Tuesday, July 3, 2012

2012 Tour de France: Stage Two

Topology is destiny in any bike race, and stage two today was as pure a sprint stage as you’re likely to find. Such things when they play to form, and they nearly always do, are an act in two parts.

The first act is the leisurely day out. A small breakaway escapes the peloton, and has a day on the lam. Once they’ve established an adequate gap over the peloton, everyone settles in. Today, three riders won themselves a day away from the pack, galavanting off the front to poach climb and intermediate sprint points, three riders too young or marginal for anyone to worry about their lead on the field sticking over the course of the day. They cruise along, working hard but getting to spend their few stolen hours on television, while the rest of the riders have an easy day on flat terrain. Those of us following along at home are treated to some UNESCO World Heritage Site and a few top-notch chateaus. Everything goes smoothly for all parties.

The second act is the chase and gathering storm. As the distance remaining dwindles, the truly fast men move to the front of the peloton and raise the speed. The break riders may bury themselves trying to stay free, but they’re doomed. The peloton surges down the road like a wave, riders revolving onto the front while all try to move to the front of the pack. Today Cadel Evans’ BMC teammates set the pace for him for a good stretch, not to position him for the sprint but to keep him in front of any trouble. At some point near but not actually close to the finish, the peloton subsumes the break riders, tired from their day, and just as quickly ejects them from its rear. The teams vying for the spring victory peel through their riders like a car accelerates upwards through its gears, with each rider leapfrogged by his faster peer until the team’s true alpha speedster is delivered at the front, a few hundred meters from the finish line.

There is a pleasant opacity to the mechanics of who wins a field sprint victory. The leadout trains that carry the top dogs to the finish line are perfectly evident, but the proportions in the mixture of physical form, tactical savvy, and luck that dictate victory are totally unknowable. The concreteness that a settled result lends to circumstance sets the winner in amber, makes all successful moves feel predestined. Today World Champion Mark Cavendish burnished his reputation as the best sprinter in the sport, freelancing onto his rival Andre Greipel’s rear wheel in the last stretch, and then timed his passing move perfectly to earn the win. Did he play his legs perfectly? Did Greipel just not have quite as much in him today? It doesn’t matter, because the day is his now.

Photo via Reuters

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