For cyclists this is the event we've been waiting for - Tour de France

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07/2/2012| 0 comments
by Neil Browne will be analyzing the Tour de France stages twice a week. Photo Fotoreporter Sirotti. will be analyzing the Tour de France stages twice a week. Photo Fotoreporter Sirotti.

For cyclists this is the event we've been waiting for - Tour de France will be analyzing the Tour de France stages twice a week.

The 99th edition of the Tour de France started in Liege, Belgium with the prologue and, as usual, will end 21 race days later in Paris. If you are a cycling fan this is the race you've been waiting for.

As with any sporting event there are the favorites for the overall victory. Defending Tour de France champion Cadel Evans of BMC Racing Team and Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky are on the short list of potential winners. However, this is sport and you never know what can happen on a narrow road. A miscalculation around a tight turn, a spectator leaning too far into the road or a mechanical at an inopportune time can ruin yellow jersey dreams.

In most cases Grand Tours kick off with a prologue time trial - a short effort that sets the general classification. So did the 2012 Tour de France. Not surprisingly Fabian Cancellara took the victory and yellow jersey with a dominating win. Seven seconds behind was Wiggins and 17 seconds back was Evans.

But looking deeper into the prologue results there were a couple of surprises. Evan's BMC teammate, Tejay van Garderen, finished in fourth place, once again showing he's a rider for the future. However, could the 23-year old American be called upon if Evans goes pear shaped? Not yet - but soon.

Another eyebrow raiser was the poor performance by Frank Schleck. We all knew that the older Schleck has the time trial skills of a pregnant turtle but still, we expected more than 136th place, 38 seconds back.

On the flip side was Peter Sagan going all out. He was on the gas so hard that going around the traffic circle his bike started to wash out and he rode "tripod" style to complete the turn and still keep the bike upright.

For those who don't know, Sagan is a former mountain bike junior world champion, so he has the skills to keep the bike upright in any situation. On that note, have you seen Sagan pulling wheelies on his road bike? Yeah, he knows how to handle a bike.

Another guy who was going all out was another BMC rider, Philippe Gilbert. While he didn't win (and I don't think he honestly thought he could) it was an effort to put himself near the top of the G.C. and perhaps sneak into yellow later in the week. We'll see in a couple of days if that strategy works out. With the season he's had so far, the Belgian needs to do something in July.

As usual, the Tour de France spreads more rumors than a middle school girl at recess. The top rumor of the day and looking more realistic is that the Schlecks, along with Kim Andersen and Jens Voigt will transfer to a new German team in 2013. This possible new team is sponsored by a shampoo company. It sounds a little crazy but a quick Google search and a couple of sites claim that the cosmetic industry makes 40 billion dollars alone in the US and 50 billion Euro in Europe. So yeah, they might have a few Euros to spend on a sport.

Stage 1 was going to be the typical Tour stage: break away gets an advantage of several minutes, gets caught, and in the last 20 kilometers the racing begins. Yes, the Tour stayed on plot, but the wrinkle was the kicker to the finish line, a sharp climb. Not particularly steep at a six percent average gradient, but it was enough to ruin Cavendish's chances of a stage victory. He pulled the ripcord when the terrain got tough. Sylvain Chavanel of Omega Pharma-QuickStep made a stab at victory as he was only seven seconds behind the yellow jersey, but he got nowhere.

However, it was Fabian Cancellara who broke away in the last one and a half kilometers. Bridging up to the powerful Swiss was the emerging super star of pro racing Peter Sagan of Liquigas-Cannondale.

As much as Fabs flicked his elbow Sagan wouldn't come around. It was Milan-San Remo all over again. And just like in Milan why should anyone in those closing meters take a pull for Cancellara?

Let's look at this logically. Cancellara is in yellow and his RadioShack-Nissan team wanted to defend. Going up the road is the best way to do that. Sagan (or someone in his team car) knew that, so while a stage win would have been nice for Fabs, keeping yellow was a priority. Sagan kept his cool and stayed on the rear wheel, pouncing in the last couple hundred meters taking the win. Cancellara kept the leader's jersey.

I don't want to hear any whining from people that Sagan should have pulled. Bike racing in the closing kilometers goes from cooperation to a knife fight - each rider waiting for the moment to stick it to the other. At the age of 22, Sagan has 17 UCI wins to his credit. Think about that.

That wasn't the only controversy of the day. A new rule was implemented by the ASO. The squad leading the team classification must wear a yellow helmet to denote that award. It seemed more like a punishment. There is no other way to say this but the yellow ruined Team Sky's kits. The clash of colors was horrendous and with that much yellow in the peloton (Cancellara - wearing the yellow jersey was also wearing a yellow helmet) it took away from the significance of wearing yellow - one of the most sacrosanct colors in professional cycling and the trademark of Le Tour.

The yellow helmet rule reminds me of kids who participate in a sport and no matter how they finish, they all get a ribbon for participating. Yellow is not to be given out lightly to a classification. It should be reserved for only the individual who is wearing the leader's jersey. Previously the leading team had a yellow outline on their number bibs. That was fine. Return to that, we'll pretend that the yellow helmet rule never happened and never speak of it again. Shhhh!

These early flat stages are not the most exciting. Stage 2 lived up to that prediction. Same formula as before: break away, it gets caught, lead-out trains start to form, and a bunch sprint for the win.

In last year's Tour de France Cavendish was the dominant sprinter. He had the might of a HTC lead out train that rivaled the speed of the French TGV and the German ICE. This is 2012 and he's a member of a squad that is committed to winning a jersey - just not the green one.

Cavendish showed today that he doesn't need no stinking lead-out train. He grabbed the rear wheel of Lotto-Belisol's Andre Greipel and slung himself out of the slipstream in the last 300 meters or so, taking a tight victory - a half a wheel.

This week has a couple more chances for the sprinters, but I expect Gilbert to make a go at tomorrow's Stage 3.

Tour Tech Geek Highlights
Road helmets have become more than just something to protect your head. Now they are becoming aerodynamic. Sure, being aero has always been part of the equation to building a lid, but last year Mark Cavendish won the road world championships with a cover over his Specialized helmet. This removable lid concealed the air vents and made it slice through the air. Cav's win didn't go unnoticed by engineers and marketing guys.

Flash forward and Giro just launched the Air Attack helmet. It's an aerodynamic road helmet with minimal venting reminiscent of a skateboarder's helmet or one of the villains from the movie "Spaceballs." Google the movie and you'll see what I mean.

Garmin-Sharp and Rabobank have a few of their riders using Air Attacks and Team Sky's Kask helmets have the vents closed in favor of aerodynamics. Time will tell if this is just a passing fad like seatmasts or the beginning of how road cycling helmets will be designed in the future.

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