The racing, however, has been brilliant, and even though Chris Froome and Team Sky have the Yellow Jersey, I don’t believe this will be the usual procession to Paris.
The prologue is where it all started, with the rain bucketing down and the roads resembling an ice rink. Add 80km/h speeds and 25c tyres to the mix and it is a recipe for disaster. Lots of crashes happened, and top general classification riders other than Froome were reluctant to take risks after seeing Valverde crash at high speed and break his knee cap. There were time gaps, but overall they were not as bad as everyone seems to be making them out to be.
Geraint Thomas won the Prologue, but what surprised me more was Tony Martin finishing 4th. I really thought with this being a “home start” for him he would be there on the podium at least.
I feel that the sprint stages this year have been different compared to those in the past. Yes, crashes are a common thing, but lead-out trains have been messy and not the standard formation we are used to seeing. The riders are a lot more aggressive and the level of sprinting has picked up considerably, which by all accounts, is great to see. But that seems to have come with a price this year.
Even with Sagan and Cavendish out of the Tour, the two standout sprinters this year so far are Marcel Kittel and Arnaud Démare. Both have been a pleasant surprise, along with the fact that Kittel is getting the job done on a controversial disc brake bike.
Kittel has had a solid season so far with eight wins leading into the Tour. He is all about raw power on a bike: a key weapon in his arsenal is how long he can hold his top speed during his sprint. Others often tend to fade or don’t even match his top speed, never mind maintain it. He does, however, need to go long to make it effective. This was evident on Stage 7 when the kick to the line was later than usual for the sprint and he was not able to get to full top speed.
Démare is four years younger than Kittel but shows great maturity and his team this year is a lot better at their job. They also look a lot more diverse in terms of overall strength, which will only benefit Démare getting to the line in better shape to execute his finish. He has also had a good run up this year in terms of results with wins at French National Championships, the green jersey at Dauphine, Paris – Nice, Halle Ingooigem, 4 Jours de Dunkerque, GP de Denain – Porte du Hainaut and Etoile de Besseges. His form is good and he holds the Green Jersey for now.
The unfortunate problem is that Démare was out of time limit on Stage 9 so this knocks him out of the Tour and green jersey competition.
Michael Matthews has been in the shadows and is much like Sagan in terms of being able to climb and pack a really good sprint. He was always quiet about Green Jersey ambitions but by being in the break on Stage 9 and going for the intermediate sprint, he is now only 50 points down on Kittel. If he carries on like this, taking intermediate points on the climbing days, he will take the Green Jersey from Kittel.
This competition is still wide open.
Looking at the sprinters, it is also worth taking note of the lead out by Reinhard Janse van Rensburg on stage 7. That was one of the best lead-outs I have seen in a long time. He basically went so hard and so fast that no one could come around him and he had blown off all the other lead-out men for other sprinters. He carried so much speed that Démare was unable to move up from 10th wheel before dropping Boasson Hagen at the right 145 metres to go mark.
The end result was Edvald Boasson Hagen placing 2nd by .003 of second. I think he should have gotten it on that lead out alone regardless of the split seconds!
Sagan Stage 3 win
There is so much chatter about his stage win and how he did it. To give my two cents on the matter below is the top ten on that stage which ended on a pretty short and nasty climb:
1. Peter Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe
2. Michael Matthews (Aus) Team Sunweb
3. Daniel Martin (Irl) Quick-Step Floors
4. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team
5. Alberto Bettiol (Ita) Cannondale-Drapac
6. Arnaud Démare (Fra) FDJ
7. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana Pro Team
8. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Sky
9. Christopher Froome (GBr) Team Sky
10. Rafal Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe
Twitter and social media geniuses are crediting everything from doping to motors for his win, which I find pretty poor. When you break it down: five (Sagan, Matthews, Martin, Van Avermaet, and Démare) of the top ten carry a decent sprint. Of those, two (Sagan and Matthews) hold a pretty good sprint after that type of finish, and out of those two only Sagan holds an incredible sprint.
When you go to the line with those riders, Sagan is head and shoulders above them all. Matthews comes close but Sagan would have crested that climb in better shape, he was also positioned perfectly inside the front group coming out when the time was right.
The impressive part is his unclipped cleat – but again there is a reason why Sagan is where he is in pro cycling, he is known to do incredible things on a bike and this was one of them. I often believe he does things subconsciously and doesn’t know how.
Sagan vs Cavendish
This is a really hard call to make and please both parties, as each party thinks their non-favoured rider is in the wrong. Personally, I’m on the fence for a few reasons.
When you really analyze the footage, the elbow had nothing to do with the crash, if anything, it helped Sagan stay upright. Cavendish had gone for a very tight gap and had ridden into the back of Sagan who was slowly drifting over and used his head – as Cavendish often does – to do whatever he had to do. This then caused Cavendish to go down hard.
To me, both riders are in the wrong and I personally believe they know it. Hence the way it was handled between them after the whole incident calmed down. Cavendish also showed a lot of maturity, something he would not have done in earlier years.
Sending Sagan home is bad for the Tour and sends a bad message. There have been a lot worse incidents during the Tour and during sprints in particular, that have carried a significantly less harsh ruling and sometimes none at all. It should have been enough to relegate both riders to last place and no points for the green jersey or even slap a 2000 CHF fine onto the deal.
The Tour needs to keep rulings consistent, over the years they have battled to set that precedent.
The battle for yellow
I have to start by saying that watching Ritchie Porte crash was something I did not like seeing. Crashes are common in cycling but road rash and bruised egos are one thing: seeing him motionless is another. It is not the right way to leave a Tour or lose the general classification battle.
This year we are seeing an aggression by riders in the Tour that we have not seen in years. They are not afraid to attack and the attacks they are producing are full of commitment.
Overall, the level of this year's Tour has been elevated. At first, I thought that maybe Team Sky are not as strong as they have been in years prior by controlling the race on climbing stages – notably stage 5 when BMC had done the lion’s share of the pacing that day.
When the decisive moves went, Sky were unable to follow or close it down as they usually do. When Yates put in an attack, Thomas brought it back and was done, leaving Froome alone. Typically this is where Sky brings it back and keeps the tempo high but this time they were unable to and were off the front group. I really do not believe that they are a weaker team, I think that the competition has improved and the playing field has now been leveled, leaving it harder to control the pace as they once did.
The difference now with riders is that off that high tempo set by Sky they are able to produce a sustainable attack and change the flow of the race, and disrupt the Sky train.
Another change in the race tactics is the aggression in the way they descend. It is now full tilt like their lives depend on it. When you look at the lack of mountain top finishes in this year's race: riders can not rely on making up time in the mountains by dropping their competition and have to attack the downhill into the finish. Bardet is clear evidence of this, he is going down the mountain quicker than a train in a greased mine shaft.
I foresee the Tour becoming a three horse race with Froome, Bardet, and Aru hunting the overall win. Sky as a team is the strongest, but they will have their work cut out for them until Paris to protect the yellow jersey. AG2R have elevated their game strength-wise, and tactically they cannot be faulted so far. Stage 9 showed their tactical strength and it nearly worked until the 2km to go mark when Bardet was unfortunately caught. Both Bardet and Aru are not afraid to attack when they feel the opportunity arises and with them being as strong and confident as they are, Sky and Froome have a race on their hands. It will only be a matter of time before one of the attacks sticks, and when it does, it will be dangerous for Sky and Froome.
There is a lot of racing left in this Tour and it is going to be really exciting: anything can happen.