—and the same thing happened (briefly) on the middle part of Monday’s stage.

Written by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada

The resulting battles to form echelons behind strong teams racing hard in the gutter, forcing others into the wind, combined with crashes that can happen at any time, have already caught out several pre-race favorites. And that pattern is likely to continue on the upcoming three stages across the plains of northern France and along the coast of the English Channel.

Those who are watching the race on NBC Sports get an incomplete view of the action because of the frequent and long commercial breaks, along with the sometimes inaccurate commentary and the impossibility of the cameras catching every key development. The evolution of the splits and eventual winning move on stage 2 from Utrecht to Zealand were confusing, so it’s instructive to do a quick analysis, especially because the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez, Andrew Talansky, Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot all lost 88 seconds—a time gap that could have great import by the end of the Tour.

There were several reasons for the various splits, including the accelerations made by the Belgian teams, Etixx-Quick Step and Lotto-Soudal; the rainstorm (and its gusting winds) that blew through at a critical juncture; and crashes (mainly on roundabouts) that delayed riders at key moments. After a first split caught out Movistar’s Quintana and Valverde among others, a critical incident caused defending champion Nibali of Team Astana to lose touch. Involved in that split were French climber Pinot of FDJ and first-day time trial winner Rohan Dennis of BMC Racing, who was wearing the yellow jersey.

5 July 2015 102nd Tour de France Stage 02 : Utrecht - Zelande DENNIS Rohan (AUS) BMC, Maillot June Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA

“We were well prepared but we didn’t expect to catch that storm coming out of Rotterdam,” Pinot said. “That was the worst moment, with lots of roundabouts, lots of crashes [and lots of] panic. At first I wasn’t caught out. [My teammate] Mathieu [Ladagnous] was just ahead of me. But another guy was between us and he was the one who let the gap go….”

Dennis elaborated. “We were going through a lot of roundabouts and I was sort of toward the back [of the front group], thinking it was safe because it wasn’t too hard.” Describing the gap that developed ahead of him, Dennis then said, “Pinot…swung out and basically looked at me, saying I had to close it. I looked around and saw Nibali was there as well. So I made the call not to chase because if Nibali loses time, it is better [for the team].”

Indeed, Dennis’s selfless call was a huge coup for BMC team leader Tejay van Garderen, who had four teammates helping him in the eventual 24-strong group that sprinted for the stage 2 win (taken by Lotto’s André Greipel): they were Italians Daniel Oss and Manuel Quinziato, Swiss champion Michael Schär and Belgian Greg Van Avermaet.

All four of those BMC men, along with Dennis, are sure to be of invaluable support in the stages ahead for van Garderen—who’s now up to third place overall, 13 seconds behind new race leader Froome after the stage 3 finish up the Mur de Huy won by Team Katusha’s Rodriguez. Here’s what to expect on these next few stages:

Stage 4 (July 7): Seraing–Cambrai 223.5km
Rolling terrain before flat finale featuring seven sectors of cobblestones (or pavé)

Stage 4 will be a tough one, even in the dry. It leaves Belgium via the cobbled climb to the Citadelle at Namur (53 kilometers into the stage), followed by a first long section of cobblestones at Pont-à-Celles (101 kilometers) before crossing the border into France for the final 83 kilometers.

The last six sectors of pavé, most of which have been used in the Paris-Roubaix classic (in the opposite direction), total 11.5 kilometers of riding over gnarly cobblestones (probably dry and dusty) in the space of 35 kilometers before the final 10-kilometer race into the finish at Cambrai. This is almost identical to the 11.9 kilometers of pavé in 36 kilometers for the final six sectors in last year’s Tour stage to Arenberg that was so favorable to Nibali in consolidating his yellow jersey before the mountain stages. Besides the cobbles, the country roads through this part of France are narrow and winding, which in themselves, combined with the expected speed and strong winds, will split the pack into various groups.

BAKELANTS Jan521p

Having consolidated his yellow jersey on the cobblestones a year ago, along with distancing Contador and seeing Froome eliminated, Nibali and his Astana teammates can be expected to plan a similar coup this week. And this will surely be the Italian’s biggest chance of putting time into Quintana and the other pure climbers before the mountains. It could also be a chance for BMC Racing’s van Garderen and Cannondale-Garmin’s Talansky to use their classics-savvy teammates to open up the race for yellow.

However, with Team Sky’s Froome already in the yellow jersey, and with his own powerful team of classics riders —including fellow Brits Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe and Peter Kennaugh—they will be attempting to gain more time for their leader. Whether Froome has the resilience to achieve that goal will be a key moment in this year’s 102nd Tour.

Because there will be a headwind on much of this longest stage of the race, the important moves won’t develop until late in the day. A key to victory should be getting to the front of the pack on the fourth section of cobblestones into Saulzoir, 35 kilometers from the finish, where the course turns left and the riders will have a tailwind for the 7 kilometers into St. Python. That village is followed by three more sectors of pavé in quick succession, totaling 7.5 kilometers, all of them likely to be raced in strong crosswinds, sometimes from the right, then from the left.

A few riders may regroup in the headwind before the finish in Cambrai, but the course doubles back on itself in the city’s streets for a with-the-wind, slightly uphill finish. Should Froome still be at the head of the race, he will retain the yellow jersey unless current runner-up Tony Martin of Etixx is also there and takes one of the three time bonuses.

Stage 5 (July 8): Arras–Amiens 189.5km
Likely sprinters’ stage through rolling terrain where World War I battles were fought

After this Tour’s hectic and intense opening four days, most everyone will be hoping that stage 5 will bring some respite. Then again, there will be those who will want to make it into the day’s main breakaway, while the teams of sprinters Mark Cavendish, Greipel, Nacer Bouhanni and Peter Sagan will be trying to keep the race together for a field sprint in Amiens.

Whatever the interest in the racing, our eyes will also be on the region’s other sights—including the start in Arras, in the cobbled Grande Place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where pop concerts are staged, and the finish in Amiens, in the shadow of the city’s awesome Gothic cathedral, where sprinters such as Mario Cipollini and André Darrigade have won in the past.

Everywhere the racers go on this rolling stage, there will be cemeteries dedicated to the fallen soldiers of World War I from the armies of France, the British Empire and Germany. In the Battle of the Somme—the river that meanders through these bucolic lowlands—more than a million men were killed or wounded in just over four months of 1916, at the rate of more than 7,000 casualties a day.

It’s said to be one of the bloodiest battles in world history and puts into perspective the horrific magnitude of trench warfare. Three Tour de France champions were among those who lost their lives in the Great War: François Faber of Luxembourg and the Frenchmen Octave Lapize and Lucien Petit-Breton.

Stage 6 (July 9): Abbeville–Le Havre 191.5km
Rolling stage along the coast of Normandy

Stage 6 takes the Tour away from the wartime battlefields on a scenic trip along the Normandy coast, past chalk cliffs and fishing villages, to the port city of Le Havre. A century ago, this town was the destination of the opening stage for 13 consecutive Tours de France, and the stage was twice won by Ottavio Bottecchia, in 1924 and ’25, and each year he went on to win the Tour.

In more recent times, stages into Le Havre have twice been won in long solo breakaways—by the Swiss Serge Demierre in 1983 and Frenchman Thierry Marie in 1991—while a sprint, such as the one taken by Cipollini in 1995, is more normal.

This year, at the end of the 191.5-kilometer stage, the organizers have confounded the sprinters by placing the finish outside the Victorian-era Fort de Tourneville at the top of a hill that climbs for 850 meters at a 7-percent grade to an elevation of 250 feet (75 meters) above the docks. It’s like a less-steep-Mur de Huy and will catch out those not prepared for such a rude ending to a day that will likely be affected by side winds blowing off the English Channel.

2015 tour de france andre greipel cancellara cavendish sagan

So, rather than Cavendish or Greipel, the fans at the finish in Le Havre may be cheering for Tinkoff-Saxo’s Sagan or Giant-Alpecin’s John Degenkolb. At the same time, look for another (less) intense battle for seconds up that final climb between Froome and his nearest GC contenders, van Garderen, Rigoberto Urán of Etixx, Contador, Nibali, Valverde and Quintana.

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You can follow John on twitter @johnwilcockson