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UTRECHT, Netherlands (VN) — Tyler Farrar is back to the Tour de France after a two-year absence, keen to make up for lost time, and still dreaming of another stage victory.
The 31-year-old returns to the Tour for the first time since 2012 after punching his ticket with upstart MTN-Qhubeka, the first African-registered team to ever race the Tour.
The goal? To win a stage. Any stage. Anywhere during the three-week romp across France.
“I’m super-motivated and excited to be back in the Tour,” Farrar told VeloNews before the start of Sunday’s stage 2. “Our goal as a team is to win a stage. If it’s me, or if it’s any other guy on the team, I’d be very happy. We have the guys to do it.”
Farrar had his first shot barely four hours later. Under fierce winds Sunday afternoon, the peloton broke up on the causeways along the North Sea coast. And though he missed the select, 24-rider group, he won the bunch sprint out of the main pack and crossed the line 1:28 back, an encouraging sign on a brutal stage.
“That was a crazy day. Between the crosswinds, the slippery roundabouts, it was pretty intense. After 110km, it turned, and it split there,” Farrar said at the finish line. “We were in a group of 40, and then we went through some roundabouts, and it split again. And there was no coming back at that point.”
Farrar will take quiet encouragement out of Sunday’s ride as the peloton pedals into a string of harder stages that fit his new style of racing. Farrar is hoping his experience and depth will help counter a loss of top-end speed and team support to deliver a victory for his new squad.
Since joining MTN-Qhubeka this season on a two-year deal that puts him back to the center of the team’s goals, he has moved away from pure sprints and into other types of finales.
After seven seasons at the Slipstream organization, where he emerged as one of the top sprinters during a run that lasted from 2009 to 2011, his productivity slid, delivering just five wins over the past three seasons. Farrar saw diminished support as the team turned toward higher GC ambitions.
Midway through last season, MTN manager Brian Smith approached Farrar with an audacious idea; to bring Africa’s first team to the Tour, and Smith wanted Farrar along for the ride.
Smith was looking to sign some experienced, European veterans to help usher its younger, promising African riders into the Tour. As as result, Farrar, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Steve Cummings, and Serge Pauwels are all at the Tour, not only to hunt stages, but to help chaperone five African riders to Paris.
Smith said the team isn’t counting on Farrar to win mass gallops, but rather to look for opportunities out of breakaways and classics-style courses.
“He’s not a pure sprinter anymore. He’s not going to beat Mark Cavendish,” Smith told VeloNews. “We’re not asking him to win bunch sprints. We want to see him get into smaller groups, and try to win a sprint out of that.”
That’s a notion that Farrar says he agrees with. Despite becoming the first U.S. sprinter to win stages in all three grand tours, MTN isn’t bringing a full-on sprint train to support Farrar for the mass gallops. That doesn’t mean Farrar won’t be trying to freelance his way to victory, however.
“We don’t have a train to compete with teams like Etixx or Katusha. You certainly won’t see our jersey controlling the race with 5km to go,” Farrar said. “We’re going to try to mix it up. There will be stages for all of us to have a go. We’ll talk during the stage to see who has the legs and who’s feeling good.”
Smith added that Farrar is doubly valuable to the team because he plays an important role within the squad to help its rising African riders.
“He’s our road captain. He’s more of a classics rider, and he’s developed that strength. And also very important for us is to count on Tyler to help these African riders through the first half of the Tour de France,” Smith continued. “Tyler has so much experience. He’s a true champion, and having him here as a team captain, it’s not about trying to win bunch sprints. We also want him to look after the African riders, to make sure we can get through the first half of the Tour with nine riders, and we can go into the second half of the race with good chances for a stage victory.”
Farrar said he’s happy with his move to MTN, and energized by the opportunity to the race with a team making Tour history.
“This is an international team, but at its heart, it’s an African team. There is a very special energy around this team, and I’ve enjoyed this season working with everyone,” Farrar said. “There is definitely an African vibe on this team. I really like it.”
He’s hoping that positive energy will deliver some big rides. Farrar said he’s had the best preparation and approach to the Tour in many years. The Tour was already on his schedule, so he knew he wouldn’t have to be chasing form and results in the early-season races to make the cut.
“I’ve had really good preparation for this Tour. I had the opportunity to just train for this race,” Farrar said. “I will help these African guys. This is my fifth Tour, and I’ve done 14 grand tours. I think I know my way around the peloton. We won’t have a GC guy here, so we can mix it up in different scenarios. Everyone’s very excited.”
None more so than Farrar.
Tyler Farrar in Tour de France
2009, 148th overall: 2nd in stages 2, 11; 3rd in stages 10, 21
2010, DNF: 2nd stage 6; 3rd stage 11
2011, 157th: 1st TTT, 1st stage 3; 2nd stage 15; 3rd stage 11
2012, 151st: No top-3s