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Top Banana

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Photographs: Offside-LeEquipe

Stage 1: Leeds-Harrogate, 190.5km
Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)
In a fascinating, ding-dong final 10 kilometres where several trains attempted to take control and ran out of steam, it was the turns of Terpstra and Tony Martin which seemed to swing things in the favour of Mark Cavendish. When, four kilometres out, Lotto swung over and OPQS ripped through on the right side of road, it seemed a stunning coup. In reality, perhaps their hand was forced too early.
Paris-Roubaix winner Terpstra did a seemingly-interminable turn, mouth lolling open from the extreme effort of nailing it at 65km/h. Alas, their captain hit the deck going for the win. Cavendish’s crew were, to a man, silent and downcast as they got aboard the team bus, but it wasn’t for lack of trying that they lost.

Stage 2: York-Sheffield, 201km
Jakob Fuglsang (Astana)
After two of his own attacks on the descent of Jenkin Road were marked, the Dane turned selfless team-mate. As the chase of Vincenzo Nibali awoke late, he got into the paceline and disrupted the effort. When Jurgen Vandenbroeck swung off under the flamme rouge to give someone else a turn, Fuglsang was behind, slowing it down and buying Nibali crucial seconds. Hesitations like that help to win bike races.

Stage 3: Cambridge-London, 155km
John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano)
Kittel’s compatriot snatches today’s Top Banana for his crucial kilometre-long turn, on the front from the turn onto Birdcage Walk and only swinging as Buckingham Palace loomed with 700 metres left.
With Koen de Kort and Tom Veelers still tucked behind, it was a sedan chair ride to the finish for their king Kittel.  This was as close to a formality as Tour sprints get.
At the moment, Giant-Shimano seem to be operating on another level to their rival sprint teams. They are carrying the momentum, confident, calm, decisive and well-drilled. Who can match them?

Stage 4: Le Touquet-Paris-Plage – Lille, 163.5km
Kévin Reza (Europcar)
Pick of the bunch today is the 26-year-old bruiser from Versailles who battled his way through the peloton to position Europcar’s young sprinter Bryan Coquard perfectly.
Okay, the diminutive Coquard didn’t quite have the legs to match Kittel and co, but that wasn’t for want of effort from his leadout man. You could see Reza’s arm shooting out a couple of kilometres from the finish as he fought for position with the mighty train of OPQS and a stray Garmin or two. He wasn’t prepared to be bullied out of the line and stood his ground when outnumbered.
Forza Reza. Allez Reza. Either way, we like his work.

Stage 5: Ypres – Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, 155.5km
Lieuwe Westra (Astana)
Or Louie Westra, as Sean Kelly calls him, making him sound more like a jazz musician than a rake-thin Dutch stage racer.
Astana surprised a lot of people today. On a stage when helping your team captain was trickier than ice skating blindfolded on roller blades, the boys in baby blue surrounded and supported Nibali throughout the day.
Having Westra up the road in the day’s breakaway made the difference. He could pick his line over the cobbles and save energy for when the depleted peloton caught up. Then, the Dutchman’s power and poise over the cobbles – remember, he’s no Classics caner, not having ridden Paris-Roubaix since 2009 – came through, helping to eke out crucial minutes for Nibali over his rivals.

Stage 6: Arras – Reims, 194km
Cheng Ji (Giant-Shimano)
Ji, the first Chinese rider to grace the Tour (and surely the first of many) enjoys the nickname The Breakaway Killer – not the snappiest of epithets, but totally accurate in these opening stages.
We lost count of the number of kilometres Ji spent dragging the peloton along a couple of days back. The 26-year-old 1 has been an essential ingredient in the Giant-Shimano train bringing it all back together for Marcel Kittel.
Ji was the first Chinese rider in all three Grand Tours – 2012 Vuelta, 2013 Giro, and now the Tour – and adds the (*cough*) highly-prized 1 Top Banana award to that list.
恭喜 (Congratulations)

Stage 7: Epernay-Nancy, 233km
Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)
This was the teamwork of dreams. In a fragmenting finale, white jersey “Kwiat” linked up with team-mate Matteo Trentin two kilometres out and shepherded him all the way till 300 metres to go with a killer lead-out.
Where his old junior sparring partner Sagan has the once-in-a-generation talent and impulsiveness that permits him to make wasteful moves like the ‘will-we-won’t we-commit’ breakaway into Nancy, Kwiatkowski today had the tactical smarts and selflessness – he could conceivably have taken on the sprint himself – to go with his own vast ability.
Trentin’s win saves the Tour for Omega Pharma-Quick Step after Cavendish’s early abandon, but keep your eyes peeled for more from Kwiatkowski in the mountains of the next fortnight.

Stage 8: Tomblaine-Gerardmer, 161km
Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEdge)
A fair chunk of the Tour peloton spend the whole race practically invisible, not joining a breakaway or contributing to the spectacle. They might as well not even be there.
Not this bold Lancastrian. There aren’t many tougher days to make it into your first Tour breakaway – and it was a right bunfight to get in there. On tough, treacherous Vosges roads, Yates slogged away.
He acquitted himself excellently, only being swept up by Contador and co with 1500 metres to go. Today was one for the memory bank, to draw on later when he has more stamina and experience to go with the clear talent.
PS. We’re confident too that Top Banana is the most prestigious prize to be won by a Briton so far in this year’s race.

Stage 9: Gerardmer-Mulhouse, 166km
Tiago Machado (NetApp – Endura)
It’s not easy being a wildcard team on the Tour. The first week has been all about the big boys, while the bit-part players look to snaffle something from the crumbs left by their better-financed rivals.
Former RadioShack man Machado is having a solid season – winning the Tour of Slovenia, 2nd Vuelta a Murcia, 3rd Critérium International, 4th Tour of California – but the Tour de France is a step up.
And the man from Portugal stepped up today, riding himself into the ground, driving the big break to move himself up to third overall.
“Banana superior” as they (probably) say in Portugal.

Stage 10: Mulhouse-La Planche Des Belles Filles, 161.5km
Michele Scarponi (Astana)
Keeping calm and carrying on was the order of the day for Scarponi – unfazed by the threat of Kwiatkowski being hitched to Tony Martin’s crazy train of a breakaway, he was a constant on the front of the bunch for the majority of the stage, dictating a pace which saw potential GC botherers Talansky and Rolland struggle to stay with it in the closing stages.
His presence at his team leader’s side was only disturbed twice all day, firstly as he punctured on the descent of the Col de Chevreres, leading to somersaults over haybales. He recovered from the crash in time to be back on the front by the time things got steep on the final climb, putting in a huge effort to lead Nibali up until 2.5 kms to go, at which point The Shark made swift work of Kwiatkwski and Rodriguez, emphatically re-claiming the yellow jersey.
Nibali breezing past Rodriguez put the exclamation point on his command over this race. It’s no coincidence that in addition to the yellow jersey aboard the Astana bus, they also have three large yellow Top Bananas in Scarponi, Fuglsang, and Westra.

Stage 11: Besancon-Oyonnax, 187.5km
Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp)
It had to be Talansky. Respect to the American, who rode the last 70 kilometres alone, stopping for a pep talk from his directeur sportif. Briefly tearful and seemingly suffering back pain from his stage 7 crash, nobody would have begrudged him getting into the team car and ending the struggle.
Nicknamed “Pitbull”, last year’s white jersey has had more chances to showcase his tenacity than aggression, chewing his way through crashes, the collapse of his Tour-winning dream and today’s lonely slog to make the time cut.
The Tour’s a funny place though: he might just have earned more fans for today’s gutsy ride out the back than if he’d coldly nicked a stage win.

Stage 12: Bourg-en-Bresse – Saint-Etienne, 185.5km
Cyril Gautier (Europcar)
All power to any aggressors trying to stave off the bunch battle on the race’s most incident-free stage so far.
Presumably as punishment for missing the early break, Europcar chased hard in the final 60 kilometres, allowing Quemeneur and Gautier to escape at the foot of the last climb.
A punchy attacker, Gautier is a sub-Voeckler French trier. He was seen as one of France’s hottest talents as a youngster; now 26 and sailing into professional cyclist midlife, he has got into several Tour breakaways in recent years, falling just short of that big win each time.
Same again today as he and Simon Clarke, clinging to his back wheel, fell five kilometres short. No matter: we love our brave attackers and, besides, who wants a stage win when you can have our Grande Banane?

Stage 13: Saint Etienne – Chamrousse, 197.5km
Thibaut Pinot (FdJ)
Tough call today, on a stage that really sorted the serious contenders from the also rans.
John Gadret (Movistar), double medallions swinging in the breeze, number 13 suitably inverted, setting the pace for Valverde lower on the climb? Laurens ten Dam (Belkin), clinging on for all he’s worth to drag himself into the top ten overall? Or maybe Romain Bardet (Ag2R-La Mondiale), the young Frenchman spearheading his country’s revival?
No. The telling moment, for us, came at the finish line, between Tejay van Garderen’s thankful acknowledgement of Bardet’s pacing to the finish (brothers in arms), and Thibaut Pinot’s treatment at the hands of Valverde, who had twice attacked his riding companion on the slopes of Chamrousse, feigning exhaustion in the process.
The Spaniard has no need to make friends in the peloton in the twilight of his career, which is probably just as well. Pinot won’t be one of them. But we like him.
Have a banana, Thibaut. You’ve earned it.

Stage 14: Grenoble-Risoul, 177km
Ben Gastauer (Ag2r-La Mondiale)
There’s a lot to like about Ag2r-La Mondiale’s enterprising racing. They’re taking responsibility for dynamiting the race, when it would be easy (and boring) to be poker-faced and look around at Astana. Long live this enterprising French revolution we’re seeing.
Ag2r-La Mondiale went in mob-handed today, first putting Thibaut Pinot in difficulty on the descent of the Izoard then piling on the front to keep the pressure up onto Risoul. Gastauer was arguably their most influential worker bee, buzzing away on the front till halfway up the final climb. It helped to soften up Valverde for when the attacking kicked off.
Bardet is better-placed for a momentous French podium finish in Paris, thanks to his brown-shorted (the fashion police have been alerted) brothers in arms and this domestique de Luxe.
More rides like this and little-known Gastauer, currently the Mick Avory to the Schleck’s Davies brothers, will be the one in the spotlight of Luxembourg cycling.

Stage 15: Tallard-Nîmes, 222km
Jack Bauer (Garmin-Sharp)
Anyone who saw the stage today would be hard pressed to argue with this one.
Garmin-Sharp and IAM are two teams in need of a result, any result, after two weeks of nothing much. Swiss champion Martin Elmiger had a decent go on stage 11, getting into the day’s break, but to no avail.
This time, despite the computer’s calculations that the escapees would be swallowed up by the peloton way before the line, it came down to the wire as Elmiger and Bauer held on to the very last.
The big, amiable Kiwi made a lot of friends in the UK during his brief time with Endura. As he told us back in 2010, much as he enjoyed the British scene, he had no intention of getting stuck here: it was WorldTour or bust. He got there with Garmin.
Today, it was bust, but oh so close to glory. Never mind a banana. Get this man a banana longboat from Wimpy. 

Stage 16: Carcassone-Bagnères-de-Luchon, 237.5km
Samuel Dumoulin (Ag2r-La Mondiale)
Both Garmin-Sharp and Ag2r-La Mondiale missed their initial chance to get in today’s break – the original breakway group of 12 was chased down by the boys in argyle early on, with a view to getting Tom-Jelte Slagters involved. At the second time of asking, Slegters made it into a group of considerable quality, and was joined by Samuel Dumoulin of Ag2r-La Mondiale.
Dumoulin’s presence further on up the road paid off when Romain Bardet struggled on the climb of Port de Balès, unable to hold on to the pace being set by Movistar in the Nibali/Pinot/Valverde group. Teammate John Gadret stuck with said group, leaving Bardet with a lone grind to the summit and at this point things were looking bleak for the white jersey holder. But Dumoulin reunited with Bardet on the descent, and they shared the workload all the way to the finish. Bardet made the most of the narrow slipstream from Dumoulin’s 5’2″ frame, and limited his GC losses and kept himself in the top 5 overall.
Not a good day for Ag2r-La Mondiale, but it would have been worse without Samuel Dumoulin being there to help his team leader in the stage’s final moments.

Stage 17: Saint Gaudens-Pla d’Adet, 124.5km
Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale)
Our Ag2r-La Mondiale love in continues. Péraud sounds like an antiquated fine red wine that’s been buried at the back of the cellar for years. It’s a bit unfashionable compared to the lively Pinots and Bardets in the rack, but knocks your socks off when uncorked.
Who would have thought the 37-year-old would be the only one capable of matching the yellow jersey in the mountains? Bet the former mountain biker wishes he’d tried the road racing game before his early 30s.
He worked a lovely one-two with Bardet, handled everything Vincenzo Nibali threw at him and gained precious time on Valverde and Pinot. Handy against the clock, he looks set to be the first Frenchman on the podium since 1997.
So, get those gnashers round a banana, Jicé.

Stage 18: Pau-Hautacam, 145.5km
Alessandro De Marchi (Cannondale)
You can’t stop the Cannondale climber: this was his fourth breakaway in the space of a week. There should be a De Marchimeter measuring how many kilometres the hyperactive Italian has been up the road.
Sadly, no stage win and sixth overall in the King of the Mountains is scant reward for all that spent energy.
This prestigious fruit-based fillip we’re bestowing on the Italian isn’t just for today’s valiant effort, but the sum of all his audacious attempts. If he’s to help Sagan get up there in Paris, he’ll need it, too.

Stage 19: Maubourguet Pays du Val d’Adour / Bergerac, 208.5km
Peter Sagan (Cannondale)
Another banana aboard the Cannondale bus, and again it’s in recognition of a cumulative effort rather than a standout showing on a certain stage.
As has been stated previously in this parish, Peter Sagan has had an utterly contradictory Tour. He has dominated the Points competition, to the point where it seemed a foregone conclusion after only a few stages. Yet to look at the man, and particularly his utter antipathy to the race itself after today’s crash, shows someone disappointed with the way his Tour has unfolded.
Today’s banana will be little consolation and, for a showman like Sagan, perhaps the green jersey in Paris is not enough either. What he really wants is to be crossing the finish line first, doing the running man, or posing, hands on hips, or performing some other slightly ridiculous victory celebration, several bike lengths ahead of the chasing pack. That’s where an athlete such as Sagan belongs. A win in Paris would be a fitting finale, and it might just put a smile back on his face.

Stage 20: Bergerac – Périgueux (ITT) 54km
Haimar Zubeldia (Trek Factory Racing)
Who? Was he in the race? Yes, indeed, ladies and gentleman, the former Euskaltel man secured his fifth top-ten Tour finish in the time-trial today and pushed Laurens ten Dam out of eighth spot, without so much as popping his out of the peloton for the past three weeks.
The stealth Basque, invisible to the naked eye, yet devilishly effective when deployed, has been ghosting his way into the leader’s table since 2003, with barely a murmer of recognition from the press.
So it’s high time to celebrate the unheralded 37-year-old. You’ve got to hand it to him – the banana, that is. Or we do, actually.
Does anyone know where he might be?

Stage 21: Evry – Paris Champs-Élysées, 137.5km
José Serpa (Lampre-Merida)
Serpa, he of the magnificently preposterous facial hair, probably deserves a Top Banana for his sideburns alone. But he was part of a semi-threatening attack on the Champs-Élysées, and has been consistently seen animating the race in the mountains over the past couple of weeks.
After placing 21st in his debut Tour last year, the 35 year old might be slightly disappointed to scrape into the top 50. The only circumstance that we wouldn’t want to see him in Paris next year is in the event that he’s preparing to have a pop at the cartoonish gradients of the Vuelta.
A Banana Split is a fitting way for him to finish the Tour – he’d look right at home rocking out next to Snorky, Drooper, Bingo and Fleegle.
1’s Top Banana is awarded after every 2014 Tour de France stage. It goes to an unsung hero who has caught the eye or deserves recognition for his efforts, rather than necessarily the stage winner or the most attacking rider.

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