Richard Browne on Wiggins, Sagan and Schleck.
The six days of racing up to the second race day have not been the most fascinating, in all honesty.
This was typified by Stage 15, won by Pierrick Fedrigo as the peloton decided not to bother chasing him and his fellows in the breakaway.
What we do know now, as the Tour draws to its conclusion, is that – assuming he avoids injury or elimination – Peter Sagan has won the green sprinters jersey, and that Bradley Wiggins has very much grown into his yellow jersey. Oh, and we also found out that leaving tacks on the road is a very stupid thing to do.
Yellow suits you, Brad
Having taken the Maillot Jaune on Stage 7 and strengthened his advantage on Stage 9, Bradley Wiggins continues to look untroubled as overall race leader. The high Alpine mountain stages (10 and 11) both brought wins for Frenchmen – Thomas Voeckler and Pierre Rolland – but it was Wiggins and Team Sky who had most to be pleased about.
Not only did Wiggins, paced by his teammates on every ascent and descent, comfortably remain in top spot, but his main rival Cadel Evans cracked. The climb up to La Toussuire was too much for the Australian, and so he slipped into fourth and Wiggins’ chief lieutenant Chris Froome moved up into second.
Thus Sky have the top two riders in the Tour, and they do not look like letting go of their grip on the race until their men have crossed the finish line in Paris. The Pyrenees are still to come, and to feel comfortable at any point in the Tour can be a fatal mistake. Nonetheless, this has been a phenomenal performance from the team so far, and I can only see that continuing.
From an individual point of view, Wiggins demonstrated in Stage 14 that he is the race leader in sportsmanship as well as on time. The peloton was rolling along happily until several riders – Cadel Evans being one – suffered punctures as a result of tacks on the road. Whatever the saboteurs were hoping to achieve, Wiggins made sure that the bunch slowed to allow the tack victims to catch up, an act which was praised by race organisers and journalists alike.
A very sporting gesture by Wiggins, if spoiled slightly by what he said in a post-race interview: the culprits should be sent “to a football match”. Oh Bradley.
I want to break free
There has been just the one stage decided by a bunch finish – Andre Greipel won his third stage of this year’s Tour in Le Cap d’Agde. Aside from that, it’s been the breakaways who have won their cat-and-mouse battles with the peloton.
In addition to wins for Frenchmen Voeckler, Rolland and Fedrigo, Scot David Millar and Spaniard Luis Leon Sanchez have notched victories by getting themselves into breaks and staying away from the pursuit.
Why has this been the case? It’s not unusual for several breakaways to succeed each Tour, but this year has seen more than the last few years. Fedrigo benefited from a tired peloton, which was clearly looking ahead to the rest day. On the other stages, the breakaways have stayed away thanks to the escapees working together well or – perhaps more significantly – a divided peloton.
Sky, as the team with the yellow jersey in their ranks, have spent a lot of time on the front of the bunch, but they are riding for Bradley Wiggins and not sprinter Mark Cavendish. With Cavendish not top of their priorities, they have not put their all into drawing the breaks back to set him up for a bunch sprint.
The teams of Cavendish’s rivals Andre Greipel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) have not always excelled in pacing the peloton either. Less effective chasing by the peloton, and thus fewer orthodox bunch sprint finales, have led to two main outcomes: more breakaway winners, and a stroll in green for Peter Sagan.
Slovakian Peter Sagan has probably been the shining star of this year’s Tour so far. While his Liquigas teammates look after overall contender (third-placed) Vincenzo Nibali, Sagan has done his own thing and, almost casually, collected 356 sprint points, more than Mark Cavendish took in the whole of the last Tour. His nearest rival, Andre Greipel, has 254.
With five stages left, then, the green jersey looks to be his, as long as he can cross the finish line in Paris.
Sagan is not your typical sprinter, and Cavendish, Greipel and Goss can all boast better flat-out speeds. The number of breakaway wins has helped Sagan, but he has also been extremely savvy out on the road. Whenever points are there to be taken, he’s usually sniffing hopefully. Those one and two points taken at intermediate sprints have added up as the Tour progresses, giving him the total that should get him green.
But if he does win green and looks back on the event, Stage 14 will be the clincher. He got himself into the breakaway to grab some intermediate sprint points, and took them. Then, despite two first-category climbs on the road to Foix, he stayed with the breakaway. Luis Leon Sanchez won the stage but Sagan took second and a bucketload of points with no other jersey contenders in sight.
Aged 22, Sagan won’t be going anywhere for some time, and it looks like the Tour has found a new favourite.
This is something of a postscript, but I realise that everything I have just written about has now been overshadowed by cycling’s all-too familiar foe.
Frank Schleck, who was sitting 12th in the yellow jersey standings, failed a drugs test and has been withdrawn from the race by his team, RadioShack-Nissan. He tested positive for the diuretic Xipamide, which is on the UCI (cycling’s governing body) banned substances list, on 14 July.
Doping has threatened this Tour already, with Frenchman Remy di Gregorio was suspended after failing a test, while Tour legend Lance Armstrong continues to battle the doping allegations placed at his door.
But this is the biggest of the lot. Schleck finished third at last year’s Tour. He is/was one of the faces of cycling’s new clean image, alongside his brother Andy. While Xipamide is hardly EPO or some other performance-boosting substance, it is clear that cycling is yet to win its war on drugs – but of course it was never going to be a quick fix, if you’ll pardon the expression.
What lies in wait for Schleck, his team (the team’s manager, Johan Bruyneel, being heavily involved with Armstrong’s seven Tour wins) and the Tour itself remains to be seen.