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Early momentum swings count big in TTT

For many teams, the stage 2 TTT was all about limiting losses, as an early deficit can easily turn into a chasm with the smallest of issues later in the race.

Momentum counts for a lot in the Tour de France. When things go right, GC riders stay upright, at the front and in the mix. When things go off the rails, be it a crash, a missed gap or a mechanical, things can quickly unravel even before the race truly starts.

Sunday’s short but intense 27.6km team time trial revealed a few chinks in the armor of a few of the top pre-race contenders.

A day after a crash affected pre-race favorite Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), a few of the other pre-race favorites struggled to limit their losses against the clock against archrival Ineos.

Sunday was an important test for everyone, none more so than Fuglsang, who was able to perform despite his heavy crash less than 24 hours earlier.

“I expected that I could just sit in the final wheel today, but I was able to pedal without too much pain and I did my turns,” said Fuglsang, whose Astana team stopped the clock at a respectable 10th, 41 seconds off Jumbo-Visma’s winning time. “I still have big plans for this Tour. I’m ready to fight all the way to Paris.”

Astana’s performance is viewed almost as a victory on a day that had much at stake for everyone across the peloton. At the top, it was a chance to take early gains and take a run at the yellow jersey. At the bottom, it was all about limiting the bleeding.

While Ineos, Deceuninck-Quick-Step and Jumbo-Visma delivered expected top results, a few teams were more than a pedal strokes off their best.

These early losses might not mean a lot at the end of this Tour packed with climbs in the second half. Yet these opening stages set the tone. A crash here, a setback there, a missed gap here, and it adds up to real time.

For the top teams, Sunday was a chance to be the hammer. For others, the race against the clock was a day of being the nail.

“I would have liked to have lost a little bit less,” Trek-Segafredo’s Bauke Mollema told WielerFlits. “We had guessed about 45 seconds, so if you look at the other teams, this is our place.”

Trek-Segafredo was 18th among the 22 starters, 1:18 off Jumbo-Visma’s winning time. The U.S.-registered team had company with other GC teams at the bottom of the stage results sheet, with Ag2r-La Mondiale in 19th at 1:19 slower, and Movistar 17th at 1:05 slower.

These bottom-rung GC teams were trying to spin the result as best they could. Without looking past Jumbo-Visma, most were taking Ineos as their marker. Take away the Dutch outfit, and their losses were under a minute to the potent U.K-registered super team. Those losses are far from ideal, but also within reach, at least for now.

Somewhat surprising was Movistar. The Spanish outfit typically puts down a solid team time trial. The team, however, lost Jonathan Castroviejo to Sky/Ineos last season, and this year, it brings a squad packed with more climbing firepower. It was hoping to lose about 20 to 30 seconds, so to cede 45 seconds to Ineos was reasonable for the Spanish fleet.

“It’s a tolerable margin,” said Mikel Landa. “With the team we have, which is more focused on the mountains, we did a pretty good time trial. The idea is to get through this first part of the race without any setbacks and take on the climbs in the best possible condition.”

Of course, no one is looking past Jumbo-Visma, which is off to a hot start with Steven Kruijswijk taking some important early gains against his direct GC rivals. The Dutchman, who was fourth in the 2016 Giro d’Italia and fifth last year in the Tour, is now 1:05 ahead of Landa.

Kruijswijk is the Tour’s virtual leader, some 20 seconds ahead of Ineos’s defending champion Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal.

Nairo Quintana is already 1:05 behind Kruijswijk, and 45 seconds behind the Ineos duo.

“We did what we could,” said the Colombian. “We knew we were going to lose time with the team we have. It’s not the best result, but it was expected we’d give up time.”

One team that surpassed expectations was Groupama-FDJ, losing only 32 seconds to the leaders. The French outfit made big steps to improve its TTT squad, led by the arrival of Stefan Küng, who was part of the former BMC’s winning TTT effort.

“It’s a nice performance and it’s not a surprise for us,” said team leader Thibaut Pinot, who limited his losses to the top of the board. “We were told we’d lose a minute but we had prepared for this stage specifically. We’re all in good form with a group of riders who are all good team time trialists. Küng gave us a lot of advice. With this nice result, I’m looking forward to Thursday’s stage on my home soil.”

Sunday was another frustrating setback for Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), who is the biggest loser among the favorites. The team is racing the Tour without TTT motors Silvan Dillier or Pierre Latour. Two of its starters crashed heavily in Saturday’s opener, with Alexis Vuillermoz and Benoit Cosnefroy banged up and bandaged. Bardet’s team gave up 1:19 to Jumbo-Visma, but team boss Vincent Lavenu tried to spin the result as best he could.

“We have to be satisfied because we have lost even more time before,” Lavenu said. “We lost less than a minute to Ineos, so that’s an important note. I had expected to lose 1 and a half minutes.”

The TTT is now in the rear-view mirror, and at just 27km, the lesser teams can only be grateful the stage came early and was a relatively short distance. TTT’s have been as long as 100km in Tour history. In today’s highly calibrated peloton, anything longer than 30km could produce such big differences among the specialists to the others that the race would be down to just a handful of riders right out of the gun.

The GC favorites of the peloton now return to the business of surviving and staying out of trouble. It’s all about momentum and luck from here to the Pyrénées. The Vosges and the Massif Central will spice things up before then.