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Half of the ‘Fab Four’ singing the blues after echelon damage

By Andrew Hood • Updated
Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali was among the contenders who were caught out in a windy, rainy second stage of the 2015 Tour de France. Photo: AFP

ZELANDE, Netherlands (VN) — Half of the “Fab Four” was singing the blues Sunday after howling wind, crashes, and rain shattered the peloton.

There were more losers than winners in the 166km second stage across causeways open to the North Sea. Only 24 riders finished in the front group, and two big names were missing: Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). Both ceded 1:28 to Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Chris Froome (Sky), and the implications were crystal clear.

“We started this Tour with four big favorites, now two are already behind,” said Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué. “These stages are always like traps. Not everyone can escape them without damage.

“Maybe tomorrow it’s someone else, but today, it was our turn. We can only keep fighting.”

Twist of fate

How fast the tables can turn at the Tour de France. Last year, Nibali was impeccable in the first week, winning a stage, taking the yellow jersey early, and laying the foundation for his overall victory with flawless performances across England and northern France while his rivals struggled and crashed out.

It seems that Tour karma evened the score Sunday. Contador and Froome, who both crashed out of last year’s Tour, safely rode into the front group, protected by their respective teammates. This time, it seemed to be Nibali’s and Quintana’s turn to take it on the chin.

“Between the rain and the crashes, we had a bit of bad luck. We lost a bit a day, so we hope to get some of it back day to day,” Quintana said. “We tried to keep the team together, and ally ourselves with Astana to try to avoid that the differences would be even bigger.”

When asked if it could have been even worse, Quintana nodded and ducked into a team car.

Nibali’s woes

Froome and Contador were not the only GC riders in the front group. Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-Quick-Step), Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), and Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) also punched through.

The real dogfight began when the pack hit the coast road, open to the fierce crosswinds and driving rain of the North Sea. A squall was driving right down on the peloton, and the favorites were fighting for their yellow-jersey lives.

Small gaps can quickly become massive gashes, especially when echelons form. Nibali struggled alone to try to hang on, but without teammates at the key moment, he linked up with a chase group that included all of Movistar. They were hoping to limit the damage when disaster struck again. Nibali punctured, and that took the air out of the chase group. By the time Nibali chased back on to the Quintana group, it was all damage control. There was no coming back to the front group.

“It was an unfortunate day. This is bike racing. If you race, these are the things that can happen,” Nibali said. “I was not in the right place, but they crashed in front of me, [Nacer] Bouhanni and maybe another rider from AG2r, and I didn’t see it clearly. I was close to crashing, too. I tried to recover, but it was not easy, and then I punctured.

“It’s a shame, but all we can do is look ahead. It was a question of bad luck, not bad legs.”

Martin’s disappointment

There was some acrimony around the Etixx-Quick-Step bus as well. Etixx put six riders into the front group, but came away empty-handed on the stage. The team delivered Mark Cavendish to the sprint, but the Manxster couldn’t deliver the win.

To add insult to injury, he was pipped for the third-place time bonus by Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), who skipped ahead of Etixx’s Tony Martin to take the maillot jaune. Had Cancellara missed out on the time bonuses, Martin would have taken yellow.

The three-time world champion, who was second in Saturday’s opening time trial, was nearly in tears when he realized he lost out on yellow.

“The disappointment is very big,” Martin said. “In the last kilometer, I calculated that I would be in the yellow jersey. There were five fast guys in the bunch, but I was worried when I saw Cancellara enter the sprint. I asked Cavendish what position he was — when he said fourth, I knew Cancellara had taken yellow. That was very, very sad for me.”

Talansky, Martin crash out of lead group

Every team faced its foibles during the stage, and Cannondale-Garmin was certainly not immune. Their troubles began when Ryder Hesjedal was caught behind a crash involving a Lotto-JumboNL rider just as the peloton was nearing the coast. The 2012 Giro champ lost contact with the first group, and crossed the line at 5:04. Now 132nd overall at 6:15 back, Hesjedal could soon shift into stage-hunter mode, much like he did during this year’s Giro.

Andrew Talansky and Daniel Martin both finished in the Nibali-Quintana group, but got tangled up in a crash that took them out of the front group at an inopportune time.

“Ryder was split off, but Dan and Andrew were still there. Then they hit some oil on the side of the road. Andrew crashed, and Dan was hooked up in his bike, and that was that. We were in the first group, then we were not,” Cannondale-Garmin sport director Charly Wegelius told VeloNews.

“It was going better than it finished, and it could have been a lot worse than it was in a lot of ways. This is the Tour, and there is going to be a lot more of this in the coming days.

“You don’t need to be the most expert pundit in cycling to know that the first nine days of this Tour are key. Then we will see who the winners and losers are out of this whole section of the race. In stage races, you do everything you can to not lose time, but when you do, you just keep keeping on.”

Dennis’s sacrifice

Starting under the morning sunshine in Utrecht resplendent in the yellow was BMC’s Rohan Dennis, who also played a small but important role in the day’s decisive moments. Dennis was rolling behind van Garderen when the first major split fractured the peloton. Rather than wait for the yellow jersey, BMC piled it on, driving a wedge between the front group and Dennis.

The way Dennis described it, he was the one who told his teammates via race radio not to wait, because he saw that Nibali was behind him.

“I expected it to be hard today. I didn’t expect to have make the call that I did out on the road, that they go ahead when there was a split. In the end, it was the best decision for Tejay’s long-term goals in this Tour,” said Dennis.

After he spied Nibali alongside him as winds buffeted the pack, Dennis said: “I decided to not chase, to eventually give up the yellow jersey, to put Nibali in a spot of trouble, and maybe [force him] to lose a bit of time.

“It went that way, but it took me a while to be 100 percent happy with that decision. … I said, ‘don’t wait, just go! Nibali is with me.’ It was the best thing for the team.”

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