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WHAT’S AHEAD AT THE TOUR–PHASE 3: BRITTANY

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July 10, 2015 – Three words spoken in Le Havre Thursday by a man wearing the Tour de France yellow jersey summed up the first-week theme of this 102nd edition of the world’s biggest bike race: “Enjoy the moment.” Despite being in pain from breaking his collarbone in a final-kilometer crash, Tony Martin said that to his Etixx-Quick Step teammate Zdenek Stybar, while the fired-up Czech, who won the stage, was being interviewed on television.

Written by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada

Stybar broke clear on the steep hill to the finish after avoiding the crash in which Martin touched wheels with the rider ahead of him and tumbled in a heap. The race leader banged into Frenchman Warren Barguil, starting a domino effect that brought down defending champion Vincenzo Nibali and contenders Tejay van Garderen and Nairo Quintana, and pretzeled the back wheel of Chris Froome—who wore the yellow jersey before Martin won the cobbles stage into Cambrai on Tuesday.

It was ironic that Martin and Stybar were Etixx-Quick Step’s only stage winners this week when the whole team was riding to get victories for its star sprinter Mark Cavendish.

The Manxman did have two opportunities to win, but he mistimed his sprint both days and lost out to Lotto-Soudal’s André Greipel, who won the stages into Amiens Wednesday and Zealand last Sunday. But Cavendish was hoping that his luck would turn on Friday’s stage into Brittany.

2015 tour de france zdenek stybar victory etixx quickstep

Brittany is still one of the hotbeds of French cycling, and a million fans will likely be at the roadside for the Tour’s second weekend. What they are likely to witness are a mass sprint in Fougères (where a Tour road stage has never finished before), a hilltop battle at Mûr-de-Bretagne on Saturday and a team time trial featuring a demanding climb to the finish line on Sunday. In other words, three days that will push riders to their limit prior to this Tour’s first rest day.

Stage 7 (July 10): Livarot–Fougères 190.5km
The sprinters will be glad to have one last sprint before the Tour heads into its second week, which has few opportunities for group finishes. So at the end of a straightforward stage across the rolling hills of Normandy expect a truly great contest in Fougères between this Tour’s outstanding sprinters Cavendish, Greipel, Peter Sagan, John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff. All of them are suited to the slightly uphill run to the line after a run-in devoid of sharp turns—with Cavendish hoping that his lead-out train (absent Martin) has the strength to give him the best chance.

Stage 8 (July 11): Rennes–Mûr-de-Bretagne 181.5km
The focus will switch from the green jersey to the yellow jersey on Saturday, when stage 8 starts in Rennes, the capital of Brittany, and heads on a zigzag route to the west, passing through St-Méen-le-Grand, hometown of the first three-time Tour winner Louison Bobet, and a half-dozen places famous for their big local bike races.

Another Frenchman, five-time Tour champion Bernard Hinault, is part of the organizing committee for this stage, and he twisted a few arms to get a climb new to the Tour inserted just before the mid-stage bonus sprint at Moncontour. This short, steep hill, Mont Bel-Air, near the village of Trébry, is one that Hinault likely climbed on his training rides from his nearby hometown of Yffiniac. Another such climb, and one that’s often included in regional events, is the one above the village of Mûr de Bretagne, where the stage finishes.

All the country roads hereabouts are lumpy, lined with steep grass banks and overhanging trees. It was on just such a road that Cadel Evans had to change bikes and was helped back to the front group by his BMC teammates on stage 4 of the 2011 Tour—he got back right at the foot of the Mûr-de-Bretagne climb that heads die-straight at a 10-percent pitch for the first kilometer before the grade eases on the second kilometer.

Just 10 riders were in the group that sprinted for the stage win four years ago, with Evans tenaciously taking it by half a wheel over Contador. Contador will no doubt remember that sprint and try to go one better this year—though Froome, Nibali, van Garderen and Quintana, along with men such as Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez and Dan Martin, will also want to be in the frame.

6 July 2015 102nd Tour de France Stage 03 : Anvers - Huy CONTADOR Alberto (ESP) Tinkoff - Saxo Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA

All the locals will be cheering for the Giant-Alpecin team’s Barguil, who grew up in nearby Hennebont. Like Quintana, Barguil is a former winner of the Tour de l’Avenir and he sits only a minute back of Froome after an outstanding first week in his debut Tour. Barguil and his fans had a scare when he fell in Thursday’s crash, but after the finish in Le Havre he said, “My shoulder hurts and I have a big hematoma on my lower back. But we’re arriving in Brittany, so it’s going to be better.”

Stage 9 (July 12): Vannes–Plumelec (team time trial) 28km
With eight days of racing and countless crashes behind them, some of the Tour’s 22 teams have lost a few of their key riders—Cancellara at Trek Factory Racing, Martin at Etixx, Jack Bauer at Cannondale-Garmin, and Simon Gerrans, Michael Albasini and Daryl Impey at Orica-GreenEdge.

That’s one of the factors that could affect the results in stage 9, a 28-kilometer team time trial from the coastal town of Vannes along hedge-lined country roads, up into the hills of central Morbihan to Plumelec. The finish line is atop the famed Côte de Cadoudal, a 1.8-kilometer grind that rises to 505 feet (154 meters) above sea level.

A Tour team time trial finished at Plumelec back in 1982. That also was stage 9 and took place on July 12—and was held that late in the race because striking steel workers blocked teams riding the stage 5 TTT and forced it to be cancelled. The new TTT started in Lorient and was a monster 69 kilometers in length. The winner was the Dutch squad TI-Raleigh, which finished 1:10 ahead of Hinault’s Renault-Elf team.

This year, there will be keen competition between Team Sky (Froome), Tinkoff-Saxo (Contador), Movistar (Quintana and Valverde), Astana (Nibali) and BMC Racing (van Garderen)—all of which had complete nine-man rosters heading into the weekend.

9 May 2015 98th Giro d'Italia Stage 01 : San Lorenzo Al Mare - Sanremo TTT 3rd : Astana Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA

Despite being shorthanded, Etixx-Quick Step (for Rigoberto Urán) and Cannondale-Garmin (Andrew Talansky) will also be aiming at top finishes while six-man Orica-GreenEdge has little chance of repeating its TTT win from the Tour two years ago.

Froome and van Garderen, separated by only 13 seconds on overall time, are the top candidates to be wearing the yellow jersey when the Tour continues in the Pyrénées on Tuesday, but in a Tour that’s already seen two race leader’s crash out, predictions are precarious—so whoever takes over the best advice is to “enjoy the moment.”

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You can follow John on twitter @johnwilcockson