Monday 26 September 2016

Nicolas Roche: We could have an Irishman in yellow by tomorrow

Fantastic start for Dan but Sam's Tour has become race of survival

Nicolas Roche

Published 09/07/2016 | 02:30

Alberto Contador, Jurgen Van den Broeck and Stef Clement try to pass under the deflated arch of the last kilometer of the 162,5 km. Photo: Getty Images
Alberto Contador, Jurgen Van den Broeck and Stef Clement try to pass under the deflated arch of the last kilometer of the 162,5 km. Photo: Getty Images

It's been a bit strange having to watch the Tour de France on television this week rather than being part of the action.

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In truth, I probably wouldn't have seen as much of it if I wasn't writing this column.

It seems that a lot of people only realised I wasn't riding the race this year as the stages wore on and they didn't spot me on the small screen.

I've had some nice messages from fans and readers saying they miss my daily diaries this year, with somebody even posting a message on my facebook page that 'the Tour without Nico is like a night out without a Guinness. It's not as much fun'.

After the initial disappointment of not being selected for this year's edition, I've just got on with racing, and training and winning both the national time trial and road race championships in Kilcullen the week before the Tour started also eased the blow a little. So far, it's been a pretty interesting Tour, with Mark Cavendish and his Dimension Data team the standout performers of the opening week, with four of the seven stages thus far already under their belts.

Every single year people are willing to write Cav off but every year he always seems to prove them wrong.

The lack of a prologue on this year's Tour meant that his opening stage victory, the first of three on this Tour, was also rewarded with leadership of the race and Cav got to wear the famous 'maillot jaune' for the first time in his career.

Read More: Renaissance man Cavendish has Merckx's record in his sights

As usual, though, the Tour's opening stage wasn't without its drama and a big crash at the finish brought rider safety back into the limelight.

Unfortunately for Irish fans, Carrick-on-Suir sprinter Sam Bennett was one of those who hit the deck when riders collided with the feet of the crowd barriers and, with his fingers cut to the bone and needing surgery afterwards, his opening week has turned into a survival race rather than one where he had a genuine chance of a first Tour stage victory.

The road is never wide enough for a sprint finish anyway and old-style barriers with their feet facing the riders have no place in cycling anymore, but there have also been a lot of riders complaining about the overall contenders, or GC riders, getting involved in the sprint finishes this year.

The way the race is run at the moment, though, means they have to be up there in order to make sure they don't lose time on even the flattest of stages.

On every stage race, the day's time for each rider is taken from the winner back, with anyone finishing in the same group as the winner also given his time, unless there is a one-second gap between wheels anywhere in the group.

A one-second split in the middle of the group, or several splits in a large peloton, sees the second group's time taken from the winner to the first rider after the split.

This means that you could possibly finish in the top 15 riders in a sprint finish and still lose three or four seconds.

If you're caught further down the bunch and a split happens in front of you, then the time loss is going to be even bigger, even if you technically finished in the same group as the winner.

Aspirations

This one-second gap ruling sees anyone with aspirations of winning the Tour forced to stay as close to the front as possible in the bunch sprints, which makes things more dangerous in the closing kilometres as skinny little climbers try to hold their own among the rough and tumble of the lead-out trains.

A few years back, the UCI introduced a rule whereby you are given the same time as the group you were in with 3km to go if you crash or puncture inside those last 3km. This week there has been a call for this to be moved back to 5km out, but the problem with that is that you are just pushing the problem further out the road.

You still have to crash or puncture to be given the same time and the '3km rule' doesn't take into account the time splits that occur during the sprint itself.

One way of fixing the problem would be to increase the one-second gap rule to two seconds, even five seconds on the flat sprint stages.

That way, GC riders could ease up a little, finish down the peloton and still get the same time even if they were outside the top 20 riders or so.

Read More: Mark Cavendish takes stage six victory in the Tour de France

While it hasn't been a great week for Sam Bennett, it's been a very good start to the Tour for my cousin Dan Martin.

Ninth overall after yesterday's stage, Dan is six minutes down on race leader Greg van Avermaet, but has lost no time to the main contenders for outright victory.

The next two mountain stages should suit him down to the ground and with tomorrow's finish coming at the ski resort of Andorra Arcalis, a climb Dan lives near and knows very well, we could well have an Irishman in yellow as the Tour heads into the first rest day on Monday.

The first foray into the Pyrenees yesterday saw British rider Steve Cummings victory cap an unbelievable start to his 2016 season.

Steve seems to have really mastered the breakaway this year, having won stages in Tirreno-Adriatico, the Tour of the Basque Country and the Dauphine before the Tour, all in the same manner.

Yesterday, Steve did what he does best again.

Read More: Van Avermaet flys solo as big guns keep powder dry

He got into a large breakaway early on, bided his time until the last climb with 27km to go and then launched a long-range attack which saw him stave off the challenge from behind and take his second ever Tour stage win.

Even yesterday's stage though wasn't without controversy as the inflatable one-kilometre-to-go kite punctured and collapsed on top of the peloton behind Cummings.

Apparently, a spectator caused the incident when his belt got caught on the power cable keeping the inflatable up, costing British pro Adam Yates four stitches in his chin. I was a bit surprised at race leader Van Avermaet being allowed into yesterday's breakaway but it shows that the pre-race favourites don't expect him to be a contender when they hit the high mountains this weekend.

Even if he loses his yellow jersey in the Pyrenees this weekend, which I think he will, with a stage win and a couple of days in yellow it's been a great Tour already for the Belgian.

Tour de France,

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