OK, I’ll admit it. I didn’t fully account for how much the team time trial would shape the general classification in this year’s Tour, largely because, in a blatant and shocking display of cowardice, I’ve avoided making any GC predictions at all. But just looking at what yesterday’s throwdown did to Cadel Evans’ overall chances was enough to reawaken me to the power and influence of the TTT now that it’s no longer neutered by the fixed time gaps used in its two prior Tour appearances.
Silence-Lotto’s dismal 13th place performance has left Evans sitting in 35th position at this point, though, as always, the placings following the TTT don’t mean much. What does matter, though, is time, and Evans now finds himself 2:59 adrift from the lead, 2:36 of which were lost in yesterday’s team time trial. The big sites can calculate how far back on the true contenders he is for you, but I'll go ahead and tell you it isn't pretty, and for a guy who came second in last year’s Tour by less than a minute, that’s a pretty big blow.
Denis Menchov (Rabobank) has never struck me as a particularly emotional man, but if Evans is looking for a shoulder to cry on, Menchov might be a good place to start. The reigning Giro d’Italia champion had a fairly mediocre opening time trial, bled a few more seconds on the great stage 3 breakaway, and then threw himself to the pavement early in the TTT. With its principal motor apparently rattled, Rabobank never really seemed to recover. The team was never expected to be among the top four teams in the TTT, but it should have been fairly close – not finishing 11th and dropping 2:21 in the process, leaving Menchov a yawning 3:52 from the front of the race. Maybe it’s bad juju from having a Russian leader and a Spanish sprinter, or maybe it’s something else, but the Dutch TTT mystique of decades past seems to have finally and completely worn off. Between Rabobank’s 11th place and Skil-Shimano’s DFL, Peter Post must be ready to slap someone.
Losing a couple of minutes early in the Tour de France is, generally speaking, nothing to get terribly weepy over – it’s a long race, and there’s still all of the mountains and another TT left to come. But if you look specifically at the riders expected to fight out the overall, and their capabilities, yesterday’s TTT was likely the death knell for Evans’ and Menchov’s chances. Both riders fall solidly on the time trialist end of the climber-time trialist GC spectrum, and in losing time to riders like Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong (both Astana) in the first two races against the clock, and to the Schleck brothers (both Saxo Bank) in the TTT, their serve has effectively been broken. Now, the other contenders will enter their preferred hunting grounds in the Pyrenees and the Alps, and Menchov and Evans will likely adopt their usual “minimize the losses” mountain strategies. Unfortunately, when you’re already behind, minimizing your losses isn’t much of a strategy at all.
- Rabobank’s bike sponsor Giant may be at the cutting edge of TT bike design, but after Menchov’s last-kilometer crash in the Giro and his solo flailing into the barriers yesterday, they may want to start looking into adding some sort of gyroscope inside that enormous nosecone. Either that, or make Menchov start paying for his own bikes – those things aren’t cheap, you know.
- It was pretty clear last year that Evans would benefit from less public and media scrutiny during the Tour de France, and this year he's certainly gotten back some of the anonymity he wanted. Unfortunately, while the return of some big names takes some of the heat off, they also seem to be taking some of the top placings off as well.
- Yesterday’s heads-up riding award goes to Silence-Lotto’s Jurgen Van den Broek, despite the fact that he wasn’t riding at all when he won it. Van den Broek touched the wheel ahead of him and went down while sitting in second-last wheel, but while sliding at 45kph flat on his back, he managed to look up at the guy behind him, see that he needed room to get through the bike-and-rider mess on the road, and calmly roll himself out toward the curb. That’s some composure while there’s a cheese grater being taken to your spine, and it was probably the highlight of the event for Silence-Lotto.
- The heads-down riding award goes to BBox Bouygues Telecom for their en masse entry into a ditch on a high-speed right-hander, a veritable wheeled rodeo rendered even more visually spectacular by the enormous cloud of dust it generated. BBox is going to take a lot of flack for that one, but it’s probably a bit overstated. The TTT, more than any other road discipline, requires a laser-like focus on the wheel in front of you, and trust that the person guiding that wheel will pick the right line and speed. When they don’t, there’s a tendency to follow that wheel ahead right to its demise. So while someone certainly screwed up, it’s probably unfair to portray all of BBox as non-bike riding clowns. Besides, if Saxo Bank hadn’t managed to correct as they headed towards the same fate, everyone would have been blaming the course design for the crash, not Cancellara and co.
- I was surprised to see Mark Cavendish leading Columbia-HTC across the line. At best, pure sprinters can be moderately helpful in a TTT; sometimes, they’re innocuous dead weight; and occasionally they’re just lucky to make the time cut after they’re dropped. But you don’t typically expect to see them powering on the front of a top-five team during the final kilometer. Cavendish seems to place a great deal of value on the work his teammates do for him, so maybe his hard ride yesterday was a bit of payback. While we’re at it, we should mention Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) as another sprinter who can pull his weight.
- There were numerous falls yesterday, but worst off seems to be Skil-Shimano’s Piet Rooijakkers, who broke an arm. I just hope it wasn’t his punching arm.