On a stage decided largely by inclement weather, it seemed weirdly appropriate that the main beneficiaries should be Sky. Chris Froome could barely conceal his delight following the first mass-start stage of this Tour, in which Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana both lost major chunks of time following a split in the bunch. In stark contrast, for Mark Cavendish it was a day of frustration as the Etixx-Quick Step rider finished off the podium in a final sprint that went by the shortest possible margin to Germany's André Greipel.
Desert-dry noon heat through the often bottleneck narrow streets of Utrecht. South-west on a gentle meander north towards Rotterdam. A leisurely spin towards Zeeland on the north sea coast along roads so flat you can see into the future if you squint hard enough: this 166km stage should have been straightforward. It was anything but.
As predicted, it came down to the sprint in which Greipel pipped Peter Sagan by a tyre's width, eyebrows raised that both men out-sprinted Cavendish, whose form coming into this race has been little short of imperious. He was also beaten by Fabian Cancellara, whose third place was enough to earn the Swiss the yellow jersey he was so despondent at missing out on in yesterday's time trial.
But it was behind the fast men that the major story was unfolding and, as was always likely to happen on a stage whose route took in the coast, crosswinds were to blame. Invariably liable to take their toll by smashing up the bunch and forcing the formation of echelons from which it is very easy for unwitting or unlucky riders to get dropped, they are the bane of cyclists but make for terrific racing. They duly blew in not long after a four-man breakaway had made an audacious bid for escape that ended a lot sooner than they might have hoped.
With rain hammering down and the wind howling, the teams of the main GC contenders fought to keep their men at the front of a bunch where assorted laws of physics dictate that only so many riders can fit in order to avoid potentially catastrophic consequences of being shelled out the back.
The majority of the field suffered, among them Nibali and Quintana, along with overnight race leader Rohan Dennis, as they lost time to a lead group in which Contador and Froome were safely swaddled in the protective blanket of assorted lieutenants.
“I’m really thankful to my team-mates today,” said Froome. “They kept me in front all day, especially when it mattered when that split happened. I think everyone was hoping that storm was going to hold off until after the finish, but that wasn’t to be today and I’m just glad it worked out the way it did.
“I had the support from my team-mates when I really needed it in the final split. They did a great job keeping me up there. We’re two days down now and I couldn’t have hoped for much more.”
Not half. Without so much as a speed-bump having been traversed, Froome, Contador and the BMC rider Tejay van Garderen can sleep soundly in their beds knowing they put a potentially game-changing one minute and 28 seconds into two of the pre-race favourites with less than 200km of the route behind them.
“We were unlucky,” said Nibali. “We chased a long time. What could we do? This is cycling. The bad days you have to accept.”
Nibali was more unlucky than most, having to recover from a puncture on top of all the other misfortune heaped upon his slender shoulders.
For Cavendish, there was also gloom. The clear favourite when it became apparent a sprint finish was available, it seems his trusty lead-out man Mark Renshaw may have jumped the gun 300m out, leaving his sprinter paddling in tar as Greipel, Sagan and then Cancellara swept past him in the closing metres.
Confronted by criticism on Twitter from armchair sprinters who suggested that by sitting up and “letting” Cancellara past he’d cost his ninth-placed team-mate Tony Martin a long overdue first day in the maillot jaune, Cavendish responded angrily.
“If I could hang on for 3rd, I could hang on for the win,” he said. “Some imbeciles think cycling is a computer game. Problem is, social media & TV are platforms for them to be heard.”
Sagan, too, will be furious, having valiantly chased down this group for 14km, only to catch them and lose one of the great stage wins on the line.
With Monday ’s finish on the small but beautifully punishing climb that is Mur de Huy, Cavendish is unlikely to rectify proceedings by taking his 26th stage win, although with the Tour touch-paper already lit, we could be in for more peloton pyrotechnics as the riders head uphill for the first time.
Despite being just 1.3km in length, the chapel-lined Mur de Huy, scene of the finish line, has an average gradient of 9.6 per cent that peaks at 19 per cent near its summit. It takes some climbing, which Nibali and Quintana ought to relish, although their chances of reducing Sunday’s losses within 24 hours rank somewhere between slim and none.
Stage 2, (Utrecht to Zelande 166km): 1 Andre Greipel (Ger) Lotto Soudal 3hrs 29mins 03secs, 2 Peter Sagan (Svk) Tinkoff-Saxo at same time, 3 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Trek Factory Racing, 4 Mark Cavendish (Gbr) Etixx–Quick-Step, 5 Daniel Oss (Ita) BMC Racing Team, 6 Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team, 7 Christopher Froome (Gbr) Team Sky, 8 Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Team Giant-Alpecin, 9 Tony Martin (Ger) Etixx-Quick-Step, 10 Warren Barguil (Fra) Team Giant-Alpecin all at same time, 11 Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team at 04secs, 12 Geraint Thomas (Gbr) Team Sky at same time, 13 Alberto Contador (Esp) Tinkoff-Saxo, 14 Rigoberto Uran (Col) Etixx-Quick-Step, 15 Tony Gallopin (Fra) Lotto Soudal, 16 Mark Renshaw (Aus) Etixx-Quick-Step, 17 Marcel Sieberg (Ger) Lotto Soudal, 18 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Tinkoff-Saxo all at same time, 19 Michael Schar (Swi) BMC Racing Team at 08secs, 20 Michael Rogers (Aus) Tinkoff-Saxo at same time, 21 Manuel Quinziato (Ita) BMC Racing Team at 11secs, 22 Zdenek Stybar (Cze) Etixx-Quick-Step at same time, 23 Ian Stannard (Gbr) Team Sky both at same time, 24 Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Etixx-Quick-Step at 15secs, 25 Tyler Farrar (USA) MTN- Qhubeka at 01min 28secs.
Irish: 42 Dan Martin - Cannondale-Garmin Pro Cycling Team @ 1.28; 66 Sam Benett - Bora-Argon 18 at same time; 93 Nicolas Roche - Team Sky @ 4.29
Leading General Classification after Stage 2: 1 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Trek Factory Racing 3hrs 44mins 01sec, 2 Tony Martin (Ger) Etixx–Quick-Step at 03secs, 3 Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Team Giant-Alpecin at 06secs, 4 Peter Sagan (Svk) Tinkoff-Saxo at 33secs, 5 Geraint Thomas (Gbr) Team Sky at 35secs, 6 Daniel Oss (Ita) BMC Racing Team at 42secs, 7 Rigoberto Uran (Col) Etixx-Quick-Step at same time, 8 Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team at 44secs, 9 Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team at 48secs, 10 Christopher Froome (Gbr) Team Sky at same time, 11 Michael Rogers (Aus) Tinkoff-Saxo at 53secs, 12 Zdenek Stybar (Cze) Etixx-Quick-Step at 54secs, 13 Andre Greipel (Ger) Lotto Soudal at 59secs, 14 Alberto Contador (Esp) Tinkoff-Saxo at 01min 00secs, 15 Tony Gallopin (Fra) Lotto Soudal at same time, 16 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Tinkoff-Saxo at 01min 08secs, 17 Marcel Sieberg (Ger) Lotto Soudal at 01min 12secs, 18 Manuel Quinziato (Ita) BMC Racing Team at 01min 13secs, 19 Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Etixx-Quick-Step at 01min 19secs, 20 Ian Stannard (Gbr) Team Sky at 01min 20secs, 21 Mark Cavendish (Gbr) Etixx- Quick-Step at 01min 24secs, 22 Warren Barguil (Fra) Team Giant-Alpecin at 01min 25secs, 23 Rohan Dennis (Aus) BMC Racing Team at 01min 26secs, 24 Mark Renshaw (Aus) Etixx- Quick-Step at 01min 48secs, 25 Matthias Brandle (Aut) IAM Cycling at 01min 49secs.
Irish: 57 Dan Martin - Cannondale-Garmin Pro Cycling Team @ 2.43; 85 Sam Benett - Bora-Argon 18 at 3.14; 105 Nicolas Roche - Team Sky @ 5.47