This year, the Tour directors decided to skip the prologue stage and get straight to the action, and I think that decision worked out great. The first stage was more exciting because everyone knew the winner of the sprint would wear the yellow jersey as the leader of the Tour. But the Tour was smart about it, and made it an uphill sprint. This made it competitive between the pure sprinters, the time trial artists, and the climbers. Alejandro Valverde, a contender capable of winning it all, took the sprint in exciting fashion. A flat sprint, as is usually seen in the first stage, would have given a pure sprinter the yellow jersey, even though he will probably finish half an hour behind on every mountain stage.
Yesterday, the second stage in Brittany was basically the standard early Tour stage. A small breakaway of 4 riders established a lead, but they were caught by the peloton (main pack) before the finish. The team of the yellow jersey (Caisse d'Epargne for Valverde) paced the peloton and made sure nothing weird happened early, while the sprinters' teams pulled the breakaway in later to allow a sprint finish and a chance for their star to win a stage. Thor Hushovd, one of the best sprinters in this year's Tour, took the slightly uphill finish, chasing down a couple daring attempts near the end, including one by time-trial champion Fabian Cancellara. Valverde safely finished with the lead pack, maintaining his 1 second lead.
No Time Bonuses
In another change from previous years, riders will not receive time bonuses (deductions from their overall time) for winning stages or intermediate sprints and climbs. This has kept the GC (general classification = overall time rankings for the yellow jersey) quite close and made the racing more interesting at times. For example, Cancellara could have claimed the yellow jersey yesterday with a slight break from the front group in the sprint. Later, this will keep the leader closer to his competitors, as the time bonus would only have added to the time difference in stages he wins.
Today's Stage - SPOILER Alert (Stop Reading if you want to watch today's stage later)
The third stage was a fascinating exercise in strategy. With a time trial looming tomorrow, none of the overall contenders wanted to expend a lot of energy. Valverde's team, normally responsible for keeping the breakaway within reach because he is the leader, was not inspired to really do the work today. None of the four men in the breakaway are considered threats in the mountains, and relinquishing the yellow jersey will allow Valverde's team to rest some before having to potentially protect him in the mountains. However, it would really be shocking if Romain Feillu, or any of the others in the top 3 today, can do well enough in the time trial tomorrow to maintain a lead over the Valverde and the other serious contenders. So Feillu can have his moment of glory, but the big boys will be back in the lead in time to control the peloton on Wednesday. The only losers here are the sprinters, who lost one of their few chances at a stage victory. These larger men have no chance in the mountains.
Time Trial Tomorrow
Every year time trials play a critical role in the Tour, as each rider is on his own to ride as fast as he can. As the fourth stage, the first major time trial is an opportunity for specialists, like Cancellara, to take the overall lead in the Tour. While the major contenders might not win outright, how they fare with respect to each other will determine their standing from now until the mountains. For Garmin-Chipotle, this will be the first chance to see if David Millar will be able to compete for the yellow jersey.