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Thursday, 16 July 2015

TOUR DE FRANCE 2015 - WEEK 1

 Stage 1 
Controversy started even before a single rider had stepped down the ramp of the opening individual time trial. Lars Boom had shown abnormally low level of cortisol, which could mean poor health or doping. Under the MPCC rules (Mouvement pour un cyclisme credible), a voluntary organisation for professional teams with a clean-cycling ethos, Boom should have been suspended for racing for 8 days, but Astana wouldn't have it and the rider took to the start. Astana was therefore suspended by MPCC, which is like hitting someone with a foam baton.

As the stage was held in Utrecht, Netherlands, Dutch time trial specialist Tom Dumoulin was the favourite to take the yellow jersey if he could hold back stiff competition from Tony Martin and Cancellara. However, the result was turned on its head when former hour record Australian Rohan Dennis decided to break the all-time TT record at the Tour and go faster than even Boardman managed at the height of his career and registered a meteoric 55.446 km/h.

 Stage 2 
Flat and windy. The peloton broke up all over the place, leaving some GC riders with big gaps to deal with. Notably Nibali tried his best to close those gaps but to no avail as nobody wanted, or could, join in the fun of a chase in the wind.
This, being one of a very few flat stages, promised to be the first chance to see the sprint titans at work and it didn't disappoint. Etixx-QuickStep faltered in their train tactics and Cavendish was left to go too early, dying 50 metres from the line. Greipel surged ahead with Sagan and took the win with panache. Cancellara beat Cavendish in the sprint to take the third spot. This happened for two reasons, Cancellara was faster and Cavendish gave up, seemingly, thus denying his teammate Tony Martin the yellow jersey. Quite possibly the Manxman simply ran out of puff.

 Stage 3 
The Fleche Wallonne facsimile. With a finish on the Mur de Huy in Belgium this stage was for an altogether different set of riders. Although the usual suspects would be the favourites on paper, some of the GC guys, who normally don't contest this classic race, would prove themselves at home in this parcours. Rodriguez took the win, as expected, but the show was stolen by Froome, who surged from the peloton to hunt down the Spaniard; he didn't make it but he still managed to gap his rivals. Notable, and it would become the norm later, was Nibali's lack of strength as he dropped down the group on the final climb.
The day was marred by two exceptional crashes, one involving the yellow jersey Fabian Cancellara who tumbled spectacularly and broke a few vertebrae. He didn't know the extent of his injuries at the time so somehow he managed to finish the stage, finally rejoining the peloton after the commissaires halted the race to give time for the medical staff to regroup and be available for the remainder of the day. What seemed a controversial decision at the time, turned out to be just common sense.

 Stage 4 
Cancellara could not start the stage. Paris-Roubaix it wasn't but the cobbled sections were nonetheless as painful and as dangerous. Nibali did what Nibali does, attack attack attack, but none of those had any conviction. Pinot, earlier considered an outside bet for a second podium, had a mechanical and managed to throw the tantrum of tantrums! Refused a teammate's bike and threw all the toys out of his pram, thus losing minutes in GC. Tony Martin did the opposite, had to swap his bike for a smaller one kindly donated by a teammate, attacked in the final kilometres for an emphatic solo finish and conquered a well earned yellow jersey.

 Stage 5 
Wind again, echelons and not much else until the Flamme Rouge, where Cavendish inexplicably lost touch with the last two teammates in front and had to fight back, losing strength in the process. Renshaw, who was at this point working for the rest of the peloton, dropped away too soon once again and Cavendish started the sprint too soon, pulling Greipel in the process who went on to win the sprint, while Sagan raced past him as well at the speed of light but 20 metres too late.

 Stage 6 
This undulating stage gave the first mountain points and Ethiopian rider Teklehaimanot made history when he became the first African rider to wear the polka dot jersey. The finish was at the end of a slight rise, which meant a fight for position was crucial. On that final ramp, Tony Martin was involved in a touch of wheels and crashed heavily breaking his collarbone. The concertina effect of his crash brought down a few riders. Nibali was hit from the left and bumped into Froome to his right. Somehow the Italian managed to blame the Sky rider and allegedly later he threw him a bottle. This incident was then sorted out in the Astana team bus when Froome and Rowe went to talk to Nibali for explanation of his behaviour. They shook hands and made up.
While this crash was happening, further ahead the fight for the line continued. Stybar took the chance and accelerated away to win in style. Sagan, so used to second places by now, preferred to play cat and mouse with the rest rather than chase down the Czech rider.

 Stage 7 
Tony Martin retired from the Tour, another yellow jersey gone to hospital. Froome, who was second in GC, could not wear the yellow jersey as a form of respect but also because of rules, given that he hadn't finished a stage in the lead yet.
At last Cavendish found his inner strength and got it right to win the stage, his first in two years, choosing wisely the right side of the road closer to the finish line, while Greipel went wide. Etixx-QuickStep rounded up a great first week for their campaign.

 Stage 8 
The much talked about Mur de Bretagne. Not as steep as the Mur de Huy but almost as brutal given the extra speed and length. Not much happened until the very last climb with several riders attacking and Froome showing once again his top form. However, the winning move came close to the top by Frenchman Vuillermoz who made a well timed move with nobody following purposefully. That is, until Dan Martin decided to do a Sagan impression and go fastest but too late. Nibali still looking the weakest of the GC contenders.

 Stage 9 
The Team Time trial. Orica GreenEdge had, by this stage, had the opposite start than in the Giro d'Italia and lost three of his riders. One of them, Matthews was hanging on by a thread so it was only fair they came last. Astana were fast but all over the place on the road. Nibali was frustrated, went too fast, thus breaking the rhythm in the pacing. Movistar did well, having three national TT chmpions in the team, even though one of them, Dowsett, was injured and not firing on all cylinders. It was BMC that posted the best time, putting Van Garderen in an enviable position for GC. Sky nearly pipped them, only 0.6 seconds behind. As the time is calculated when the fifth rider crosses the line, the task fell to a struggling Roche. While the rest of the team kept looking back in worry, Thomas seemed to reach out with a hand and Froome rode back to him to lead him on. Not enough to win but enough not to lose time in classification.

 Other news 
Ivan Basso, Contador's ageing lieutenant, had to withdraw from the Tour because during a checkup following a crash, doctors found a lump on one testicle and a prompt test revealed testicular cancer. Tributes and well wishes poured in from social media and press alike.
Adam Hansen is riding on after dislocating his shoulder for a record 12th consecutive Grand Tour.
Luca Paolini failed a doping test for a substance found in cocaine. He has been suspended pending the results of the B sample. Should that be positive as well he would be sacked by Katusha and career over. Fans are torn between disbelief and anger, compassion and condemnation for such a popular rider.
Froome's 2013 data from the Ventoux stage had been allegedly hacked/leaked and a myriad of would be and genuine experts tried to point out the discrepancies in power/heart rate comparisons. A video was made using that data, showing second by second Froome's progress on the climb, and it was quickly taken down when Team Sky's lawyers got involved. Some saw evidence of doping, others were sceptical of the data accuracy, and others still were simply bored of the conspiracy theorists.

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