By Chris Carmichael
This article was also posted on pezcyclingnews.com, where Chris will be posting a handful of updates during the 2012 Tour de France. – Ed.)
For the riders in the Tour de France who don’t have a prayer when it comes to winning a sprint stage or a stage in the high mountains, Stage 12 was one of the days they circled in their race bibles. It was perfectly suited to a successful breakaway, for a few reasons.
At 226 kilometers, Stage 12 was the longest day of the 2012 Tour de France. The riders are also nearly two weeks into the race, so there’s plenty of tired legs in the peloton (as evidenced by the way the pack imploded on the day’s early climbs). On top of that, there was no incentive for the yellow jersey contenders to expend any extra energy today; after two hard days in the Alps and with very little opportunity to gain time in the final 130 kilometers of Stage 12, they were happy to just stay safe and follow wheels today. And with a great opportunity to set up a bunch sprint tomorrow at the end of Stage 13, even the sprinter’s were likely to use today’s stage as a bit of rolling recovery.
But races are not contested on paper, and they’re rarely as straight-forward as they appear. The day was indeed won from the breakaway, with a huge effort from Garmin-Sharp’s David Millar; but the most interesting part of the race happened more than 150 kilometers earlier, and it nearly wiped out the breakaway’s chances altogether.
Two Category 1 climbs in any stage makes for a hard day in the saddle, but since today’s climbs were both in the first 80 kilometers of a 226-kilometer stage, they were way too far out from the finish to be of much use to the yellow jersey contenders. What was interesting today was that the breakaway’s lead over the main peloton remained within about 1 minute over the Col du Grand Cucheron. And by the top of the second climb, the Col du Granier, the gap was even a bit smaller. Often, with a route like today’s you would expect to see the breakaway top the second climb with a much larger advantage.
The peloton’s speed over the first two climbs of Stage 12 seemed to indicate that the sprinters weren’t entirely ready to give up the notion of setting up for a bunch sprint. There wasn’t a green jersey contender in the breakaway, so there wasn’t necessarily any reason for the yellow jersey or green jersey contenders in the peloton to devote much energy to keeping such a short leash on the break.
The move that could have completely doomed the breakaway’s chances for success came from green jersey leader Peter Sagan. Having ridden impressively on the climb (you don’t often see the green jersey riding near the yellow jersey on a Category 1 mountain road), Sagan attacked on the descent from the Col du Granier. The gap he had and two Liquigas-Cannondale teammates had to cross to reach a 5-man leading breakaway wasn’t very big, and there was a chase group part-way across as well.
Behind the groups off the front, the Orica-Greenedge team put their riders on the front of the peloton to bring Sagan back. But there were only 5 Orica-Greenedge teammates available for the work, so Liquigas-Cannondale’s gamble was a good one. Twelve stages into the Tour de France, it wasn’t a guarantee that Orica-Greenedge had the horsepower to mount a successful chase. But there was also no way that Matthew Goss’s team was just going to sit back and allow Sagan to ride into a potentially stage-winning position in the lead breakaway.
Fortunately for the 5 riders out in front, Orica-Greenedge brought Sagan back into the peloton well before the intermediate sprint point 153 kilometers into the stage. If Sagan had connected with the leaders, the peloton would have stayed on the gas to bring him back. With the green jersey contenders all together in the peloton and a long way to go the finish line, the peloton turned off the gas and the time gap to the break finally grew beyond two minutes. From that point forward, the gap continued growing and it was soon clear that one of the five men up front would be the win the day.
Stage 12 was a day for the breakaway, but the battle for the green jersey will take center stage tomorrow in Stage 13. As the race approaches the Mediterranean coastline, the temperatures will climb and the winds may kick up as well. On paper it looks like a perfect setup for a big sprint, but we’re deep into the second week of the Tour de France and the sprinters’ teams don’t have as much horsepower control the front of the race the way they did in the first week. In the end, I expect to see another Peter Sagan victory celebration at the end of the day, but with a sharp climb just 23 kilometers from the finish I also expect that the last breakaway rider will not be caught until he’s inside the final kilometer.
Chris Carmichael rode the Tour de France as part of the 1986 7-Eleven Pro Cycling Team and is the founder and CEO of Carmichael Training Systems, the Official Coaching and Sports Science Partner of the BMC-Hincapie Sportswear Development Team. For information on coaching, camps, and Epic Endurance Bucket List events, visit www.trainright.com or call +1 719-635-0645 x1.