TDF Stage 1: Individual Time Trial

Saturday’s stage was the individual time trial, where you race one at a time, against the clock. The early riders departed with 1-minute time-gaps, the highest-ranked riders (who race last), with longer gaps. Only 8.7 miles (14 KM), in Dusseldorf, although it’s not what is called “a technical course” – meaning there aren’t a lot of tight turns or “traffic furniture” like barriers, that you need to weave around (as Christian Vande Velde said, “Only 11 corners out of 14 KM, less than a 1/1 ratio”) – it is raining. As you know if you’ve slipped crossing a street in the rain, the “white lines” like pedestrian crossings, lane-lies, and road markings, are treacherous when wet. Usually, you don’t see crashes on a time-trial like this, but the rain put butts on pavement.

Strategy for Today

From a strategic perspective, the General Classification (GC or Yellow Jersey) contenders need to do well enough in the Time Trial (TT) that they don’t lose time to their competitors because they’ll need to make up that time later. Unless they specialize in time trials – unusual for GC contenders, who usually do better in the mountains – it’s unlikely any of them will take yellow today.

It’s also unlikely that a sprinter will take yellow today, but some sprinters may be trying to do well enough to take the yellow jersey later in the week if they win a sprint stage and get time bonuses to push them into first place on the road. That’s possible during the first week but, once the race gets into the mountains, the sprinters lose so much overall time that the yellow jersey leaves them far behind. One sprinter who will take more risks today is Peter Sagan, a former mountain-biker, who is known for his bike-handling skills. Peter can also hold his own on all but the steepest mountains; so if he can get a pretty good time today and take yellow at some point this week, he may be able to hold it for a few days, even when the race moves into the mountains.

Today belongs to the time-trialers – if they can take yellow today, there’s always a chance they can keep it for a few days, quite an achievement for a time-trialer, who’s only other chance would be to keep up with the leaders during the first week and get into a long, solo breakaway that gives him enough of an advantage that he can earn yellow. (If he succeeds – unusual – he’ll be so exhausted that he’ll only wear it for a day.) In 2015, German Tony Martin took yellow in the opening time-trial, and then lost it several days later when he crashed and had to go home. With the Grand Depart in Dusseldorf this year, all the German time-trialers have their eyes on a stage-win — and yellow. You can tell how serious they are by their equipment: solid disc-wheels, super-fast dimpled skin suits, and aerodynamic jelly-bean helmets. Rumors surfaced that Team Sky – as in love with precision and tech as US Postal was in its day – created 3D-printed handlebars for Froome and Thomas.

The strategy for everyone else is to just finish safely so they can race tomorrow.

Tactics for Today

The earlier riders – who are less likely to do well on the day’s course – are testing the course for the later riders on their team and reporting back how bad the road conditions are. That’s their job today. That will affect equipment-decisions – rainy time-trials are harder with disc-wheels – and decisions about how fast to try to go.

They just showed Chris Froome riding in the team car that was following his teammate Kwiatkowski during his time trial, noting issues with the course and setting benchmarks for the various time-checks.

Also showing riders watching a video of the course in virtual reality goggles to allow them to get used to the course.

The name of the game today is aerodynamics and tech: in addition to the equipment decisions, the riders focus on their posture. Leaning forward on tri-bars – special handlebars, with a narrow grip, less than shoulder-width – they hug their elbows into their sides, and drop their chest down between their elbows, trying to have as streamlined a profile as possible. They keep the back of their head parallel to the road and eyes forward, to maintain a smooth line between the back of their helmet and their shoulders.

Another example of tactics: Alejandro Valverde of team Movistar crashed and left the race for hospital (broken kneecap), a big blow for teammate Nairo Quintana’s chances. Last year, Quintana finished third overall, partly because of tactics that he and Valverde used in the mountains to soften up the other contenders. Quintana started today’s time trial after Valverde went down – did the team manager tell Quintana that Valverde was out? Apparently not. It was going to be a tough race for Quintana this year anyway because they’re saying he pushed himself too hard in the Giro D’Italia. As a manager, under a last-minute deadline for an important project, what do you tell your best player when his right-hand man drops out?

Results

Chris Froome, usually a cautious bike-handler in the rain, took risks in the corners and finished in sixth place, 35 seconds ahead of his rivals, psyching them out before the race even really begins. It doesn’t sound like much considering they have 20 days to make it up, but it’s an enormous challenge. They can’t afford to make any mistakes on the flat stages this week – and the first week is always dangerous because the peloton has not developed their crowd-awareness yet and there are a lot of accidents when the road narrows and the group becomes compressed around sharp corners and road furniture, and in the final kilometers of the race. When they get to the mountains, it’s still hard to gain time. Richie Porte, a great time-trialer for a GC contender – was extremely conservative and it shows in his time. Richie Porte, Alberto Contador, and Nario Quintana will struggle to catch up unless Froome falls off his bike and has to carry it up a hill to the finish line – and even when that happened last year, he still finished first in the overall race.

Stage winner, and in yellow for stage 2, Geraint Thomas, Froome’s teammate on Team Sky, and a big victory since he crashed out of the Giro. In a post-race interview, Thomas says, “The roads aren’t too slippery if you don’t take them too fast.” He talked about pacing, staying steady through the race – hard to do if your coach is in the car behind you screaming, “Venga, Venga, Venga!”

Tony Martin finishes fourth. Stefan Kung, who came in second, takes the white jersey for Best Young Rider.

Team Sky has four guys in the top eight, a point of pride for team standings.

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