TDF: Stage 2 Liege, Belgium

126 miles (200 KM) from Dusseldorf, Germany to Liege, Belgium

Stage 2 is a sprinter’s stage. The top contenders were Mark Cavendish (who is suffering from Epstein Barr and has no business riding a 21-day race), Marcel Kittel (a German and on a Belgian team), Peter Sagan, and Andre Greipel (another German).

On this first non-time-trial stage, it is flat, a sprinter’s stage – these conditions combine to guarantee crashes. During the first week of the tour, with 195 people who aren’t used to riding together – including a number of riders new to riding the tour – all crowded in together, fighting for position. Later in the race, the peloton will turn with the precision of a flock of starlings or a school of tropical fish, but this early there will be a lot of nervous braking that leads to crashes. Add a little leftover rain making the roads slippery and you have conditions for disaster.

The sprinters are the only ones with strategy in a sprint-stage – everyone else just wants to finish safely. The tactic in a race like this is to stay at the front of the pack in the hopes that if a crash occurs, you don’t get caught behind it and lose time.

Breakaways

Another tactic: break away early to avoid the crashes. Today a four-man group broke away as soon as the race started: Taylor Phinney, Thomas Boudat, Yoann Offredo, Laurent Pichon who, at most, got 3.5 minutes ahead of the peloton. Taylor took the first set of mountain points; if he could take the other mountain points, he’ll have the polka-dot jersey at the end of the day.

But the sprinters’ teams are motivated to catch up with them (“pull them back”) because if the breakaway stays away until the end and finishes before the sprinters, the sprinters lose the opportunity to earn green-jersey points and to take the time bonuses earned by the first finishers, time bonuses that could put one of them in yellow. For most of the race, the sprint teams let the breakaway hover about 2-2.5 minutes in front, just far enough out that they can reel them in when they need to and just far enough out that no one else will try to escape to reinforce the breakaway.

Back in the Peloton

One intermediate sprint today, although the breakaway took the top points – the first rider across gets ten points, the second nine, etc. – the sprinters rehearsed the end of the race by racing for fifth place.

Usually you’d see the team with the yellow jersey on the front of the peloton from pride, to control the race, to stay out of crashes, but Team Sky – in yellow helmets today to celebrate their status – us letting the sprinters’ team control the race.

When you look at the peloton from above, you see a little needle on the front – today made up of representatives from several sprint teams – ending with Team Sky’s yellow helmets, then a blob with the other top contenders, each with a man or two of protection around them, followed by a long messy trail of everyone else, and finally another needle of riders snaking back through the team cars that follow the race, collecting water bottles for their teammates, conferring with managers, visiting the medical car for aspirin, bandaids and freeze-spray, then picking their way back up through the line of cars to find their teammates.

If your team has a man in the breakaway, you can hang in the main blob and conserve your energy for later because if the break stays away until the end, your team may take the stage and, if your teammate has pretty good time and it’s early in the race, maybe even the yellow.

The Feed Zone

About half-way through the race the riders hit the feed zone where a member of their support staff (soigneurs) will stand with an arm outstretched extending a small fabric bag (musette) containing food and drink. The riders pluck the bags like pony express riders grabbing the mail at speed on the hoof. Most team members will grab their own bag, some will take an additional bag on behalf of their team leader.

Feed zones are dangerous places because the tentative order organized in the group becomes disrupted as riders dart out to either side to grab bags, bags and bottles go tumbling among the wheels, soigneurs pop out when they see their rider, then dash back to relative safety.

What’s in the bags? Depends on the team and the rider – usually energy gel and bars, a water bottle possibly with something added, sometimes a sandwich or a croissant or cookie, a mini-Coke, a banana. You see the riders sitting up at full speed, root through the bag, pick out what they want to cram into their pockets, and toss everything else aside for the fans on the side of the road to grab as souvenirs. These guys are burning big calories and have to make up for it with a diet of whatever you want. In the olden days, they stopped for lunch at local cafes; now they bring nutritionists and their caravans are kitted out with amazing kitchens.

A lot of talk today about the fact that all three of yesterday’s injuries were caused by the barriers, which were the usual metal gates that you see at parades, not softened by the straw bales used in dangerous corners in other areas.

At 59 miles from the end, the sprinters start to pick up the pace and catch up with the breakaway. The front of the race still looks the same, but within the little blob of the peloton, the riders are congealing by team colors, and the long tail of riders at the back has grown longer.

Spectators

The sides of the road are packed with spectators, especially in the towns the pass through. For most of the race there are no barriers holding them back – just saw a photo where the barrier was a line of hanging tape — and you see fans leaning out to snap photos and, with increasing frequency and danger, selfies (particularly problematic because the “photographer” turns their back on the riders and leans back to capture the shot).

People line up hours ahead of time and then the race passes them by in probably 2-3 minutes, and it’s over. (For mountain stages, they line up days in advance, and the tour passes much more slowly on the uphill because the riders are more spread out and traveling at a slower speed.) The Tour tries to make things exciting for spectators with a parade that passes hours ahead of time, spreading signs, hats, t-shirts, foam fingers, noodles, candy, all branded by sponsors.

Today’s spectators are bundled up in rain coats and hats, waving umbrellas. Spectators on the flats are generally pretty genial, often local. (The crazy fans are up in the mountains, camping out and drinking beer, waiting for the race to come to them.) They decorate their towns, their fields, their cranes, and their cows in honor of the tour.

They’ve almost caught the breakway now and the sprint teams are getting excited – the blob has separated itself into lines of colors as the teams line up together and increase speed. They’re a little early now – if they catch the breakaway too soon, another will go free, and they’ll expend more energy chasing them down.

Crash

First crash, right at the front of the pack!

The first two riders went free, then the fourth slid out taking out the third rider and the next 10-20 people went down in a pile, including Team Sky. It was on a turn and there was a divider in the road with signs on it, a number of riders piled up on it like cordwood, others jumped up and began trying to straighten their handlebars, or roamed about trying to walk off their injuries or searching for a bike.

Froome is back up on a bike, racing to catch up with the rest of the group, his teammates lining up in front of him, pacing him back into the field. Now there’s chaos as everyone tries to find their teammates, their leaders, there’s a lot of skin showing through their uniforms. They’re saying everyone got back up and is riding – a good sign – but the injuries don’t often make themselves felt until after the adrenalin wears off.

The sprint teams are all together at the front, about 49 seconds behind the break, with the people who missed the accident following. Everyone involved in the accident is racing to catch up, picking their way through the cars, and then weaving through the pack to get back to the front where it is “safer.” Chris Froome caught up with the race then flagged down his team car and switched bikes. His teammates are pacing him back to the front. Now they’re picking their way through the team cars as they weave through crooked village streets, in the rain. Ick! They’re about 52 seconds back.

Back to the Breakaway

There’s a little race at the front between two of the riders in the breakaway for the mountain points, but it looks like Tailor Phinney has taken them and will wear polka-dots tomorrow if he can stay upright and finish the rest of the stage. Phinney has ridden away from the rest of the breakaway and trying to time trial to the end – seems silly.

Froome has returned to the pack and picks his way through the riders to find the rest of his team at the front.

Another breakaway rider caught Phinney and they’re working together to stay away from the peloton but they’re less than a minute in front and, when they hit the straight roads, the peloton will be able to see them. That sight will act like a magnet pulling the peloton toward them to close the gap. Paul Sherwen has some kind of magical math that calculates whether the breakaway can stay away and it looks like it’s going to be close.

Sprint finishes are so dangerous that there is a rule that, once you pass under the 3K banner, if there’s a crash, you won’t lose time. Finney just got caught and passed less than a mile from the finish line – he had been in front since the start – now the sprint teams are lining up to launch their sprinters to victory. They drive the pace higher and higher.

Results

Marcel Kittel of the Belgian Quick Step team wins, but not with enough of a lead to earn the yellow jersey. Time for a quick hug with his teammates, a few tears, then it’s off to the official wagon to pee in a cup for the drug-test, a pause in the kiss-and-cry to talk to reporters, and then to the podium for his trophy, a bouquet of flowers, and kisses from podium girls. He made it into third place overall, putting him in position to possibly capture the jersey tomorrow from Thomas, who retained it today, along with the team lead. Winning this stage also gives Kittel the green jersey for sprint points (along with another bouquet, in green this time, and kisses from another set of podium girls, these dressed in green).

Phinney gets the polka dot jersey, red and white flowers, and kisses from polka-dot garbed podium girls. Some speculate that he only went in the breakaway to avoid crashes – well, it worked but we’ll see how he feels tomorrow. He says, “I focused on getting this jersey because I thought it would be really cool and I might never get to wear it again… I’m hoping I can get some polka-dot shorts to go with it.”

Stefan Kung retains the white Best Young Rider jersey but even his knees are bloodied, hinting at his participation in the crash.

At the start of this post, I talked about how dangerous these spring stages are – the riders were lucky today with only one crash. Last year the crashes were ridiculous. Possibly everyone was riding carefully today because of the rain, and having a breakaway in front for the entire race probably also helped slow things down and keep them under control.

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