With the riders racing along the Dutch coast and buffeted by the strong winds blowing off the North Sea, the peloton splintered as they raced through small towns and negotiated road furniture and roundabouts, but mainly thanks to the pressure exerted by Cavendish’s Etixx-QuickStep team.
These were textbook tactics by the Belgian team, who specialise in the northern Classics. They placed six riders in a 26-man front group, and as well as Cavendish, the favourite for the stage, they had Tony Martin, the German who was second in the opening time trial on Saturday. With the overall leader Rohan Dennis stuck in the chasing group, all Etixx had to do was control the race, execute some relatively simple tactics, and the stage and yellow jersey would be theirs. But, at the finish on the artificial island of Neeltje Jans, they made a right mess of it. A double mess. Mark Renshaw, for so long Cavendish’s trusted lead-out man, went too early, leaving Cavendish with a 400-metre sprint for the line. It was too long and Cavendish faded as Andre Greipel and Peter Sagan passed him. To make matters worse, he was also pipped by Fabian Cancellara, who claimed the time bonus for third place that gave him the yellow jersey instead of Martin.
Cavendish appeared composed afterwards, blaming the conditions, with the wind making it a hard sprint to judge. “We thought it was going to be more of a crosswind than it was so I held the barriers,” he said.
“If it had been a cross-tail [wind] we would’ve been ok. But I’ve watched it back on video and the guys behind played it perfect.”
In public he graciously congratulated Greipel, his old team-mate and rival. But in private he was fuming, particularly with Renshaw, who has delivered him to so many of his 25 Tour de France stage victories. On this occasion the Australian went too early and left Cavendish with too much to do. He might now have to wait until Wednesday and the stage to Amiens for another opportunity – unless he can survive tomorrow’s cobbles. “That stage isn’t beyond reach,” he said.
If Cavendish was angry at Renshaw, he was even more angry at the commentators on social media who blamed him for “sitting up” before the line and losing third place after Martin did so much work for him during the stage. “If I could hang on for 3rd, I could hang on for the win,” he wrote. “Some imbeciles think cycling is a computer game. Problem is, social media & TV are platforms for them to be heard. Gutted for @tonymartin85. Congratulations @AndreGreipel.”
Cancellara had been bitterly disappointed not to take yellow after Saturday’s stage. The 34-year-old Swiss, who says this will be his final Tour de France, had a yellow Trek bike prepared to match the jersey he thought he’d be wearing on Sunday. He will now get to ride it on Monday, after all. And he could remain in yellow for a few days with the coming stages all suiting him.
The other big winner was Froome, who even managed to nab four seconds on Contador when the front group split in the final kilometre. Froome was a very impressive seventh on the stage and is up to tenth overall, best of the big favourites. “This a huge advantage for us to be sitting in this position after one flat day out on the road,” he said. “But it’s a three-week race and things do change on a daily basis. We’re ahead today but who knows what’s in store for us for the rest of the week.”
Froome lost out when crosswinds split one of the stages in 2013, in a Tour he won. On that occasion he was left isolated by Team Sky but they didn’t make the same mistake this time, placing Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard in the front group with him. “This is their playground,” he said of Thomas and Stannard, “this type of Classic style stage with crosswinds and rain. They definitely proved their worth today.”
Froome added: “It was chaos out there with the storm, the wind and everything. One second, Nibali was next to me and the next I couldn’t believe it when I heard he was distanced. It’s the nature of racing here in Holland.”
Quintana won’t like it, but there could be more of the same today.