TDF Stage 3: Verviers, Belgium to Longwy, France

This 132-mile stage bounces across Belgium and into France. In cycling, they categorize the difficulty of the hills or mountains that the riders must go over. The harder climbs have lower numbers: this stage has three category 4 climbs and finishes with a category 3 climb.

But no rain on this stage, so the roads are dry!

A hangover from stage 1: a controversy about Team Sky’s skin suits – apparently the dimples on their suits are so aerodynamic that they create “vortices” which supposedly puts them in violation of cycling rules. One of the other Director Sportifs has filed a grievance but the officials have said there isn’t a problem with the suits.

Tactics

As coverage started, a six-man breakaway was out in front with a two-minute lead. As we saw yesterday, two minutes isn’t much – about what the peloton likes because it’s just enough to discourage other breakaways without letting the break get an advantage that could turn into a win. A six-man breakaway is better positioned than yesterday’s three-man break because six men split the work instead of three, so each man works less hard. The peloton is stretched out in a long skinny line, with four teams sharing the work to keep the pace fast and not let the gap get bigger.

Nate Brown, who is on Finney’s team, joined the breakaway to protect Finney’s polka-dot jersey. How does that work? If another rider in the breakaway tries to get all the mountain points to catch up with Finney, Nate can take some of them to prevent him from catching up. Why didn’t Finney join the break? Well, first of all, he’s exhausted from yesterday and, second of all, if he had joined the break other polka-dot jersey hopefuls would also join the break to prevent him from getting to much of a lead in that competition.

Another tactical reason that the peloton is running fast today: there is a possibility of cross-winds and everyone is afraid that they’ll get left behind if the field splits; so they try to stay at the front to avoid any gaps within the field. However the cross-winds didn’t materialize today – if they do in another stage, I’ll explain why and how that affects strategy and tactics.

Yesterday I talked about how the peloton tried to catch the breakaway too far from the finish and other breaks would have jumped off the front and, just as they were reeling them in, a crash occurred. Today the peloton was more patient and waited until the optimal moment to pull them back. But, just as they had the breakaway within 40 seconds, there was a crash in the peloton which slowed most of them down. Yesterday’s crash was due to rain but today’s was more from the usual adjustment of a bunch of people learning to ride together in close quarters.

In the confusion, two or three guys jumped off the front of the peloton and joined the breakaway, making it even stronger. Tactically, three of the teams now each have two riders in the breakaway. This increases the chances for those teams to survive to the end of the stage. One rider can drive the pace and the other conserve his energy for the finish.

Strategy

Three of the riders in breakaway are French – and with this being the first stage to finish in a French town, there’s a point of pride to the French in winning today. The French haven’t won the TDF in years, so they need to take pride where they can. As I mentioned before, not every team is strategizing to win the yellow jersey – some teams have the strategy of continuing to fight another day by making sure their sponsors get camera-time. The best way to give your sponsor extended air time is to get into a long break. Even if you don’t win, your sponsor’s logos (plastered all over your jersey) gets minutes if not hours of air time.

Although not flat as a pancake – as most sprint stages are – this is a sprinter’s finish and the sprinter’s teams are doing most of the work in the peloton. Usually sprint finishes are super-fast and super-dangerous, but this one finishes at the top of the category 3 climb which slows things down and complicates the strategy.

First, this kind of finish favors sprinter Peter Sagan with his mountain-biking background. Some of the usual sprinters do so badly in the mountains that they may sit this one out.

Also some of the GC contenders may have targeted this stage as a good one for regaining time against Chris Froome. If they can get off the front when the road steepens and narrows, he could get caught behind slower riders. If another GC contender finishes first, he will earn a time-bonus that will eat into that 30-40 seconds of advantage that Chris Froome has.

The Finish

At 17.8 KM, two breakaway riders are left in front – one, then a second about 20 seconds back, followed 30 seconds later by the peloton. With these long, winding roads, uphill, the peloton has trouble seeing the people in front and catch up to them.

Now at 13.1 KM, the guy 20 seconds back got snapped up by the peloton, which is about 22 seconds back. A crash happens at the back of the pack, three riders including a Sky Team rider, a guy who is supposed to help Froome up mountains.

At 11.4 KM, the lone breakaway survivor is only 9 seconds in front. They hit a long straight-away and the peloton has him in his sights – soon they will suck him up and spit him out the back of the race.

9.4 KM out and the whole peloton is together except for the stragglers clawing their way onto the tail of the race.

At 8.6 KM, the sprint teams are trying to form trains at the front of the race to launch their sprinters for the finish line. At the same time, the GC teams are also trying to be at the front so they can be in front of any crashes that happen.

If you have a team where you have a great sprinter and no GC contender, your decision is clear: line up and launch your sprinter. The sprinter on Richie Porte’s team will probably be on his own though, because the rest of the team is protecting Richie.

They’re going downhill, on crazy hairpin turns through town, and the sprint teams are driving up the pace at the front to try to protect their sprinters – they’re up to 70-80 KPH – that’s almost 50 MPH, downhill, on narrow twisting roads with road furniture.

2.9 KM, the peloton is stretching out and they hit the final climb. Sky riders are dropping back and sprinters are fighting for lead position.

Throughout the day, the domestiques take turns doing the work, while their sprinter or GC contender drafts behind them. As each domestique is exhausted, he falls back into the pack reducing the support for his leader. On the truly flat stages, sprint team domestiques peel off during the last 3K, with the last one getting out of the way, propelling his leader to the line. But on mountain finishes, domestiques get shelled much earlier, often leaving their leaders isolated.

1.3 KM and the gradient just went to 5.8%, with one bend that will go up to at 11%. The sprinters are all at the front, domestiques mostly spent, riding slowly, hoping someone else will go in front so they can follow them. The GC contenders Richie Porte and Alberto Contador are at the front of the pack looking for an opportunity to gain time back from Chris Froome, who just has Geraint Thomas at his side.

Porte and Contador make a move to try to drop Thomas and Froome.

Richie Porte races ahead to try for the win and the 10-second bonus, but the sprinters push their way forward – there aren’t that many sprint stages before they hit the mountains and they need to take every chance to win!  Peter Sagan goes out in front but his foot slips off the pedal and Richie Porte tries to take the win. Peter Sagan pushes again and other sprinters pull forward to contest the sprint but Peter Sagan almost picks himself and his bike up and hurls across the line.

Chris Froome and Thomas lost two seconds each today but the other contenders finished behind them and the GC rank didn’t change.

Thomas keeps the yellow jersey another day. Although it is unlikely that Team Sky would try to keep the yellow jersey this early in the race – since that means they would need to defend it for the rest of the race – they manage to keep it by continuing to focus their strategy on maintaining Froome’s time against the other contenders, and by the tactic of making Thomas one of the last people to leave Froome’s side at the end of the race. The other guys worked harder earlier and couldn’t make it up the last hill with him, but the team organized things to reserve Thomas’s strength so he could finish with Froome. This supports both their strategy of protecting Froome while also giving Thomas a chance to keep the jersey.

No change in the green jersey or polka-dot jersey competitions…yet!

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