<
>

Tour de France: five lessons learned

The peloton is backdropped by Saint-Front Cathedral in Perigueux city during the 10th stage of the 104th edition of the Tour de France cycling race over 178km between Perigueux and Bergerac, France, 11 July 2017. EPA/GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO

South Africa's Daryl Impey and Ethiopia's Tsgabu Grmay have emerged unscathed from a sensational nine days of racing at the Tour de France. They now look ahead to Week 2.

It's been a huge first week at the Tour. In just nine stages, the ranks of the peloton have been significantly thinned. Eighteen riders have already abandoned, nearly half of whom are team leaders. Controversy, disqualification and illness have taken their toll, and crash carnage -- whether on mountain descents, in the sprints or at the time trial -- has done the rest.

On the very first stage, three teams lost key riders: Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Luke Durbridge (Orica-Scott) and Ion Izaguirre (Bahrain Merida).

Then superstar sprinters Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) wiped each other out in a high-speed pile-up on Stage 4.

Stage 9 crashes ruled out three more GC contenders - Richie Porte (BMC), Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) -- while FDJ's ailing green jersey hope Arnaud Demare, as well as three of his teammates, were eliminated after missing the time cut.

In the midst of the mayhem, Africa's five-man contingent at the Tour remains intact. This is what Daryl Impey (Orica-Scott) and Tsgabu Grmay (Bahrain Merida) have learned so far...

1. Week 1: moving on
Apart from the high profile abandonments on Stages 1 and 4, the first week of racing unfolded more or less as predicted. Four flat stages produced four doomed breakaways that were easily controlled by the sprinters' teams who were driving the peloton.

"I think Week 1 went as everyone expected," said former yellow jersey-wearer Impey. "Everyone knew the flat days were going to be a sprinters' paradise and nobody really tried to go up the road. Obviously Stage 8 was the only opportunistic stage, so that's why you saw a big battle up front. And Stage 9 pretty much just twisted the knife -- anyone who went deep the day before paid for it on Sunday, and that's where we saw big gaps opening up."

Grmay agrees: "There were a lot of nerves but most of the opening stages were flat and not really hard. They were just long and very hot. It was all about surviving. It was actually an OK week, not like previous Tours."

2. Some fall-out is good
With so many big names falling by the wayside, the affected teams will be scrambling to implement plans B and C. For the rest of the peloton, however, there is some up-side.

"There are fewer guys to worry about now," observes Impey. "The sprints are going to be less hectic and on the general classification (GC) days there'll be less fighting for the front. Because a lot of teams have lost riders, it's going to be easier for us to maintain position in the peloton."

3. Week 2 has just got simpler
With Orica-Scott's designated GC man Esteban Chaves haemorrhaging time on Stage 9, Impey's team now have all their eggs in one basket.

"Simon Yates is our No. 1 priority. He was already in Stage 9, but now that Esteban has lost time, we're just going for the white jersey (for best young rider). For us, Week 2 is going to be pretty simple: we've got one guy to look after, and maybe Chaves or Roman Kreuziger will look for the breakaway."

Over at Team Bahrain-Merida, things are a little different. They also lost their GC hope Izaguirre early on, but will rely on climbers like Grmay to get in the break on the four hilly stages that loom at the back end of the second week.

"I think Stages 12 to 15 are probably for the breakaway," says Grmay. "Because we lost our team leader on the first stage, we are really looking forward to catch the breakaway and get a good result. The breakaway, and especially the climbers, will try everything -- I'm looking forward to these stages."

4. Shifting allegiances
At the head of the race, four riders are grouped within a minute of the lead. But below them on the general classification, there are a handful of teams who could make common cause despite differing goals.

"I think collectively you're going to see a couple of GC teams working together," says Impey.

"Astana are very strong but I think we're going to see teams combining to put the pressure on Chris Froome (Sky). There are riders like Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) a few positions back, and Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) is always hanging around up there.

"Team Sky are controlling really well; even if there are hard back-to-back stages, they've probably got the best team for it. It's going to be difficult to dictate, but I think there might be big groups going up the road and if it's some of the GC guys... well, the race is far from over."

5. The Africa effect
Not only does Africa have five riders at the Tour - Impey, Grmay, Louis Meintjes (UAE Emirates), and Jaco Venter and Reinardt Janse van Rensburg (both at Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka) - but all five have already been influential.

"Louis is riding extremely well. He's in the front group and that's the best 15 in the world up there," says Impey of his compatriot who is currently sitting at 11th overall and second in the race for the white jersey. "Louis is definitely flying the flag on GC, and Reinardt's been doing some good work in DiData's lead-out in the sprints. Tsgabu, myself and Jaco have all been playing a team role so although our results haven't been there, we're all playing a part.

"As we get into Week 2 and Week 3, a lot of riders will start getting a few more opportunities and that's where guys like Tsgabu and myself will have a crack. On the other hand, all the opportunists in the peloton also know that there are only three or four suitable stages left, so on a day like that, everyone will be going for it and the chance of success will be slim. I'm going to have to choose; hopefully choose the right break and hopefully that break stays away to the end."

Grmay is thinking along similar lines. "I believe all the African guys are doing well. We're always improving and learning, and I wish the other guys all the best. Personally, I have prepared well so I believe I will get better and better in the second and third weeks."