LES HERBIERS, France (VN) — Inside the sprawling 3,430km Tour de France, stage 2 is a mere 23km; however, the team time trial could well be decisive for the overall.
The fastest teams will likely put at least two minutes on the slowest on Sunday in Les Essarts. The question is, how will the GC hopefuls fare? RadioShack, HTC-Highroad, Garmin-Cervélo and Sky should smash out good times, but Cadel Evans’ BMC and yellow jersey Philippe Gilbert’s Omega Pharma-Lotto squads will have really to step it up to keep their men atop the overall standings. With Fabian Cancellara in the mix, Leopard-Trek should keep Andy Schleck adequately positioned at day’s end.
Although 30kph winds are expected, the 23km oval course is largely protected from the breezes. All riders have recon’ed the stage. On the day before the Tour de France, Bjarne Riis had his Saxo Bank squad ride out to the course from their hotel, complete three laps, then switch bikes and ride over to and up stage 1’s finish.
Sitting second overall, Evans said the team time trial presents an important challenge for BMC. The Aussie knows how important the TTT can be. In 2009, while riding with Silence-Lotto, Evans lost 2:35 to Astana, ground that he would never be able to make up against Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador.
“We can have a great team time trial, which is not only good for the GC, but for us as a team, it would be a big morale-booster,” Evans said. “We will see where it puts us on Sunday. It’s important to try to take time on Contador if you want to beat him, and the team time trial could be a good opportunity.”
Although relatively short at 23km, the team time trial requires careful strategy and good communication from teams, said HTC-Highroad director Allan Peiper.
“The most important part is maximizing riders seven, eight and nine,” the ex-pro said of each team’s weakest riders. “It’s not about burning them as such, but maximizing the utilization of everyone’s energy.
“To do that, you’ve really got to have riders one, two and three in tow, so that they know that they’re not pulling through too hard, not lifting the pace too fast. Then you can drag riders seven, eight and nine out.
“The more you can utilize their energy in the initial phase of the race, the more you can save the big motors at the end when everybody is getting tired. You don’t want to really use the big motors at the start, because then you’re putting everyone else under pressure, and then at the finish they don’t have any lift left. If you can ride with a complete group of nine, everyone gets enough recovery time, and then the big motors will have enough left to really make a difference at the end.”
When Peiper was a pro in the 1980s, team time trials were regularly in the 100km range.
“Just before I turned pro, there was one that was 150km,” he said. “Then you have time to make some mistakes and make up for them. But in 23km you have no time to make mistakes. Even in the first kilometer going out of Les Essarts there is an acute corner and it drags up to the first roundabout. If you don’t start fast enough there you lost five seconds. That could be what you lose with.”
After the crashes in stage 1, more than half the riders are already well behind on time. Only 77 guys made the front group on stage 1, with the others at least 1:20 back.
Like most other squads, Garmin-Cervélo did a full dress rehearsal on the course.
“We did a couple of laps as a team,” said Garmin’s David Millar. “We know it well. We couldn’t have done much more. It’s a nice course.”
Although Evans is hoping for the best, BMC team boss Jim Ochowicz said that they didn’t plan to take the jersey in the TTT — “and if we did, we would give it away!”
After essentially riding a team time trial to set up Gilbert for the stage 1 win, Omega Pharma-Lotto will come into the TTT tired, and the squad wasn’t likely to dominate the event anyway. So Gilbert seems likely to concede the jersey.
HTC-Highroad has won the last two grand-tour team time trials — at the 2011 Giro d’Italia in a 19.3km event over RadioShack and Liquigas-Cannondale, and at the 2010 Vuelta a España over Liquigas and Saxo Bank (a 13km event).
All of the GC contenders can either ride strong time trials, or they have teammates who can ride solo events well against the clock. But Sunday’s event is a team event.
“A lot of team time trials have been lost by the strongest guys making mistakes,” Peiper said. “Not by the weakest guys being weak, but the strongest guys being too strong. It’s delicate.”