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Tour de France 2015: stages one to nine – tactical analysis

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Photographs: BrakeThrough Media

Perhaps the most varied opening week of any Tour has tested the teams’ tactical acumen as much as their legs. Some judgments have been sound; others, baffling.
Certain GC teams lined out as much as 20km from the finish, like overly anxious sprint trains. Team Sky were the chief culprits, despite Ian Stannard’s pre-race warning about not pissing off the sprint trains.
Others were inattentive to the point of negligence. Movistar lost their man Nairo Quintana for parts of stage two. Astana were similarly careless of Nibali, forcing the Italian to single-handedly tow the chasing group one minute and recover alone from a puncture the next; no way to treat a defending champion.
Compare and contrast with Astana’s default setting of ‘dominance’ at the Giro. There, they won several battles while losing the war. Perhaps they feel they have learned a lesson. If so, they are in error. Resetting the controls to “laissez faire” is no way to win the Tour. 

Tinkoff-Saxo fared better. In Italy, Contador spent much of the race alone. In France, he has been protected by his henchmen, notably Peter Sagan, who has played the twin role of domestique and stage hunter with aplomb.
BMC Racing, however, combined stealth and control with a subtlety beyond any of their rivals, so much so that Tejay van Garderen’s name was barely mentioned in the first week. Suddenly, he is recognised as clear and present danger to the so-called Fab Four.
No team attacked the flat stages with Lotto-Soudal’s verve. Talk of the sprinter-pilot fish relationship inevitably centres on Cavendish and Renshaw, but Marcel Sieberg’s telepathic understanding with Andre Greipel is more effective than any.
Gone are the long, uninterrupted flat introductions to a sprint, and even the end-of-stage bunch kicks have been unconventional, with sprints of 20, 60 and 90-odd riders respectively.
All of the GC contenders played a leading role in the team time-trial. Offering their views on Eurosport, Sean Kelly and Greg LeMond agreed: taking long turns is in the leader’s job description. LeMond, especially, seemed bemused when the point was raised. “That’s what I used to do,” he shrugged.
Sky’s only problem might be curbing Chris Froome’s enthusiasm. He was in the mix on the cobbles of stage four and the ramps of stages three and eight. On stage nine, he took turns on the front of Sky’s time trial train of which LeMond or (whisper it) Wiggins might have been proud.

Froome has added swagger to his repertoire. He still rides with the grace of a newborn giraffe, but his prominent elbows have sharpened, and his heart is as large as his power output (witness his storming of the Astana bus to confront Nibali). He may yet become a most unlikely patron.
The tactical game will change again today, when stage 10 signals the first mountain stage. Many of the climbing domestiques were anonymous during the first week, up to and including Richie Porte, though the Tasmanian delivered an estimable performance in the team time trial. A collective derogation of duty from the men of the mountains?
Sky will feel on home ground when the road rises, where BMC Racing’s 1s might fall away, perhaps as they did in 2011, though to no obvious detriment to the eventual winner (some of those serving Van Garderen served Cadel Evans too). Only Samuel Sanchez looks to be of any real use to BMC’s current leader in the mountains.
Tinkoff-Saxo’s strategy will be of the greatest interest. Contador, with the weight of the Giro in his legs, must resist the temptation to go it alone as he did in Italy. Froome will prove a tougher adversary than Aru, and Quintana and Nibali may do too.
Finally, a hat tip to ASO, whose no-gentle-introductions-here opening week has created a few genuine revelations. Warren Barguil, Giant-Alpecin’s 23-year-old Tour debutant, sits in a creditable 14th spot, one place and 21 seconds behind defending champion Nibali. Rigoberto Uran, twice a podium finisher at the Giro  yet almost entirely overlooked as a Tour contender, is just 1.18 back in sixth place.
There is much to come from this Tour, but what follows will do well to match what we have enjoyed so far.

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