Words by Mikkel Condé. Photos by Kramon - Sirotti Photo
Getting ready to write this piece, I was expecting to be talking a lot about the amazing crowds in the UK and Marcel Kittel’s extreme superiority in the bunch sprints. However, after Wednesday’s brutal stage on the cobblestones, we have to look at the fight for the general classification as well. This year’s Tour de France started out as a true cycling fest in Yorkshire. Millions of people were applauding the riders alongside the road – a beautiful view but also very dangerous. It didn’t take long before the first crashes occurred in the peloton due to spectators standing too close to the road. A crash was also what ended up making the biggest headlines at the end of day 1. The home favorite, Mark Cavendish, didn’t manage to position himself well in the final sprint. While trying to get out of his boxed-in position, Cavendish head-bumped Simon Gerrans causing both riders to crash with just a few hundred meters to go. Exit Cavendish. Marcel Kittel repeated his opening victory from 2013, despite a demanding uphill finish. From here on, none of the other sprinters has been even near to beating the big German. Giant-Shimano has perfected their leadout train. In the Giro d’Italia, Kittel had to win on his own. This time, the Dutch team has been absolutely brilliant. Contrary to Omega Pharma Quikstep and Lotto-Belisol, Giant-Shimano knows it doesn’t make sense to hit the front of the peloton before the 3 km to go-banner. John Degenkolb, Koen de Kort and Tom Veelers have led out Marcel Kittel to win three stages so far.
On stage 6, Giant-Shimano was forced to work hard early in the stage. In the final sprint, Marcel Kittel ran out of energy and Andre Greipel took a much-needed win. The next chance for the sprinters is stage 15. Giant-Shimano and Marcel Kittel will have to get through the mountains as easy as possible. Kittel is still the best sprinter in this race and much will have to go wrong for him not to win a couple more stages. Stage 6, however, proved that he’s not unbeatable. After 4 days designed mainly for the sprinters, stage 5 turned everything upside down. This was the most feared one of the flat stages and it proved to be just as deciding as expected. The big overall favorite, Chris Froome, crashed twice before the riders even reached the first pave section. What should have been the best duel in decades, between Alberto Contador and Chris Froome, got cancelled. Hopefully, we will get to see this fight in the Vuelta a España later this year. After taking the yellow jersey on stage 2, Vincenzo Nibali turned out to be the best one of the GC riders on the cobblestones. Together with an extremely strong and motivated Astana team, Nibali left behind all his rivals. He’s now leading the Tour de France with over two and a half minutes to Alberto Contador. For some, the race may seem over, but this is definitely not the case. Without Chris Froome, Alberto Contador is - by far - the best climber left in the peloton. The Spaniard is now forced to attack whenever he sees a possibility and this will make for an extremely interesting race. We didn’t get to see the big fight between Froome and Contador, but this new scenario will give us a very exciting race all the way to Paris.
Looking at the strength of the teams, Astana has shown incredible power. Both, in numbers of riders in front and in speed. In Jakob Fuglsang, Nibali has the strongest teammate in the peloton on the climbs. Don’t forget the Danish rider finished 7th in the Tour de France last year. Fuglsang is in great shape right now and sitting 2nd overall, just two seconds behind Nibali, this race couldn’t have started any better for Astana. Lieuwe Westra was outstanding on the cobblestones. He will be of huge importance for Nibali on the flat parts in this Tour. Furthermore, Astana has Tanel Kangert and the former Giro d’Italia winner Michele Scarponi ready to support their Italian team leader. Before the Tour started, Astana had been the big favorite to win the team classification. With such a strong start, it’s hard to see which team should be able to challenge them.
After Chris Froome’s exit, Team Sky will now have to switch their focus on to Richie Porte. In 2013, Porte and Froome made a very strong duo. Porte proved to be so good on the climbs - and against the clock - that Team Sky had him build the 2014 season around winning the Giro d’Italia. Due to various injuries and setbacks, Richie Porte had to skip the Giro and instead put all his focus on getting ready for the Tour. He finished Critérium du Dauphiné on a strong note and he’s, allegedly, starting out this Tour even stronger than last year. After the first five stages, Richie Porte is 8th overall. He’s 1:54 min after Vincenzo Nibali but still in front of the two other big GC favorites, Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador. It would be a huge mistake to underestimate the Tasmanian in this race.
So far, except for Marcel Kittel and Vincenzo Nibali, the strongest rider in this year’s Tour de France has been Peter Sagan. In the first five stages, Sagan hasn’t finished worse than fourth. The green jersey already seems secured as long as he stays upright. On stage 5, Sagan focused too much on Fabian Cancellara instead of the riders in front of him. This caused a small gap, which Sagan and Cancellara never managed to close. Had Sagan been attentive and stayed up front, he would have had no match in the final sprint. It will be interesting to see when Peter Sagan will finally break the spell and win a stage in this race. It can only be a matter of time. Much has happened in this Tour de France after just five stages. Many top names are out and we already have big time gaps in the general classification. There are still 16 stages left and it’s safe to say that anything really can happen. The peloton enters the first mountains this weekend. If the first week is any indication, we should be in for quite a show!