On July 4 the 102nd Tour de France began in the historic town of Utrecht. This is the 6th time, the Grand Depart has started in Holland. Utrecht was bedecked in yellow and the streets lined with thousands of cheering supporters as the 22 teams and 198 riders began the Tour with the 13.8km time trial.
This year’s event will cover 3,360km over 21 stages. The shortest being the opening time trial in Utrecht (13.8km) and the longest, stage 4 from Seraing to Cambrai 223km. There are two time trials: the opening individual time trial, and the 28km team time trial in Brittany on stage nine. Nine stages are flat (mostly at the start of the Tour), three hilly stages and seven stages in the mountains, three in the Pyrenees and four in the Alps. Culminating with the penultimate stage 20, with the spectacular and arduous ascent of the Alpe d’Huez, with 21 hairpin turns and the narrow road lined with thousands of cheering fanatical fans. Victory on the Alpe d’Huez will probably determine the winner of the Tour. Then the final processional stage through Paris, finishing on the Champs Elysees.
There are four jerseys being challenged for. The most prestigious is the Yellow jersey for the overall Race winner (or General Classification) and worn by the race leader after each stage. The Green jersey for the rider who accumulates the most points, which normally favours the sprinters. The Red Polka Dot jersey for the King of the Mountains and the White jersey for the leading young rider (born on or after 1st January 1990).
There are two other awards: yellow numbers for the leading Team, with points awarded to the first three riders of each Team completing each stage; and a red number for combativity awarded by jury after each stage to the rider displaying the most grit and aggression.
The tour this year favours the mountain climbers. The four to watch out for are last year’s winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana); Nairo Quintana (Movistar) regarded as the strongest climber and second on the Tour in 2013; Chris Froome (Team Sky), who won the Tour in 2013, but crashed out last year, but has already won the Criterium du Dauphine this year; and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), winner of the Tour in 2007 and 2009, winner of the Vuelta a Espana in 2014, and Giro d’Italia this year.
Contador is the most experienced rider, a strong climber, and probably the most tactically savvy and mentally tough of the leading four. Other riders to watch out for: the French trio of Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr), Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R La Mondiale), Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin), Rigoberto Uran (Etixx Quickstep), and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). The likely Tour winner will come from the ‘Big Four’, but expect the others to figure prominently throughout the Tour.
The sprinters are also favoured. In this year’s Tour double points are awarded for the flat stages. Leading riders for the Green jersey are Andre Griepel (Lotto Soudal), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Mark Cavendish (Etixx Quickstep), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), who has won the jersey for the past three Tours, Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), and Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin).
The Polka Dot jersey is likely to be won by one of the Big Four: if winning the Tour means mastering the mountains, then the red polka dot will be worn by either Nibali, Froome, Contador or Quintana along the Champs Elysees.
The Tour began in Utrecht, with Daniel Teklehaimanot, as the first rider on the course representing MTN Qhubeka, the first African registered team on the Tour. Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) proved the surprising winner of the time trial, with the fastest speed recorded ever on the Tour, either for a stage or prologue, of 55.4km.hr, completing the course in 14mins 56seconds. Tony Martin (Etixx Quickstep) came second 5seconds behind. Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) was third, 6seconds behind. None of the Big Four lost significant time on the trial: Nibali was 43seconds behind, Froome 50seconds, Contador 58seconds and Quintana 61seconds.
Stage two, (166km) from Utrecht to Zeeland was tricky. This took the race through Rotterdam and along the coast to finish across the impressive sea barrages in Zeeland. It exposed the riders to crosswinds that split the peloton into echelons. And rainy weather made the road surface slippery. A crash just outside Rotterdam split the peloton, then the crosswinds ensured the split became entrenched.
The finish belonged to the sprinters: although Mark Cavendish (Etixx Quickstep) broke first, he was caught by Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal), who edged out Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) by a narrow tire width on the finish line. Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) came third.
For the Big Four, Chris Froome was given the same time as the winner, Alberto Contador only 4 seconds behind, but Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana were both caught in the peloton split and were 1min28seconds behind.
At the end of the second stage: the Yellow jersey was worn by Fabian Cancellara; the Green jersey by Andre Greipel (for the first time in his career); the white by Tom Dumoulin, The leading team was BMC Racing and the most combative rider, Michael Kwaitkowski (Etixx Quickstep).
The third stage, (159km) was from Anvers (Antwerp) to Huy. This was marred by a nasty crash with 68km to go. The Race Director, Christian Prudhomme stopped the race so medical staff could cope with the riders. The race resumed after ten minutes, the riders followed a safety car, and began racing again with 50km to go. Four riders retired immediately: the White jersey leader, Tom Dumoulin (FDJ), Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), William Bonnet (Giant Alpecin) and Dmitriy Kozonchuk (Team Katusha). More may follow when the extent of their injuries are better assessed.
The stage winner was Joaquim Rodriguez (Team Katusha), who finished strongly up the steep incline of Huy, closely followed by Chris Froome (Team Sky) with the same time, and Alexis Vuillermoz (AG2R La Mondiale) was third, four seconds behind.
For the General Classification, Chris Froome’s strong ride put him in the Yellow jersey, leading Tony Martin (Etixx Quickstep) by only a second, and Tejay van Garderen by 13seconds. Maybe it’s too early for a Big Four GC contender to be in yellow, but it has meant Chris Froome and Team Sky has put an early marker down on the Tour.
Week one is all about staying safe for the Yellow jersey contenders; amassing points for the Green jersey contenders in the sprints; and claiming early points for the Polka Dot jersey racers. The jerseys will change hands over the next few days, as the Tour sifts the competitors into contenders and team supporters.
For those watching, it is an incredible event of endurance with the riders displaying amazing fitness, power and strength, against a scenic backdrop unrivaled in any global sporting event.
Grahame Carder is a sports enthusiast and former player from representative Schoolboy level, through University and most corners where he’s lived. Currently works as Consultant on Strategy and Marketing.