ZELANDE, Netherlands (VN) — A bright yellow umbrella flew across a dike on the North Atlantic coast, blown inside out by the wind, chased in vain by an owner doused by the storm. An old couple looked on from their caravan, warm, dry, probably laughing.
When weather rolls in on the northern European coast, some win, and some lose.
A splintered peloton flew by the same spot not 30 minutes later, fractured by the very same wind, the same storm, into four groups spread over more than five minutes by the finish line. Only two days into the Tour de France and the dream of yellow, for many, was already riding up the road.
In the fight for the Tour’s overall, Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), Chris Froome (Sky), Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), and Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-Quick-Step) were winners on Sunday. Each finished with, or near, the lead group.
Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Romain Bardet (AG2R), and Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin) all lost nearly a minute and a half.
The day was always touted as something of a ticking time bomb, a route that could, with the cooperation of the weather, become a spectacle of echelons.
Mother nature came through, and in grand style. Lightning strikes flashed around the coast as the wind kicked up to a sustained 30 miles per hour, flattening tents and sending fans dashing for their cars as the publicity caravan scrambled to dig out its stock of plastic ponchos.
The peloton hit the brunt of the storm, pelted by rain and battered by wind, as it approached the sea. Riders described the few minutes as the storm passed as chaos, unable to hear radios or even each other as the elements beat down upon them. The peloton never stood a chance of staying in one piece.
The teams well placed at the time — BMC, Sky, Etixx, and Tinkoff — were pleased with the outcome. Those who missed have an uphill battle that’s begun earlier than hoped.
“Two days down now, I couldn’t hope for more from this stage,” said Sky leader Chris Froome, who made the front split along with teammates Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard.
Thomas, spinning slowly on a stationary trainer outside the Sky team bus, said the team was in the right spot when the weather turned sour.
“The rain came a bit earlier, so we were in the right place and it was hard enough to see where you was going let alone fighting for position,” Thomas said. “It’s not until 10K down the road when you can actually listen to what’s going on on the radio because at the time it’s just all background noise, you’re not really listening, you’re just sort of focused. Then you hear Nibali is at 30 seconds, Quintana a minute and you’re like ‘Whew, that’s pretty good.’”
“It was a fight just to be there and everyone was just full gas to be in the position, just crashes happening, you know those roundabouts splitting it,” he added, calling those few minutes “chaos.”
As the storm began to pass, directors and riders took a head count and quickly realized that a number of key favorites — Quintana and Nibali among them — had been distanced.
Sky wasted no time hitting the front. Etixx had several good reasons to add to the effort — to set up Mark Cavendish for the sprint, to try to put Tony Martin in yellow, and to keep Uran’s GC hopes alive. BMC quickly added riders to the rotation, despite the fact that its own yellow jersey, Rohan Dennis, had been distanced.
“For a while we were thinking, ‘Don’t work, let him catch up,’ but then all the other GC guys catch up, so it was a tough call out there,” said van Garderen.
“For a while we weren’t riding, and we were thinking ‘Maybe he’ll catch back up,’ then the gap started stretching out, like over a minute, and we realized what the situation as and that we could put a lot of GC guys away,” he said.
Van Garderen was caught behind a small split just a few hundred meters from the finish line and lost four seconds to Froome, time he’ll hope is inconsequential by Paris.
Contador, too, missed the final small split, finishing four seconds down on Froome. But the day was still a success for the Spaniard, who stepped one stage closer to his goal of winning the Giro/Tour double.
After rolling across the line, Contador stopped and hugged teammate Michael Rogers, saying, “Thank you very much, you were great today.”
“This is why we bring Mick to the Tour,” Contador told Australian TV. “He was great today. He kept me out of trouble. It was very dangerous today, and sometimes you can make big differences in flat stages like today.”
Rogers, an expert at guiding Contador through the dangers of the first week, said the team was vigilant all day.
“We knew it would be dangerous out there today,” Rogers said. “The wind, rain, crowds, narrow roads, it was hectic right from the start. We rode as a unit to protect Alberto. We knew we had safety in numbers, you can make a difference. We used our assets well.
“Today was a good day for the team. We’ll keep trying tomorrow.”