Yesterday’s individual time trial placed this year’s first yellow jersey upon the shoulders of Australian BMC rider Rohan Dennis, winning the stage after recording the fastest ever average speed in an individual time trial at Le Tour de France. Having set the standard early on in the day’s proceedings, Dennis was left to sweat in the leader’s hot seat as Tony Martin, Fabian Cancellara, Tom Dumoulin, Adriano Malori, Alex Dowsett and everyone else all failed to better his blistering time. Assuming he manages to steer clear of any immediate misfortune, there is a strong chance that Dennis could retain leadership for several days as the peloton make their way down from the Dutch mainland and into France itself. Stage 2 offers a contrast in the shape of a traditional opening sprint finish, but such a conclusion is never guaranteed at the world’s biggest race; especially when sailing so close to the testing coastal winds.
The profile of Stage 2’s 166km passage from Utrecht’s ‘Grand Depart’ to the coastal town of Zeeland appears incredibly simplistic on paper, which is certainly true if questioning the level of altitude; starting 4m above sea level and finishing at a typically Dutch 0m. However, at an edition of Le Tour de France which offers so little in the way of sprint finishes for the purest quick-men, this stage shall hinge on the possible damage inflicted by harsh crosswinds from the North Sea.
A surprisingly short stage, the route soons begins to turn towards the coast and sets the day’s concluding 50km up to be fought for directly upon the coastline itself. Normally on a stage such as this, the sprinters’ teams would take the reins and attempt to boss the race in order to keep any break on a tight leash; then bringing their main rider to the front in the finale to duke it out for the win. However on this occasion, the threat of crosswinds scything the peloton apart is bound to mean squads nervous of protecting their general classification hopefuls from being caught out in the crosswinds, also work hard to keep their leaders in the first 30 riders or so. The opening week of the Tour de France is renowned for its anxieties amongst the bunch, the desperation to avoid crashing, ultimately causing precisely that to happen. On Stage 2, there is set to be an awarked clashing of motives between the sprint teams looking for victory and the GC teams looking for safety.
Being a Dutch conclusion, there is plenty of road furniture to negotiation in the final kilometres, but the finishing straight itself is an incredibly simple 1380m in length. Those with the very fastest sprint speed will relish the prospect of such a long drag race, allowing them to reach top speed and hit the front precisely when they wish to upon the wide finish. Should the crosswinds indeed prove influential, then we may see a shift from the pure sprinters to the bigger, stronger power sprinters.
Top of everyone’s list is likely to be Mark Cavendish, his well marshalled team more than adept at protecting their leader and unlikely to shy away from fighting for control of the race if they feel GC teams are causing issues at the front. The misfortune which sent Cavendish exiting from Le Tour on day one last year in Yorkshire seems to have stoked yet further desire to win at this race; if that is even possible for the Manxman. He appears lean, confident and as quick in a sprint as ever, all adding up to making him a huge contender for winning Stage 2 of this year’s tour. Perhaps the biggest indicator of Mark Cavendish’s current condition came in the British National Road Race Championships at Lincoln last weekend. Despite a course which was contested around repetitions of the steep and cobbled Michaelgate climb, Cavendhish not only remained in contention throughout the race, but only found himself bettered by Pete Kennaugh on a course which his fellow Manxman had previously dominated upon two years ago. Bearing this performance in mind, people might be somewhat surprised by the shape in which they see Cavendish come the first sprint of this edition.
With Marcel Kittel unable to make the selection for this tour, Cavendish is set to see a renewal of his long held rivalry with former teammate André Greipel. The German ‘Gorilla’ has experienced good fortunes so far this season, and much like Cavendish, appears to be resurrecting form of past years also. His team is as strong as ever in supporting him, but a certain level of tinkering has been made in order to accommodate the presence of cobbled specialist Jurgen Roelandts this year. Regardless, his leadout remains strong as long as he manages to stay in touch with it; Greipel being known for slipping back when he deems the risks too high for the sake of a teammate’s wheel. The long finishing straight is a dream conclusion for the Lotto-Soudal rider, who should seek to stay sheltered late on before unleashing a relatively long sprint, one which allows him to reach maximum speed and hold off anyone else behind.
Crosswinds seem unable to phase the Norwegian strongman Alexander Kristoff, a rider who stated that the brutal desert winds of Qatar earlier this year were little compared to that of his homeland. Should the race prove more attritional than expected on Stage 2, Kristoff shall surely come to the fore as others begin to feel the strain of staying well positioned amongst the maelstrom. For Kristoff, the last year has proven to be his WorldTour breakthrough, one which has seen him take Tour de France stages and the Tour of Flanders earlier this Spring. Usually touted as a man who benefits as races reach their conclusion and fatigue has set in, Kristoff has demonstrated consistently in 2015 that he can win against the freshest of sprinters considered faster than him. While people are busy watching out for Greipel and Cavendish during the final kilometres, Kristoff has the strength, nous and support to steal a march upon his better fancied rivals.
John Degenkolb is a powerful man, though usually only takes such victories after much longer races which wear his rivals down and diminish their top speed. In the absence of Marcel Kittel, Degenkolb will be supported by Giant-Alpecin for the sprints, but does find his usual leadout team altered to a certain extent similar to Greipel. Perhaps if the finish is contested into an intense cross or block headwind, Degenkolb could take advantage of the situation; his potent speed ensuring he cannot be ruled out of contention entirely.
Likely to have been better backed in anticipation of Stage 2 last weekend was Nacer Bouhanni, the Frenchman possessing an incredible turn of pace which as seen him take many victories due to his vicious accelerations. However, the French National Road Race Championships were far from ideal for Bouhanni, crashing hard in the final kilometre of the race having found himself well placed to take the national title once again. His initial reaction was to state that he would be unable to compete at Le Tour de France, but he has evidently been made aware of his injuries not being as severe as first expected, hoping to ride himself back into peak form during the tour. It is a big blow for Bouhanni who seemed to be peaking perfectly ahead of his national tour, especially as he is one of the few fast enough to challenge both Greipel and Cavendish.
Peter Sagan might not be well backed to win this stage, but his recent domination of the green jersey competition suggests he will no doubt be accumulating his first points en route to defending the title in Paris. After a tricky start to the season, Sagan has started to find some of his best form and will seize upon any chance to take an unexpected win in Zeeland on Stage 2 of this year’s Tour de France. His results and performances at the Tour de Suisse hint at a rider on the cusp of reaching his peak ahead of a major race, perhaps more so than some of the names mentioned above; making the talented Slovakian as threatening as ever.
Many of the so-called ‘second tier’ sprinters require either more technical finishes which allow them to execute explosive finishes over short finishing straights, or much tougher races which can be won through brute force and strength. Along these lines you will find Bryan Coquard, Sam Bennet and Arnaud Démare who all retain the potential to win depending on the fashion in which the conclusion of Stage 2 is played out in the final kilometre in Zeeland.
The Dutch coastline itself is perhaps the biggest influence upon the day’s outcome, should the wind prove ferocious in both direction and intensity, we may not witness the exact sprint finish many are predicting. The long finishing straight is a perfect battleground to see Mark Cavendish and André Greipel fight for the win in a contest of sheer speed, one which has always been exciting, though perhaps even more so than ever given their current form. It seems that the biggest threat to this apparent two man showdown comes in the shape of Alexander Kristoff, the Katusha man has had a brilliant season, often going far beyond expectation to take wins and he is more than capable of doing exactly that in Zeeland. Should the winds truly roar and leave Cavendish and Greipel cooked before the finish is in sight, then Kristoff is certainly the favourite to capitalise.
1st Alexander Kristoff 2nd André Greipel 3rd Mark Cavendish