Stage two analysis: Garmin come of age

It has taken them three years but finally the Garmin team got their stage win and yellow jersey in Les Essarts.

Words by Lionel Birnie in Les Essarts

Sunday July 3, 2011

In each of their attempts at the Tour de France, they have provided the revelation of the race. In 2008, Christian Vande Velde finished fifth overall (upgraded to fourth after Bernhard Kohl failed a dope test). In 2009, Bradley Wiggins was fourth. And last year, Ryder Hesjedal was seventh.

But not until today had they won a stage, or taken the yellow jersey. Now they have done both. By clinching the team time trial in Les Essarts by a slender margin, they propelled Thor Hushovd into the lead.

How fitting it was that Garmin-Cervélo’s first stage victory in the world’s biggest race came in the discipline that embodies Jonathan Vaughters’ ethos. Vaughters believes passionately in combining the strength of the group to help fulfil the ambitions of an individual.

Although the eagerness of their riders to share the credit and emphasise the work of their team-mates can sometimes become a little bit saccharine sweet, it was evident that this was a triumph for the entire group.

Three years ago, Garmin started their first Tour de France. Two months earlier, as Slipstream-Chipotle, still negotiating with potential title sponsors, they had won the team time trial at the Giro d’Italia.

But they came to the Tour with plenty to prove. The nine men who started that Tour in St Brieuc were Vande Velde, Magnus Backstedt, Julian Dean, Will Frischkorn, Hesjedal, Trent Lowe, Martijn Maaskant, David Millar and Danny Pate.

It was not a line-up packed with stars. Backstedt was a former Paris-Roubaix winner but, at 33 and struggling with some recurring injuries, was not at his best. Millar, who had returned from a two-year doping ban with the Saunier Duval team, before being rescued by Vaughters, was settling into his new role as a poster boy for the anti-doping movement. Lowe and Maaskant were young and untested. Pate and Frischkorn were inexperienced. Expectations were not wildly high but the team knew they had to make some impression to justify ASO’s invitation.

That year’s Tour visited this same region in the first week. The third stage went from Saint Malo to Nantes, not too far from Les Essarts. Frischkorn got in the four-man break with Samuel Dumoulin, Romain Feillu and Paolo Longo Borghini. Vaughters must have been giddy with anticipation. Could Frischkorn do it? No. The American was beaten into second place

The following day there was a time trial at Cholet, just down the road from the Mont des Alouettes, where Saturday’s opening stage finished. Millar was third, level on time with Kim Kirchen, beaten by 18 seconds by Stefan Schumacher, the German who later tested positive for drugs.

They didn’t know it then and, of course victory well after the event would not have tasted particularly sweet, but Millar was just a fraction of a second away from both a stage win and the yellow jersey.

Now, three years later, Garmin and Hushovd have finally done it.

The team time trial in Les Essarts was always going to be close and so it proved, with only 1-22 separating Garmin from last-placed Euskaltel.

It was only 23 kilometres long and it was not a technical course. The wind and the final couple of kilometres back into town were the only unpredictable factors. The first half of the course was incredibly fast, with the top teams averaging almost 60 kilometres per hour for the opening nine kilometres. After the turn, the road dragged slightly upwards and the wind was more in their faces, making it a supreme judgement of pacing strategy and how best to utilise the riders.

Garmin were the ninth team to start and they were 12 seconds ahead of Rabobank. They lost the Kiwi Julian Dean early but Dean’s job appeared to be to use his lead-out experience to get the group up to speed. They finished with five, with Hushovd crossing the line ahead of Hesjedal, Tom Danielson, Vande Velde and Millar. David Zabriskie was tailed off in the final few hundred metres having emptied the tank with his last big turn.

How relieved Hushovd must’ve been to slip out of the horrendous polka-dot skinsuit and replace it with the yellow jersey.

As an aside, it occurred that this could be the basis for a good quiz competition. With the king of the mountains points system being altered so that fourth-category hills offer up just a single point to the first man over the top, there was no one for stage one’s winner Philippe Gilbert to legitimately pass the jersey down to. No one else had scored a point. ASO, presumably wishing to satisfying the jersey’s sponsors, the Carrefour chain of supermarkets, made Hushovd wear polka dots anyway. It made him, surely, the first rider to wear the jersey without having scored a point.

Team Sky were a second up on Garmin at the first check. They dropped Xabier Zandio and Christian Knees during the first half of the course but kept it together, finishing four seconds slower than the American team.

HTC-Highroad were five seconds slower and might have pushed Garmin harder had Bernhard Eisel not crashed on an early left-hand bend. The Austrian had to ride almost the entire course on his own and only made the time limit by a minute and a half.

Asked how seriously losing a man had cost HTC, Vaughters was diplomatic, before pointing out that every mistake cost vital seconds.

“You can’t predict how well a rider is going to go, but it was a race you couldn’t make any mistakes in,” he said. “Had we made any mistakes, we wouldn’t have won. Going round a corner too fast and crashing is a mistake. We didn’t make any mistakes and that’s why we won.”

Leopard-Trek also finished four seconds back, which meant that, with Omega Pharma shipping water, only BMC Racing could thwart Garmin.

Cadel Evans’s team were only a second behind Garmin at the first check. Had BMC finished within three seconds of Garmin’s time, Evans would have taken the yellow jersey but the clock ticked on.

Hushovd, who rode with Vaughters in the Crédit Agricole team that sprung a surprise by winning the team time trial in the 2001 Tour, has won plenty of stages and worn the yellow jersey before.

But he cannot underestimate the significance of his latest success.

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