Week 1 of Tour belongs to sprinters
BRIGNOLES, France -- While two men engaged in a nervy, stirring contest for the Wimbledon championship Sunday afternoon, two of cycling's fastest men gunned their engines in the final yards of the first match sprint of the 2009 Tour de France.
Imagine, if you will, that Andy Roddick and Roger Federer had another player, or two or three or four or five, making the shots that got them to 40-love or break point on their opponent, enabling them to save themselves for one key moment in a game. Imagine further that players who helped get them there were nowhere to be seen when the winner lifted the trophy and the runner-up made his gracious speech.
Great Britain's Mark Cavendish and Tyler Farrar of Wenatchee, Wash., finished 1-2 in the 116.2-mile Stage 2 from Monaco to Brignoles, mixing it up down the stretch in what may become a familiar sight in the first week of the three-week marathon -- and a reminder that there is more than one way to get from point to point.
Cavendish, 24, who rides for Team Columbia-HTC, never fails to give credit to the high-velocity escort he gets from one of the most clinically efficient "trains" in the game -- the term for what unfolds when the wedge of riders who set the pace as the peloton drives toward the end of the stage strings out, pulling at the front and peeling off one by one until the last man slingshots Cavendish into position. This season, that lead-out rider is Australian Mark Renshaw.
Columbia's steam engine has helped Cavendish dominate his discipline. After winning four stages at last year's Tour, Cavendish this season chiseled his name on one of cycling's so-called "monument" events, the one-day Milan-San Remo classic, with a late kick few thought he would have in his first attempt. He followed that up with a day in the leader's jersey at the Giro d'Italia courtesy of Columbia's team time trial win, and won three stages in Italy.
The 25-year-old Farrar, riding in his first Tour for Garmin-Slipstream, may get support from various teammates late in a stage, but at the very end, the film is generally going to be a buddy movie. Veteran New Zealand sprinter Julian Dean blocks for Farrar, freelancing amid the teams with trains to try to find the best wheel to launch his man. The two did their first extensive bonding in May at the Giro. (Farrar's mano a mano win against Cavendish in a stage at the Tirreno-Adriatico race in Italy came before that in March. Dean helped protect Farrar, but it was young Dutch classics rider Martijn Maaskant who provided the last surge.)
There are pros and cons to each delivery system. Dean, who earned a reputation as one of cycling's strongest lead-out men by firing the afterburners for Norway's Thor Hushovd when they were both at Credit Agricole, observed that trains have more moving parts.
"The timing has to be perfect," Dean said. "If you run out of guys and [the sprinter] is at the finish, you get swamped from the back. When there's just two of us, we have more freedom, but you also have to be lucky that the gaps and spaces open up at the right time."
Dean said his increasing familiarity with Farrar has led him to believe Farrar can sustain his explosive speed over a longer distance. "Tyler hasn't quite yet realized what he's capable of," Dean said. He has been encouraging Farrar to make his move a bit earlier, which is exactly what Farrar said he was about to do Sunday as he lurked on Cavendish's back wheel, but the Brit instinctively jumped first.
"I didn't do anything wrong -- he just beat me," Farrar said. "There's not a trick you can pull to beat him. You just have to go faster."
Renshaw, who coincidentally succeeded Dean as Hushovd's lead-out man at Credit Agricole before Columbia hired him to shepherd Cavendish, said Columbia's train makes his life a lot easier. "Last year with Thor, we were constantly on the fringe of the teams setting the pace," Renshaw said. "Now that Cav's getting such a big name, everyone's fighting to get on his wheel, and wasting a lot of energy."
The dynamics of a lead-out pairing can be tricky. Renshaw and Dean are great sprinters themselves, and Renshaw, 26, openly admits he won't wait forever to find a place where he can pursue his own ambitions.
"The last few years, I've always said I wanted to progress," he said. "It wouldn't be natural if I didn't want to win races. That's what drives everyone." But he clearly relishes his role and appears to be fond of Cavendish, who is also his roommate for the Tour. "He works on his appearance more than me," Renshaw said. "Definitely a lot more hair product."
Dean was the designated sprinter for Garmin in last year's Tour, and logged six top-10 stage finishes, but had no natural partner on that roster. At 34, the ever plain-spoken, congenial Kiwi who grew up working on his family's dairy farm is in a different phase of his career. "I enjoy doing my job and being part of something successful," he said. "I'm not in the league of Cavendish. Tyler is. I respect that." Depending on circumstances, Dean could be green-lighted to try his luck in a later sprint finish with more challenging terrain.
Sunday's stage win put Cavendish in the green jersey, which is often labeled the sprint jersey, although it's actually earned with a more esoteric system of points that are accumulated during stages as well as at the finish. Rabobank's Oscar Freire wore it on the final Tour podium last year even though he won only one stage.
Cavendish, who left last year's Tour early to prepare for the Olympics, is aiming for that honor at the end of this Tour, preferably sealing it with a flourish by taking the sprint on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. "It's beautiful to be able to wear the green jersey," he said with obvious feeling after the stage.
That's the prerogative of an ace.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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