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Commentary: Cancellara is himself, Gilbert isn’t back and Cav has an eye on green

We can take a few things away from the Tour's opening weekend; an idea for the GC competition isn't one of them

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Two days of racing can’t tell you much about what’s going to happen in a race of over 3,000 kilometers, especially when one of those days of racing only took a little over seven minutes. But the opening combination of a short prologue time trial and a vicious uphill finish in the Tour de France’s opening weekend did offer the first few lessons of this year’s Tour.

1. Peter Sagan is really that good.

The Liquigas-Cannondale man of many talents is hardly an unknown, having already scooped up five of the Amgen Tour of California’s eight stages and four stages of the Tour de Suisse in the lead-up to the Tour to go with previous stage wins at the Vuelta a España and Paris-Nice. Still, some expressed lingering doubts about the true extent of the young Slovak’s abilities: most of the stages he’d won were in second-tier events. The real competition really wasn’t there, or was just training for something else.

They’re the same criticisms that could be leveled at about 80 percent of pro cycling wins, of course, but they carry even less veracity now that Sagan’s knocked back his first Tour stage win in his first attempt. In taking the grinding uphill finale into Seraing, he downed pure sprinters, Ardennes champions, and grand tour contenders in one fell swoop.

What’s perhaps more impressive than Sagan’s strength and speed is his composure. Despite repeated entreaties from breakaway companion Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan), one of the peloton’s patrons, to pull through in the closing kilometer, Sagan held fast on the yellow jersey’s wheel as the peloton closed in. By doing so, he executed his strategy perfectly, and took the first step toward a likely run at the green jersey.

2. Gilbert is still not the 2011 Gilbert (but he’s getting there).

It’s hard to imagine a stage that Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) could have wanted more than Sunday’s into Seraing. It finished just 30 kilometers northwest of his hometown of Aywaille, and the tough uphill grind in the last 2km was reminiscent of the Ardennes classics he so dominated in 2011. Even better, it offered him a chance at an early, popular, and pressure-relieving success that wouldn’t cost BMC’s Tour title defense much in the long run.

But when the key moves — the ones Gilbert would have been driving last year — went up the road, he wasn’t on the wheel. It’s hard to imagine him taking an intentional wait-and-see approach as fellow stage favorites Sagan and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) accelerated after a yellow-fueled Cancellara. No, the danger was apparent, and as it has been so many times this year, the Gilbert who amazed in 2011 wasn’t there.

All is not lost, though. Gilbert’s fourth place on equal time was a strong showing early in the race, and logged a strong prologue ride on Saturday. He’s on the way back, but he’s not there yet.

3. Cavendish still has one eye on green.

Team Sky has taken considerable pains to downplay the potential for intra-team conflicts that could emerge over Bradley Wiggins’ pursuit of yellow and a Mark Cavendish run at green. Cavendish himself has stated that he’s not terribly interested in green this July, but when he was bumping elbows with Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge), Mark Renshaw (Rabobank), and André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) at stage 1’s intermediate sprint in Érezée, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

It’s possible that Cavendish still has green ambitions, of course, or that he was just stretching his legs a bit in anticipation of the stage wins he’s grown so fond of. But it could also be that Sky is hedging its bets a bit. The team seems to have absolute faith in and commitment to Wiggins’ GC chances, and for months he’s given them no reason to doubt him. Crashes and illness and jours sans happen, though, and should fate befall Wiggins, Sky is better off if Cav has a few points in his pocket to keep within shouting distance of his rivals for green.

4. Cancellara is always Cancellara.

The RadioShack team has, by most accounts, been a disaster this season. On the road, results have been few and far between; off the road, it’s been worse: media altercations between the Schlecks and manager Johan Bruyneel, the Chris Horner and Jakob Fuglsang Tour selection kerfuffles, staff implicated in the recent USADA case, and complaints of rider nonpayment have marked recent weeks. All of it must have an effect on rider morale, but give Fabian Cancellara 7km of clear roadway and a working bike, and none of that matters.

If his convincing prologue win, seven seconds faster than Wiggins, didn’t prove that Cancellara was back from the severe collarbone fracture he suffered at the Ronde van Vlaanderen on April, his follow-up performance on stage 1 did. The Swiss has proven in the past that yellow can turn him into Superman, as it did when he jetted off the front of a sure field sprint to score a remarkable win in stage 3 to Compiègne in 2007. On Sunday, he might have notched an equally unlikely Ardennes-esque victory had he not run up against Sagan’s ascendancy.

Though back-to-back wins evaded him, a fresh Cancellara could keep yellow for nearly a week, and with two long TTs in this year’s Tour, he’ll have other stage victory chances. Even if he doesn’t capitalize on those, he may be remembered as the man who saved RadioShack’s season.

5. No GC news is good GC news.

The Tour’s opening weekend revealed little about the battle for the general classification that wasn’t already covered in the race previews. The contenders — from the super-favorites to the outsiders — performed as expected in the prologue on Saturday, and on Sunday, the same group of contenders all made the front group of 48 riders that made contact with Sagan, Cancellara, and Boasson Hagen at the line — for the most part. Chris Horner (RadioShack), Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) each lost time in Seraing, but as one of cycling’s better clichés goes, you can’t win the Tour in the first week, but you can lose it.

We’re only two days in, but so far, nobody has lost it — there were no missed starts à la Pedro Delgado, no race-crippling crashes, no spectacular time losses on the first uphill finish. The contenders all remain within about 30 seconds of each other, but it’s still a long way to the mountains.

6. The 1980s are back.

Many observers saw Team Sky’s yellow helmets on Sunday and assumed David Brailsford’s reliably confident squad was simply being cocky about Wiggins’s chances. In reality, the questionable fashion statement was due to a new mandate from Tour organizer ASO that the leaders of the teams competition must wear (sponsor-provided) yellow helmets. The new yellow-helmet rule isn’t entirely new, but rather it’s a modernization of a 1980s custom of the leading team wearing yellow caps, a distinction abandoned even before the hardshell helmet rule came along to nail its coffin shut.

Add the resurrection of yellow headwear to the return of day-glo to the peloton, triple-digit ITT kilometers, Tom Cruise in the news, and a workers protest bringing Sunday’s stage 1 to a halt, and this year’s Tour could turn out to be a regular 1980s revival. Where’s John Tesh when you need him?

Ryan Newill has contributed to VeloNews since 1999, and he admits to being the Ryan behind You can follow him on Twitter at @SC_Cycling.