Tanner: English enthusiasm, crash-outs mark Tour's first week

Tanner: English enthusiasm, crash-outs mark Tour's first week

July 12th, 2014 by Jim Tanner in Sports - Columns

Tejay Van Garderen

Tejay Van Garderen

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

American pro cyclist Tejay Van Garderen spoke for many of the riders after Friday's stage wrapped up the first week of the Tour de France.

"The Tour is cruel and unforgiving," the BMC rider posted on his Twitter page after losing more than a minute to race leader Vincenzo Nibali following a crash on the roads into Nancy, France.

We're a week into pro cycling's main event, and there are still a lot of questions unanswered. Nibali has a firm grip on the overall lead, but there are 15 riders within three minutes of him, including two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador in 16th and American Andrew Talansky in eighth place. Even after Friday's crash, Van Garderen remains 3 minutes, 14 seconds behind Nibali, well within striking distance if he can find his form next week when the race hits the Alps.

Peter Sagan seems to be methodically wrapping up the competition for the green sprinters jersey, despite not winning a single stage in the opening week, but the race for the King of the Mountains polka dot jersey remains up for grabs after a relatively flat first seven stages. That will change starting today with three major climbs in the final 20 miles of the run from Tomblaine to Gerardmer La Mauselaine.

Let's look at what we do know, and then see where we're heading as the three-week race turns toward the mountains starting.

Britain loves cycling: The first three days of the Tour were held across the English Channel in Britain, with two stages in Yorkshire and a third stage run from Cambridge to London.

Tour organizers couldn't have asked for a better turnout from the English. Fans lined the routes and at places were five-deep straining to cheer on the riders, especially English stars Chris Froome and Mark Cavandish (more on them later), giving the race an impressive sendoff.

The only negative from the English stages was the disturbing trend of fans leaning too far onto the road -- and at times "selfie" photos -- of the riders as they streaked past. It was dangerous and led many riders to take to social media to ask for the fans to take a step or two back.

When that didn't work, a few riders took matters on themselves, driving shoulders into a few fans who took an extra step out for a closer look. Seems fair.

Pavement is hard: As of Friday night, 12 riders had been knocked out of the race because of injury or illness, and many more are bearing the scars of crashing and hitting the pavement hard.

The biggest two casualties thus far have been star sprinter Cavandish, who crashed hard in the sprint of the opening stage, and 2013 Tour winner Froome, who was forced to abandon the race after two wrecks in stage five. Andy Schleck, the 2011 Tour winner, also was unable to continue after being banged up through three stages.

Beyond that, American hopefuls Van Garderen and Talansky both have their share of road rash heading into week two, and they are far from the only banged-up riders after a brutal opening week.

Never relax: Talansky learned a hard lesson at the end of Friday's stage. After staying in the pack with the leaders all day, the Miami native sat up in the final sprint, content to finish with the pack.

But as he took a moment to look around in the final few meters, Talansky drifted into the path of a hard-charging Simon Gerrans, and in a heartbeat he was hitting the deck and sliding across the pavement in the finishing straight.

Fortunately for Talansky, he bounced back up and will continue today, but his misstep shows how a good day on the bike can quickly go bad.

As Van Garderen tweeted, cycling's showpiece event is "cruel and unforgiving," and there are still two weeks of racing remaining. The Alps will begin to sort out the race for the yellow jersey next week. Expect more carnage.

Contact Jim Tanner at jtanner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6478. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.