Holy pants! What a crazy opening week of the tour.
Stage 1 kicked off in Northern England with a signature Jens Voight solo breakaway to grab the king of the mountains jersey over the opening two climbs. The stage finished in sprint favorite Mark Cavendish's mom's home town and was supposed to be his day to not only win the stage, but realize his dream of wearing the leader's yellow jersey. It was not to be as Cav was boxed in in the closing meters, prompting him to barge his way into Simon Gerrans, taking both riders to the pavement and Mark Cavendish out of the race completely with a separated shoulder. Marcel Kittel claimed victory and the yellow jersey
Stage 2 was an unsually hard stage for the opening weekend of the race, going over 9 categorized climbs in what became a battle of attrition throughout the day. Pre-stage favorite Peter Sagan was the fastest sprinter left in the bunch over the last climb and seemed in great position to grab the win as predicted, but GC contender Vicenzo Nibali made a surprise move in the closing kilometers that stuck as others in the bunch behind refused to help Sagan pull back the attack. Nibali would place himself 0:02 in front of the rest of the field and claim the yellow jersey in addition to the stage win.
Stage 3 was one of the few stages that went according to plan with Marcel Kittel winning in a bunch sprint after a great leadout by his team.
Stage 4, the first back in France, was supposed to be another textbook flat stage for the sprinters, but unfortunately the big news of the day was the pre-race favorite and defending champion Chris Froome went down in the early part of the stage in what seemed like an innocuous crash as the peloton slowed for a nature break. Froome picked up some road rash on his left side, but the most serious injury was to his left wrist, especially considering stage 5 was to be in the bumpy cobblestones. Marcel Kittel won the stage in a bunch sprint, his second straight and 3rd win in this Tour.
Stage 5 was perhaps the most feared stage of the entire Tour, to cover 9 sections of the famed northern france cobble stones. The storyline at the start of the day was how Chris Froome's injured wrist would hold up to the punishment of the cobbles, but rainy, slippery conditions and a peloton aggressively jockeying for position overshadowed that. In the end Froome wouldn't even make it to cobbles, crashing twice in the first half of the stage and abandoning with a broken right hand and broken left wrist, leaving the reins of team Sky to Ritchey Porte. Froome wasn't alone in his bad luck, some 41 riders hit the pavement throughout the day, many before even reaching the cobblestone sections. Crashes, mechanical issues, and lack of strength through the cobbles, saw the GC favorites split up at the end of the stage. Nibali, who many had pegged to lose his yellow jersey on this stage, surprisingly turned in the ride of his life with the help of a strong team. In the end Lars Boom took the stage, but Nibali not only retained yellow, but put up to 2:30 on his key rivals for the overall/GC.
Stage 6 was supposed to be a day to recover after the carnage of the previous day, but rainy conditions once again caused chaos among the riders, sending many to the pavement. Froome's team, team Sky, lost another man in Zandio to a crash, while another race favorite, Alberto Contador's #1 lieutenant in the mountains, Jesus Hernandez also crashed out... severely weakening both team's chances. The end of the stage came down to another sketchy bunch sprint. Finally another team, Omega Pharma Quickstep, were able to break Kittel's stranglehold on the sprints by driving the peloton hard with 6-7km to go. This caused Kittel's Giant-Shimano team to fracture and become disorganized. OPQS's efforts did not pay off for their sprinter however as Andre Griepel was able to freelance off of other sprinter's wheels in lieu of his team's leadout and jump ahead at the line for the win.
Stage 7 was a stage guys like Sagan and Gerrans marked on the calender as opportunities for them to win the stage. With two climbs near the finish to shed the other sprinters, guys who could climb and sprint could count on a much reduced field at the line. Sagan almost pulled it off, but was again second, by a literal inch as the leadup to the final sprint cost him energy chasing down attacks and left him isolated with no teammates. Perhaps the bigger story for American cycling fans was Tejay Van Garderen went down hard in a very ill timed crash. Crashing just as the furious pace in the closing part of a stage was starting to ramp up, but before the 3km "safety zone" where victims of crashes are given the same time as the group they were with, Tejay was left to chase down the peloton in vain (on his teammate's bike no less), ultimately losing over a minute in the general classification. Unfortunately, that wasn't the only bad news of day as other American favorite Andrew Talansky also took a silly, yet nasty crash in the closing meters of the race, getting caught up in the final sprint (a place no GC contender should be). Both seem okay initially, but as Froome has shown, sometimes crashes can compound as your coordination and dexterity are impaired, leading to more crashes.
So, after a crazy opening 1/3 of the Tour, the peloton is left licking their wounds and looking forward to a change in terrain.
Stage 8 will be predominately flat stage, but with a sharp kick at the very end with almost 3000ft of climbing in the last 30km, including an uphill finish at the top of the last climb. While this won't be a place for the GC contenders to make substantial moves against their rivals, it could be the opening attacks as guys start probing for weakness. With several favorites nursing crash injuries, including both American favorites Van Garderen and Talansky, this may be a good chance for others to strike while they are weakest
Stage 9 will be a hard day with 6 categorized climbes, including a cat 1 and two cat 2s. However, the last 45km are downhill or flat, making this an unlikely stage for GC battles (precious energy spent attacking uphill will be wasted as the rivals' teams make up the gap on the descent and flats by using their aerodynamic advantage as a unit). This might be a good place for a breakaway to succeed from riders that are no threat in the GC though.
Stage 10, the last stage before a rest day, and first stage in real mountains should shape up to be the first big battle in the GC race. Two cat 2 and three cat 1 climbs will thin the peloton to a very select group for the final show down on the cat 1 mountaintop finish. 9km at 8.5% average gradient should be plenty of time for guys eager to make up for time lost in the opening week to do some damage... if they have the legs.
Stage 11 and 12 coming out of the rest day are "lumpy" medium mountain stages... suited to a breakaway succeeding or "punchy" climber/sprinters like Sagan, Gerrans, Degenkalb, etc.
Stage 13 returns the Tour to the high mountains of the Alps. The stage opens relatively easily, but ends in a mammoth HC (beyond category) climb: 18.2km at 7.3% average. Perhaps another GC battle will happen here, but the relatively easy lead up and lower gradients may not make this an ideal location for a decisive attack. Look for guys a little bit down in the GC desparate to make up time to attack here while the main contenders mark each other all the way up the mountain.
Stage 14 is probably a better stage for the GC picture to shake out before leaving the Alps.With a Cat 1 and a HC climb to soften up the bunch before the stage ends on a Cat 1, uphill finish. While the closing climb is not all that formidable, the strategy of the day will likely be to pry open a gap over the penultimate climb of the famed Col d'Izoard, take big risks on the technical parts of the descent and build the gap up the final climb. We'll likely know a lot about where all the GC contenders stand after this stage