Monday, July 9, 2007

Tour de France: Stage 2

Dunkirk to Ghent 168.5 km

Welcome to France. GNB Sports here. It's Monday; this is Stage 2.

This is a flat stage. Flat, flat, flat. Everyone's smoking along.

To give you a sense of how fast these riders go, the average speed of the 2006 tour was 27.5 miles an hour - over the flats, the time trials, and mountains climbing straight through the clouds out of sight to the sky. In my adult life -- I am a serious cyclist, riding 2,500 - 3,000 miles a year, including typically one week-long ride of roughly 450 miles with one or more of my children -- I have never ridden 27.5 miles an hour on the flats. Never. Perhaps 25 mph on a really good day with a tail wind. These tour bastards average 27.5 mph and that's including racing up mountain climbs so historic the LeMond racing cycle models my children ride are literally named after these ascents. Gah!

Three-quarters of a million people line the route today, which serpentines from Dunkirk on the French coast, then into Belgium, ending the day in the town of Ghent for the first time in 50 years. Towns compete strongly to host the tour overnight. When the tour caravan shows up it brings an international media circus and spotlights your town. Along with the need for beds and food for thousands of athletes, team staff, journalists and crew, and a host of hangers on. Plus hundreds of thousands of spectators, all trying to catch a glimpse of their favorite stars. Not only is your town mentioned tens of thousands of times in the news, but the financial value in meals, housing, and tourism business in the days before and after the tour descends on a town are worth tens to hundreds of millions of euros. The tour organization can and does make wicked demands on towns wishing to play host...and everyone wants the honor of being the Tour host.

With just under 50 miles to go in today's stage, three riders in the break are out ahead four minutes. The peloton is playing them like a fish on a line, knowing they can reel them back in any time. The tour rides alongside beautiful canals under heavy skies. If the rain which has been threatening all day shows up at the finish, the sprint will be quite dangerous.

Posting every day about an obscure sport, so far as U.S. audiences are concerned, is really an experiment for us. Personally, I'm overwhelmed what with the workload of the new blog, plus working, plus training five nights/days a week with my children for this year's long bicycle ride.

This is our -- meaning GNBs -- first experience in an ongoing series. So far, the learning curve is similar to jumping off the North Rim of the Grand Canyon attempting to learn to fly before hitting the canyon floor a mile below. It's one hell of a ride, a real riot, but you don't ever forget there's a brutally real deadline heading straight at you at 32 feet per second per second, and it simply doesn't care, hell, it won't even notice if you learn or not. *smiles*

Sex, drugs and rock and roll, baby. Sports reporting the way it's meant to be.

In the early days of the tour, the big names are simply trying to stay out of trouble. Vinokourov, Leipheimer, and Kloden. There are so many crashes, so many ways to get hurt. The teams of the top contenders ride protectively around their General Classification contender, especially on a day which threatens to storm like today. The tour isn't decided on the flats. It's won in the mountains or sometimes in time trials. The flats are where the GC contenders avoid losing, and let the sprinters have their glory. The mountains are still five days away.

Twenty-five miles to go, and the breakaway is still three minutes away. The teams of the sprinters need to get organized now, and chase the break down but so far, no real sign of organization at the front of the peloton. If the storm comes in, the break has a better chance to succeed, so they continue to give it all they have.

And yes, the storm has broken. It's broken bad, the rain pouring down with 30 km (18 mi) to go. The riders are drenched. This is a gift to the breakaway but I don't know if it'll be enough. The riders suffer in the rain. Temperatures are around 20 C (68 F) and with the riders going so fast the rain is making them cold, but that's how bicycle racing works. You ride in every weather.

Finally. The sprinters teams are organizing, 25 km (15 mi), the break down to 2 min, and as the pace starts to come up, I don't see how the breakaway can stay out, rain or no rain. The road is flat and straight and the peloton can see the helicopters over the break in the distance, a reminder those pesky riders still need to be hauled back and made to suffer for their impudence.

Perez, Herve, and Sieberg are still clear in the break at 20 km to go. The peloton is organized; Quickstep out in front. These guys are going to get caught. The only reason they're still surviving is the rain pouring down. Every team with sprinters are out in front, throwing themselves on the attack, desperate in the crushing rain to catch the break. The corners are insane. Oh! There go three riders missing the sudden turn, swinging wide of the hay bales on the tight right-hander, but they're safe and back in the desperate race of the peloton to race down the three-man break, the peloton pounding away, heartbeats creeping up to 180 beats per minute, trying to catch the break whom are riding like men determined to win.

The riders are going 31 mph with 11 km to go. The rain has stopped but the pavement remains wet and quite slippery. The peloton, fully organized. Meanwhile, the breakaway is still trying to stay away, but they're only 48 seconds away with ten km to go. It's going to be a catch. The cars are being moved out of the gap between the break and the sprinters bearing down on them. One good glimpse by the peloton of the breakaway and it's all over. They'll jump across the gap and move past the exhausted riders with nary a glance back. It's nasty, but this is the way it works; the sprinters almost always manage to reel in the break, often with just one to two km to go. What a killer.

Six km to go, the gap 24 seconds, the break is still giving everything they have. The peloton has them in sight but just hasn't closed the deal. Now 15 seconds. The crowds cheering on the breakaway, roughly 250 yards ahead but they won't give up. 3 km to go, 11 seconds ahead. Still no catch, but down to 4 seconds.

Here comes the catch with 3 km to go, and that's it. Now get out of the way, buh-bye. Lining up for the end, 2 km to go, all the teams in place towing their sprinters towards the line, the train hauling in, CRASH! A massive pileup, yellow jersey down, many riders down, most of the field is caught behind the pileup. They'll all get the same time as the winners.

Sprinting to the finish at over 45 mph, it's Erik and Robbie, Erik and Robbie, Zabel, and now the kick to the line and Tom Boonen, Zabel digging through and on the line it's not Boonen, it's his teammate, Gert Steegmans who was giving him a leadout. Boonen couldn't get around him in time but Quickstep gets the win and Tom Boonen is thrilled with that. A great finish marred by an ugly crash.

About the crash: International regulations state when you fall in the last 3 km, you can not lose time. You get the time of the rest of the group you were with when you fell or were blocked by a fall. This prevents people from trying to ride over fallen riders or attempting to get up while riders are on top of you. The entire peloton was together at the fall, so everyone receives the same finish time. Finishing time bonuses of 20, 12 & 8 seconds still apply, although today's sprint winners won't move anyone off the leader board.

The larger concern is, whom is hurt, and how badly? We likely will not know before this report is filed, although we could see Fabian Cancellara in the Yellow Jersey was holding his left arm and looked in pain.

Tomorrow for Stage 3 we have the longest stage of the tour, and thus the perfect time for GNB Sports to answer the question you (or the teenager inside you) has, as we leave no bush unlooked behind... in our endless quest to bring you complete sports coverage. Tune in tomorrow to discover: How do riders go to the bathroom in the middle of a long day of racing?

Stage Three is viewable LIVE in the United States on Versus, Tuesday, July 10, 8:30 - 11:30 AM ET/5:30 - 8:30 AM PT.

Here are video highlights from today. More great Tour coverage at VeloNews.

TDF Stage 2 Results -- Top 10:
1. Gert Steegmans (QSI)
2. Tom Boonen (QSI)
3. Filippo Pozzato (LIQ)
4. Robert Hunter (BAR)
5. Romain Feillu (AGR)
6. Robbie McEwen (PRL)
7. Erik Zabel (MRM)
8. Heinrich Haussler (GST)
9. Oscar Freire (RAB)
10. Sebastien Chavanel (FDJ)

TDF: Standings after Stage 2
1 033 CANCELLARA, Fabian SUI CSC 08:36:13.000 00:00:00.000
2 196 KLÖDEN, Andréas GER AST 08:36:26.000 00:00:13.000
3 201 MILLAR, David GBR SDV 08:36:34.000 00:00:21.000
4 114 HINCAPIE, George USA DSC 08:36:36.000 00:00:23.000
5 149 WIGGINS, Bradley GBR COF 08:36:36.000 00:00:23.000
6 113 GUSEV, Vladimir RUS DSC 08:36:38.000 00:00:25.000
7 171 BOONEN, Tom BEL QSI 08:36:39.000 00:00:26.000
8 015 KARPETS, Vladimir RUS GCE 08:36:39.000 00:00:26.000
9 101 HUSHOVD, Thor NOR C.A 08:36:42.000 00:00:29.000
10 191 VINOKOUROV, Alexandre KAZ
AST 08:36:43.000 00:00:30.000