André Greipel dominated today’s sprint finish following a strong performance from his Lotto-Belisol team.

Words by Richard Moore in Rouen

Wednesday July 4, 2012

As stage four entered its final hour some began to think the unthinkable. Could the break survive?

Had it done so, we might have started talking about the end of an era. Since 8 July, 2009, when Thomas Voeckler arrived alone in Perpignan to win stage five, no breakaway has survived to the finish of a flat stage in the first week of the Tour.

On that occasion it was a miscalculation by the Columbia-HTC team, who were working for Mark Cavendish. They had made one error of judgement the previous year, on stage three, when a larger breakaway stayed away to the finish, and Samuel Dumoulin won into Nantes.

But that was it. Cavendish didn’t always win – only almost always – but on every flat stage his team would mass at the front in the final hour, and they were, apart from on those two occasions, always successful.

In the end, Rouen did witness a bunch sprint, won not by Cavendish, who crashed heavily inside the final three kilometres, but by André Greipel. Yet all but the final couple of kilometres were notable for the failure – or refusal – of any of the sprinters’ teams to take responsibility. They appeared to be hedging their bets, quietly hoping it would come to a sprint and that their man would win, but unwilling to fully commit, or be seen to be fully committing.

What they were most afraid of was giving Cavendish an armchair ride to the finish after he proved on Monday, at the end of stage two, that he is perfectly capable of freestyling, of slaloming through the bodies and winning without a lead-out train.

That was after Greipel’s Lotto-Belisol team put a lot of effort into setting up the sprint for him. But to do so and lose is the ultimate slap in the face. The whole point of the lead-out is to win: second doesn’t offer the consolation of a podium spot; it is nothing less than an embarrassing failure. No middle ground: the end justifies the means, or renders it silly. The only reason the HTC train looked so impressive was because Cavendish always, or virtually always, finished the job off.

Greipel’s half-wheel defeat to Cavendish on Monday meant his team hesitated to commit too early for the sprint. Matt Goss’s Orica-Greenedge team took a similar view, while Argos are not confident that Marcel Kittel has recovered from his stomach problems. And, given that Sky have opted not to supply Cavendish with his usual train, there was a vacuum at the head of affairs, which led to anarchy and encouraged opportunists. It was only when Cavendish had crashed that Lotto started really imposing themselves.

The fact that Sylvain Chavanel attacked in the final few kilometres, taking a few riders with him, and that it looked at one point as though they might stay clear, said it all. It was an opportunist’s move, but not blind opportunism; Chavanel wouldn’t have made such an effort had he not believed there was a genuine chance. Put it this way: there is no way he would have tried such a move in previous Tours, when six or seven riders from HTC would be drilling it at the front.

Cancellara made the same point in his press conference. “There isn’t one team with a Cipollini or a Cavendish like we have had in the past,” he said. “The fight is bigger, everyone is fighting to get the right wheel, to put his rider on the right wheel. There’s Hondo for Petacchi, Eisel for Cavendish, Lotto for Greipel, Argos for Kittel.

“That is the difficulty,” continued Cancellara. “There is no sprinter’s team with six or seven riders putting it in a line. At three kilometres to go one rider touched another and crashed. It’s because everyone is fighting for the best spot behind Cavendish or Kittel or Greipel.”

Today was the first of three stages that should, in normal circumstances, end in a bunch sprint. The three man breakaway of David Moncoutie, Yukiya Arashiro and Anthony Delaplace maintained a lead of around six minutes with 60km left; five minutes with 50km left; creeping under four minutes with 40km left. They were losing time at the usual rate of one-minute-per-10km, and the fact there were only three counted against them, but the lack of organisation behind, with only Cancellara’s RadioShack chasing, later with some inexplicable help from Katusha, suggested that, in slightly different circumstances, they might have survived.

What happens on Thursday and Friday may depend on how Cavendish recovers from his crash. Or if Lotto, feeling that Greipel will be better with a win behind him, decide to put their train back on its rails, and repeat Monday’s effort.

Or perhaps, finally, the unthinkable will happen, and a break will survive to the finish on a flat stage in the first week. For the first time in five years, it seems possible.

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