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Stage 3 of the 2012 Tour de France was a 197km ride from the town of Orchies near the Belgian border to Boulogne-Sur-Mer, a seaside resort on the Northern French coastline. With Stage 2 having gone to Mark Cavendish of Team Sky, this course was suited to another fast finish, although it seemed more than likely that the pure sprinters would not be up with the peloton after a series of more difficult Cat.3 climbs towards the end of the stage. A pretty flat first 100km would be immediately followed by a series of challenging undulations, suited to the likes of Cancellara, Stage 1 victor Peter Sagan and classics expert Philippe Gilbert of Belgium.
The first breakaway came after a mere 5km, much sooner than on the previous days of the tour thus far. The quintet of escapees included Andriy Grivko (UKR, Astana), Giovanni Bernaudeau (FRA, Europcar), Sebastien Minard (FRA, Ag2r-La Mondiale), Ruben Perez Moreno (SPA, Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Michael Morkov (DEN, Saxobank), the Dane defying my predictions to push himself in to the breakaway for the 3rd day running, clearly seeking to maintain his King of the Mountains jersey until Thursday at the very least. Morkov clearly felt good about his cycling as he looks to hold on to the historic polka dot colours for as long as possible. Much of the early stage passed without incident of any kind, RadioShack-Nissan controlling the pace on the front of the peloton for yellow jersey holder Fabian Cancellara. The gap between the peloton and leaders remained at about 5 minutes for some time, the main bunch very content to take it easy over the first 100km, with the latter half of the stage anticipated to be far more challenging.
The first event of interest was the intermediate sprint, with Minard (20) taking the maximum points from Bernaudeau (17), Morkov (15), Moreno (13), Grivko (11). Mark Cavendish lead home the points classification contenders in the peloton, taking 10 points, from Van Hummel (BEL, Vacansoleil-DCM, 9), with green jersey leader Sagan adding 8 more to his already prolific total of 78. With Morkov taking the point available at the first Cat.4 climb (unsurprisingly), the pace of the peloton increased, resulting in 2 nasty crashes, the latter forcing the first retirement of the Tour in the form of Kanstantsin Sivtsov (Sky). Although not the key cog, Bradley Wiggins will miss his help throughout the mountain stages. With a mere 37km left, Bernaudeau was dropped by the leading quartet just before the first Cat.3 climb, maximum points yet again going to the tireless Morkov. A further crash saw our second retiree, Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar) appearing to break his collarbone in a clash involving Simon Gerrans (AUS, Orica-Greenedge) and Tyler Farrar (USA, Garmin-Sharp). With the leading quarter at the first of the final climbs, the punishing pace of the peloton caused a split, Cavendish, Thomas Voeckler and Philippe Gilbert among others lagging behind. Moreno and Minard were dropped by Morkov and Grivko, the Dane hovering up yet more Mountains classification points before finally breaking after a supreme effort.
As the rain tumbled down, lone escapee Grivko was finally caught 5km from the finish, the Ukrainian’s noble effort signalling an immediate attack by a gallant Sylvain Chavanel (FRA, Europcar) in a bid to wrest yellow from Cancellara. Chavanel opened up a 12 second gap at the largest point but with RadioShack hunting on the front the Frenchman was denied. A substantial crash caused by lead out riders moving backwards caused dozens of riders to fall in the final kilometre, although luckily nobody was seriously injured; Chris Froome (GBR, Sky) hurtling over his handlebars at low speed the most significant GC contender to fall. As Albasini surged ahead, Sagan and Boasson-Hagen both sought the victory. However, it was the magnificent Slovak who won by a clear second, his hugely impressive burst of speed proving too much for the talented Norwegian who could only manage second. Sagan’s victory, so clear that he managed to sit up and celebrate well before the line, underlines the enormous potential of the 22 year old, who will almost certainly be favourite for the green jersey owing to his remarkable consistency, much like Thor Hushovd in 2009. Sagan could well win multiple stages in 2012, and while he may not yet possess the outright pace in a pure sprint, is more than capable of holding his own against nearly all riders over all manner of terrain. The fallers and those held up by the crash in the final kilometre, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome included, were not punished at all as the incident occurred in the final 3km, meaning all were awarded a time of 1 second down on Sagan.
Stage 4 Preview
Stage 4 is a lengthy 214.5km ride from Abbeville to the majestic cathedral city of Rouen in Northern France. Stage 4 is one of the longest in the entire tour, and the ride is a particularly breathtaking one, down the so called ‘Alabaster Coast’. In terms of the riding itself, the course will, like Stage 2, suit the pure sprinters in the peloton, with Mark Cavendish, Andre Greipel and Matt Goss presumably being able to keep up with the main group as they wind their way through the early part of Week 1. The profile is reasonably flat, only 4 Cat.4 climbs being present on the route, with the mere 4 points available ensuring that Michael Morkov will be safe even if he doesn’t attempt to join the breakaway. The intermediate sprint is at 140km, nearly ¾ of the way through the stage. Although many legs will be feeling sore after the difficulties experience on Stage 3, it should be an entertaining sprint in Rouen. Tip for today is Andre Greipel, the big German undoubtedly wanting to make up for being narrowly beaten by Manx rival Mark Cavendish on Stage 2. Cavendish and Goss will be close, but Lotto-Belisol will want to hammer home the advantage in terms of the strength of their lead out train.