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Stage 2, Dusseldorf, Germany to Liege, Belgium - 203.5km

Wet. Ugh. Wet and slippery and not at all in the good way. But that doesn’t stop Le Tour, so away we go.

Four riders off the front from the very start in Dusseldorf. Three of them, Thomas Boudat, Yoann Offredo, and Laurent Pichon, are Frenchmen. Every time I see that last name, I keep thinking it’s Laurent Fignon, whose 1989 nail-biter on the Champs Elysees against Greg LeMond is what cemented my obsession with the Tour in the first place. My brain is confused. Anyway. The fourth is Taylor Phinney, an American, and second-generation cycling star. His mother, Connie Carpenter-Phinney, is not only a former champion cyclist herself, but also a champion speed skater. His father is the famous cyclist Davis Phinney, second-ever American to win a stage of the Tour (1986) and, Wikipedia tells me, “is the leader in race victories by an American, with 328.” Now he’s leading a foundation to fight Parkinson’s, which hit him when he was 40. Keep kicking ass, Davis!

Trivia for the evening: Boudat is from the Bordeaux region, and is, in his spare time, a winemaker. Huh. Now you know.

Through the feed zone we go, thankfully with no crashes. But yesterday’s crashes are still a topic of discussion. Luke Durbridge’s crash on a tight corner yesterday is shown and holy carp. He went into the barriers like a #2 pool ball from an angry cue stick. Knocked over a whole row of metal barriers. He started again today, but there was too much ligament damage, and his team, taking the long view for his career, pulled him. It took a full week to lose our first rider last year; this year, on the second day, we’re already down three. Three important team riders, no less. Bob Roll is still raging against the Tour’s organisers, incensed that they didn’t make any kind of provisions for slippery roads. He’s right. What, does it never rain in Germany? Come on, guys. Everyone’s on edge the first week of the Tour, and— except for last year— crashes are usually endemic. You open with a high-stakes time trial and take no precautions on sharp turns? Come on.

Jens Voight made a good point, though: first twenty riders, yeah. Go for it. They’re GC and points riders. The other 178? Caution over speed, guys, cos you're not here to win, you’re here to help others guys win. Dammit. Well. Too late now.

It’s gonna be a sprint finish today, and everyone’s throwing names around for the possible winner. I’m intrigued to find no one’s banking on my obvious choice: Mark Cavendish. Y’all know how much I love that guy. Unfortunately, I see why no one’s mentioning him. Up until just a few weeks ago, no one could possibly have guessed he’d be a contender for even getting to the starting line: he’s been suffering from the disturbingly-named glandular fever for a good part of the year, and everyone’s thinking he’s not going to be at his best this year. But as Jens Voight is saying, it’s entirely possible he’s playing everyone, and he could actually be in great shape. I think he’s sneaky enough. We’ll see. We’re also hearing about Peter Sagan, Andre Greipel, and Marcel Kittel, who are all here, in top form, and ready to get some points.

The peloton is playing with the breakaway. Far enough away that no one’s going to try to jump the gap and make the breakaway stronger. But close enough that when we get to the final miles, the peloton can suck them all back in. 35 miles left to play.

The rain is on and off and on and off, but it hasn’t stopped the crowds. The race is in the town of Aachen (aka Aix la Chapelle) right now, and there are no spaces along the sidelines. I don’t know how deep the crowd is, but it sounds like there are bazillions of people, and all of them are screaming and cheering.

Ahhhhhh. So another name for “glandular fever” is Epstein-Barr. Or mononucleosis. Holy carp. Okay, now, that makes everything much clearer for me. Damn, Cav. I had that in college and it knocked me out for MONTHS. And I was the one who used to dance all night in those days. I was fit! I can’t imagine how much it’d screw me up now. Must have been pretty dreadful for him to go from the Manx Missile to the Manx Mat. And now he’s riding the Tour? Guy terrifies me. Pre-race interview this morning, he’s still being cagey. When asked what he learned about his current state of readiness yesterday, he shrugs. “Nothing. It was a time trial; I just wanted to get through unscathed.” And when asked about his chances for more stage wins this yeah, he merely says, “I have a better chance of winning here than I do staying at home.”

He used to be so brash and cocky; someone’s learnt to play the game over these long years.

Well, breakaway’s down to 40 seconds, now. Taylor Phinney’s pushing the pace, but the peloton is approaching. Still, he’s got the polka-dotted King of the Mountains jersey at the moment, and he’ll probably keep it.

OH NO!

Man, I knew this was coming (THANKS TWITTER), but oh NO! 30 km from the finish! Wet roads and a big roundabout and most of the front of the peloton has gone down! Most of Sky is there, and they don’t panic as they form up around Chris Froome to pace him back in. Race radio is saying Romain Bardet of AG2R is down badly. It’s hard to see, but it looks from the replays like the third or fourth rider in the front of the peloton— usually a fairly safe position— just slid out sideways, and because of the curves coming out of the roundabout, absolutely no one could avoid him, especially considering they were picking up the pace to catch the breakaway. Thankfully, it was possible for the back of the peloton to see what had happened and stop, and not add to the carnage, but this is still bad. However, it’s likely those getting up and moving back out won’t push the pace until they know everyone’s moving again— one of cycling’s fair play rules: don’t attack when the race leaders have had a fall.

Bardet is back up, Froome is back up. Their teams are around them, and giving chase. It does look like the peloton is pushing, but not in the extreme: the chasers are hooked back on at the back, and working their way forward again.

Best news of all: race radio is saying *everyone* is back up and chasing again. No serious injuries. Whew!

Dammit. Froome is at the back, signaling to the referees he needs his team car. He’s on a spare bike, his own having gone flying in the crash, and there must be something wrong with it.

The Sky team car catches up. Froome comes to the side of the road smoothly, drops the spare as a mechanic leaps from the car with a new bike, probably one specifically set for him. Mechanic gives Froome a running push, and Sky rider Kwiatkowski is right there to pace Froome back up. There’s a third Sky rider also helping, but I can’t see who. Christian Knees? They’re leapfrogging through the caravan, sort-of-but-not-really drafting the cars, which is illegal, but in the circumstances, race officials don’t look so closely. There’s a fourth Sky rider, too, and they’re all back in the group, now.

At the front, another point for KotM is upcoming, and Phinney has launched himself. He gets that one remaining point for the stage, and then just keeps going: breaking away from the breakaway!

Yoann Offredo manages to join him after a moment, but Boudat and Pichon do not. So now there’s the leading group, the chase, and the peloton. Oh, no— those latter two are gobbled up. So it’s now just two— and they’re faster than the peloton! Fifty seconds!

Well, if nothing else, the sky has cleared and the road is dry. That’s good for the peloton, maybe not so much for the breakaway. Roads are broad now and with few turns. The closer they get to the end, the clearer a view the peloton will have of the men they’re chasing. Will they catch them? Well, this has been touted as a sprint finish, and there are some very, very big names looking for a stage win. They can’t get that win if Offredo and Phinney get there first. The tension is mounting.

5.5km to go. They’re showing Phinney’s crash in 2014. Man, I’d had no idea. He almost lost a leg, and the scars are INSANE. He was told he’d never walk again. Okay, well. So much for that.

4km to go! Oh, Jesus. If I don’t keep my nails on the keyboard, I’m gonna bite them off. They’ve been ahead now for over four hours— will they last another few minutes?

The peloton is merciless and relentless. In a few minutes, the road will straighten out and the peloton will see them. Thirteen seconds ahead, now! We’re well inside the safe zone— anyone crashes now, they’ll get the same time as the peloton. Pressure is off for everyone but the sprinters and their leadout trains— and Offredo and Phinney.

Oh, this is heart-wrenching— long shots show the peloton looming, looming, gaining— OH NO! Dammit. DAMMIT. There’s the catch. It’s over. But it’s the frenzy of the sprinters’ setups that’s started, and the teams are angling their sprinters to the front! Every team is trying to get their man a clear shot! It’s speed and chaos— Kittel, Sagan, Greipel, yes! Cav! — WHO IS IT— AH! It’s Marcel Kittel!

4.37.06. Jesus, that’s a long ride.

Cameras on Kittel, sitting on the curb, face in hands, sobbing, tour handlers standing defensively around him with their legs braced and their arms spread out to keep the press back. Kittel eventually gets up, still crying, and there are hugs and cheers and back-slaps from his teammates— one of whom, Fabio Sabatini, sat up several lengths back as Kittel crossed the line and raised his own arms to cheer his teammate’s victory. Four and a half hours of agony, and now everyone is relaxing and chatting, milling around. There are no huge changes on the GC— Geraint Thomas is zipped into another Maillot Jaune. Kittel comes back to get the Green Jersey in addition to his Yellow. Taylor Phinney, who led for 99% of the stage before losing right at the end, at least gets his moment on the podium, receiving the polka-dot King of the Mountains Jersey. BMC’s Stefan Kung gets the White of Best Young Rider.

So, as I often find myself saying, today could have been much worse. That crash could have been absolute carnage, instead of which it only LOOKED that way. Everyone got up, everyone kept going. Of course, it’s tonight when all the muscles start stiffening up, and the abrasions make it hard to get a good night’s sleep. All the guys have top medics and masseurs to take care of them tonight, and they’re used to this.

So it’s going to be important to watch Taylor Phinney this year. In his first-ever Tour de France, he led the race from the gun to the ramp up for the sprint. He may have to lay low a day or two to restock, but we’re gonna watch what happens next. I’m really thinking that by the end of this race, I’m not going to be accidentally calling Taylor by his dad’s name any more. I don’t think anyone will be.


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