It was a Classic disguised as a General Classification battle. Stage two of the 2014 Tour, held on a parcours likened to that of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, drew the main contenders out of the protective shelter of their team-mates and into a head-to-head battle at the front of the race.
Vincenzo Nibali, normally renowned as a doughty climber and demon descender, added another string to his bow by reprising Fabian Cancellara’s attack on the flat run-in to the finish from the previous day. Unlike the Swiss rouleur, the Italian champion had chosen his enemies carefully: Cancellara had picked a fight with the best lead-outs in cycling; Nibali only had a motley assortment of GC rivals and stage hunters, all more or less isolated from any team support, to beat. The moment he got a gap, and the chasers dithered, his success was certain.
The steep climb of Jenkin Road, five kilometres from the finish in Sheffield, saw attacks from Alberto Contador and Chris Froome. The fight continued over the top as Peter Sagan swept down the descent, his rivals struggling to stay in his slipstream. Then Astana hit what was left of the front group with a classic one-two. Two surges by Jakob Fuglsang stretched the resolve of the chasers, and when Vincenzo Nibali went, with 1.9 kilometres to the finish, the various interests represented by the riders behind clashed to the extent that their impetus was stalled.
Peter Sagan, the best sprinter in the group and the man with most to gain from it staying together, was exposed, having already countered attacks both up and down Jenkin Road. (Plus, he mentioned at the finish, Nibali is his friend – perhaps he had one more counter-attack in him, and by chasing Nibali, all he’d have done is set up somebody else for the win.)
BMC looked conflicted – Van Avermaet was after the stage win, while Tejay Van Garderen was keen not to lose ground on the GC. Van Avermaet initially tried to counter Nibali, but seeing uncooperative riders on his wheel discouraged him from his effort. Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, so prominent on the climb, are less comfortable with pursuit-style efforts on the flat. Froome had two team-mates in the group, Richie Porte and Mikel Nieve, but they were unable to organise themselves into a coherent chase.
In the end, a powerful sprint from Van Avermaet brought the chasers to within two seconds of Nibali, but the Italian had done enough to swap the chromatic dissonance of his Astana/Italian national champion’s jersey for the yellow of Tour leader. Sagan, fourth on the day, took over the green jersey. He may lose it temporarily in the next few days, but the chances are he’ll win it in Paris. As for Nibali, a two-second gain is neither here nor there in terms of the GC battle (he’ll probably lose that much time in the first two kilometres of the final time trial), but the psychological gain of wearing the yellow jersey and outfoxing his rivals in what might yet turn out to be a tactical Tour, will be far more important.
The relentless climbing of the Pennines eroded the peloton significantly over the course of the day, but while Europcar especially tried to engineer a stage win by throwing first Perrig Quemeneur, then Thomas Voeckler and finally Pierre Rolland up the road, the important action took place on Jenkin Road.
Cannondale and Orica-GreenEdge, riding for stage hunters Sagan and Michael Albasini respectively, led into the climb, but they inadvertently set up the GC leaders for a series of attacks. Contador went, twice. Both times, Nibali coolly followed. Chris Froome attacked over the top, chased by Tejay Van Garderen then Nibali again, and Contador.
There was no tactical advantage to be gained by hiding away and ignoring the attacks. Riders who want to be in the final top three, or five, or 10, had to go with the attacks, and therefore show their strength. Jenkin Road, in deciding who would win an early Tour stage, gave us a tantalising glimpse of how the final GC is likely to look.
21 riders survived with the front group over the top. Contador, Froome, Nibali and Van Garderen were aggressive and looked very strong on the climb. Alejandro Valverde looked comfortable. Bauke Mollema, Andrew Talansky, Rui Costa and Jurgen Van den Broeck were all there. The Alps and Pyrenees are very different challenges to Jenkin Road, but it’s hard to avoid noticing that apart from Sagan, Albasini, Tony Gallopin and Tiago Machado, the front group consisted of GC favourites, plus their strongest climbing domestiques. It’s highly likely that the eventual top 10 will only include riders from this group.
Further down the list, 15 more riders came in 16 seconds behind Nibali and 14 behind the others. Not a race-losing time gap, but some of the riders in the group, like Chris Horner, Frank Schleck, Nicolas Roche and Laurens Ten Dam, who might have been considered outside hopes for the top 10, don’t look like they’ve got the form to succeed.
The Tour is only two days old, but already some patterns are emerging. First, Kittel’s likely to dominate the sprints. Second, Sagan is a clear favourite for the green jersey. Third, the list of potential top 10 riders is already down to a handful of names.
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