A wet and wild day in Düsseldorf ended better for some than others
Geraint Thomas wins
Well, who saw that coming?
Among the talk of potential stage winners today, Geraint Thomas (Sky) went generally overlooked – the TV directors didn’t even see fit to cover any of his ride before he stormed across the finish line to post the fastest time.
Having long been one of the sport’s most likeable and charismatic characters, his victory will be enormously popular among British fans.
Thomas endured a tense time on the hot seat as world champion and local favourite Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin), Stefan Küng (BMC) and finally his own team-mate Chris Froome threatened to eclipse his time, but all three fell short, drawing visible sighs of relief from the Welshman, and eventually a release of emotion when it was confirmed that he had won.
This is Thomas’ first ever Grand Tour stage win, and, to complete what may be the greatest day of his professional career, he also becomes the first rider to wear the yellow jersey at this year’s race.
The result goes a long way to make up for the disappointment at the Giro, where his first chance to ride a Grand Tour as Sky’s leader went up in smoke when a police motorbike caused him to fall and ultimately abandon the race.
That misfortune will feel like a long time ago now, however, as he enjoys the privileged honour of wearing cycling’s most famous jersey.
Team Sky look formidable as ever
Geraint Thomas wasn’t the only Sky rider to put in an excellent performance, as the team placed four riders in the top eight.
Prior to Thomas’ time, former world time trial champion Vasil Kiryienka sat in the hot seat, and went on to finish third.
Michal Kwiatkowski was eighth and, most importantly of all, Froome put considerable time into all his rivals by finishing sixth.
The performances challenge the sceptical claims made by some that Sky enter the race weaker than in previous Tours.
Time-trial performances don’t translate into a direct guarantee as to how well a rider will go in the mountains, but are an indication of good form.
Sky’s rivals will likely be feeling a sense of deja-vu, as the British team again appear to be be peaking at just the right time.
A treacherous Grand Depart
The Düsseldorf Grand Départ will likely be remembered for the grisly, relentless rain that poured down for the entire stage.
The fact the rain remained constant throughout the day meant that there was no major discrepancy or advantage to be had by setting off earlier or later in the day, but did mean that every rider was exposed to an equal amount of danger.
The wet roads put paid to Alejandro Valverde’s (Movistar) chances, as he lost control around a corner, slid several yards, and banged his head against the barriers.
He was forced to abandon – ending his run of four successive Tours de France finishing in the top eight – and was flown straight to hospital, depriving the race of one of its most dangerous riders, and Nairo Quintana of his right-hand man.
He wasn’t the only rider to go down. Bahrain-Merida’s leader and GC hopeful Ion Izagirre also abandoned the race, Ireland’s Nicolas Roche (BMC) and Britain’s Scott Thwaites (Dimension Data) suffered bleeding wounds after crashing, and LottoNL-Jumbo’s sprinter Dylan Groenewegen and climber George Bennett also fell and slid dramatically in the manner of Valverde (although fortunately did not hit the barriers with the same force).
Porte chooses caution over chance to gain time
Normally, a time trial in a Grand Tour – even a short one like this – makes for an important opportunity to gain time that specialists against the clock do not want to pass up.
But in rainy conditions such as today, a dilemma is encountered – is it worth the risk of going hard through every corner, or more sensible to sacrifice a few seconds and ensure one doesn’t crash out and lose everything?
Richie Porte (BMC) – the GC contender with arguably the most to gain on a time trial stage like this – took the more cautious approach.
Admitting in a post-race interview to being ‘a little bit petrified’, he concentrated on staying upright more than in taking the maximum amount of time from his rivals, and ultimately finished 49th, a considerable 35 seconds slower than the more bold/reckless Chris Froome (the other major favourite with an aptitude for time trials).
We’ll never know if Porte would have fallen if he had ridden harder, but his conservative approach will certainly be a talking point if he ultimately loses to yellow jersey to Froome by a fine margin.
GC contenders all close – apart from Froome
Aside from Chris Froome, who romped to a very quick time, all the pre-race favourites posted similar times.
Porte, Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Fabio Aru (Astana), Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) all posted times within just seven seconds of each other, forming what is essentially a stalemate in the race for GC.
A short time trial like this was never going to cause major time gaps, but it is striking firstly how little there was separating all the contenders regardless of their time trialing skills, and secondly just how anomalous Froome’s ride was.
With a lead of more than half a minute over all his main rivals, Froome already has both a buffer and a psychological advantage.