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July 05, 2010

TdF Stage Two: Precaution in the Peloton

Today's Tour de France Stage 2 (which, of course, is the third event - one prologue and now two stages) illuminated what I think is a key understanding of the Tour De France.

Sylvain Chavanel went off the front early in Stage 2 and stayed there, fighting the wind alone, unaffected by the accidents that affected the rest of the pack. According to VeloNews,
It all started when Lampre rider Francesco Gavazzi crashed out of the breakaway on the Stockeu. A TV motorcycle then crashed while avoiding hitting Gavazzi, and the bike spilled oil on the road. The oil had time to run down the hill by the time the peloton came through a few minutes later, setting off a dangerous domino effect that saw over 60 riders sliding across the road.
After that, the peleton (the pack of riders) made a decision to ride conservatively for the rest of the day. Fabian Cancellara, wearing the yellow jersey and the mantle of the boss of the peloton, called for the slowdown to (1) permit those left behind to catch up if they could, and (2) to avoid more accidents and carnage among the riders on a wet, slippery day.

This had the effect of keeping some of the key riders, notably the Schleck brothers, in the same time bracket as the other presumed race leaders (Fränk and Andy Schleck, Alberto Contador, Fabian Cancellara, Lance Armstrong, etc.). It prevented opportunistic attacks.

Why did the riders observe the call for a slower pace? It's in their own interest. A rider that chooses to ignore the yellow jersey's call for a conservative, non-competitive ride would bear the wrath of the pack for the remainder of the Tour de France, and possibly longer than this event. Thor Hushovd and the Cervélo team were one of the few to resist the decision of the yellow jersey to neutralize the finish; it will be interesting to see if the pack penalizes them for bucking the trend.

While there are teams, each with their own champions and motivations, it's key to remember that the peleton also has a will of its own and the discipline to enforce its intent.

Let's review the results from the American perspective, which is of course: How is Lance, who also went down? Short answer: he survived the day and is in a perfect position. This is the overall standing at the end of Stage 2:
1. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick-Step) in 10:01:25. (We often see an early French winner)
2. Fabian Cancellara (Saxo) at 2:57. (in other words, 2m 57s behind Chavanel)
3. Tony Martin (HTC) at 3:07.
4. David Millar (Garmin) at 3:17.
5.
Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) at 3:19. (or, 22 seconds behind Cancellara)

6. Geraint Thomas (Sky) at 3:20.
7. Alberto Contador (Astana) at 3:24.
8. Tyler Farrer (Garmin) at 3:25.
9.
Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) at 3:25 (or, 6 seconds behind teammate Lance)

10. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) at 3:29

Chavanel is not a threat to win the overall Tour; he worked very hard today, got his sponsor's logos a lot of television time, accomplished the obligatory French win, and won a Stage. The top contenders are Cancellara, Tony Martin, David Millar, and Lance Armstrong, 22 seconds behind Cancellara. Armstrong's lieutenant, Levi Leipheimer, is only six seconds behind his boss.

This is exactly where Lance wants to be. The top three riders in the General Classification (GC) have to attend a press conference and mandatory drug testing. The fourth rider (and below) go straight to their meal, massage, rest, dinner and bed. Generally, Lance's strategy is to stay in fourth or fifth place throughout the first half of the tour, never moving too far away from the lead in terms of time. He'll maximize his rest and conserve his energy while others spend time on podiums and at press conferences. He may even use his team to manipulate who wins on certain days, in order to build alliances and earn goodwill to be used on his own behalf in the later stages.

The next stage includes the pavé, the infamous cobblestones (presumably included for Tom Boonen, who ended up not riding the TdF due to an injury) famous for a jarring ride, punctured tires, and fallen cyclists. If riders continue to fall off their bikes, Cervello may introduce this new carbon fiber frame to maintain their competitive advantage:

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