Tour De France 2014: British Cycling's Extraordinary Week of Highs and Lows

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Tour De France 2014: British Cycling's Extraordinary Week of Highs and Lows
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Mark Cavendish gingerly holds himself following his Stage One crash as British cycling fans watch on.

British cycling has ran the gamut of emotions in an extraordinary first week of the 2014 Tour de France.

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Crowds estimated to have run into millions turned up to watch the Tour de France begin on British shores.

Millions of fans, well-wishers and interested observers lined the streets of Yorkshire and then for Monday's Cambridge to London route.

It was not unexpected given the popularity of the Tour's previous visits and other cycling events, including the 2012 Olympic Games. Nonetheless, even if all those spectators do not get on their bikes or begin watching the sport, they contributed to as atmospheric a Grand Depart as there has ever been.

Sadly, amidst the joy and reflection of a successful three days have come two notable blows to the competitive strand of the island's cycling ambitions.

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Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish's consistent strong performances have played major roles in Britain becoming a prominent cycling land.

Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome are two of the figures responsible for the sport's popularity boom in Britain. The former has won 25 stages at the Tour, the 2011 green jersey and numerous other races and titles. The latter is arguably the world's best stage racer and wore yellow on the top spot of the Champs-Elysees' podium a year ago.

After just five stages of this year's race, both have abandoned through injury.

The prominence of both can be measured by how their respective absences have shaped the Tour already.

Cavendish crashed in the final kilometer of Stage 1. On a day in which he hoped to win in his mother's birthplace of Harrogate and subsequently wear a first maillot jaune, the resulting injuries instead accidentally killed off his aspirations for the following three weeks to Paris.

The Manx Missile's Omega Pharma-Quick Step had recruited former rival Alessandro Petacchi and ex-HTC team-mate Mark Renshaw with all this in mind. They were additions designed to strengthen the quality of Cavendish's lead-out train, a valuable tool in the battle with the increasingly dominant Marcel Kittel and his own Giant-Shimano squad for stage wins (and to a certain extent with points classification favourite Peter Sagan of Cannondale).

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Cavendish and his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team were confident of their chances of winning stages heading into this year's Tour.

Although not without their off days, Cavendish and his new-look team were looking in solid form heading into Yorkshire. They looked focused and in sync heading into Harrogate before an attack by Fabian Cancellara blew the final run-in wide open. It forced Cavendish's hand, prompting an emotion-fueled, unknowingly fateful last-ditch attempt for space in the final sprint.

OPQS have looked strong in the two suitable finishes since then, too. They have teed up Renshaw, a considerable finisher in his own right, but not one with the kick of his namesake. With Kittel romping to three wins already, the opening week has been a cruel reminder to Cavendish of the German's ascension in a rivalry that will now have to be renewed further down the line.

With space at a premium and the stage looking like getting away from him, an element of pressure influenced Cavendish's decision to attack where he did last Saturday. Judgement cost him the win that day, but it was just plain bad luck the collisions with Orica-GreenEdge's Simon Gerrans sent him crashing to such damaging effect.

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Cavendish's health following his Stage One crash was an immediate cause for concern.

"We knew last night and I knew straight away because normally in crashes I bounce back straight away," Cavendish admitted in the aftermath to "This was the first time in my career that I knew something was up, but I wanted to finish and I was able to do that, but I was in pain."

Garmin-Sharp's Dan Martin will have emphasised with the feeling of frustration Cavendish and OPQS suffered at seeing their plans ripped up so soon into a Grand Tour. Just under two months previously, the Giro d'Italia's Grande Partenza in Belfast saw the Irishman floored as he rode in the team time trial.

Anticipating the two days ahead of him, Martin was understandably excited to begin on home roads what would be his first concentrated tilt at a general classification. Unfortunately, he lost his balance going over a manhole cover uneven with the road, sending him and three other team-mates to the ground, ending his Giro with a broken collarbone.

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The joy of riding a Giro d'Italia on home roads soon turned to pain for Irishman Dan Martin.

"I knew straight away that my race was over but it was the damage I did to the team that even now still hurts," Martin wrote in his rider diary in the July issue of ProCycling magazine. "Not only the physical pain inflicted on guys I see as friends but also the time loss and the impact of morale at the Giro."

Froome's frustration did not come on the opening day of his Grand Tour. He was one of several from the peloton to have enjoyed the crowds that greeted them in England and headed to France in good spirits.

They did not last for long. In an initially innocuous-appearing incident, he went down on Stage 4 to Lillie. However, concerns over a wrist injury to the 2013 Tour winner appeared to have alleviated overnight.

The feared fifth stage between Ypres and Arenberg Porte du Hainaut—with its expected cobble sections and not-so expected heavy rain, slippery conditions and mud—proved too much for Froome. For him now, there will be much of the same regret, or at least disappointment, that Martin and Cavendish have suffered.

Perhaps, as ex-rider and current commentator Daniel Lloyd speculated, the Kenyan-born Briton was bravely fighting a losing battle.

Whether the falls he suffered exacerbated his injury or just unmasked its hidden severity, the aftershock of the early abandonment of one of the favourites will be felt throughout the remainder of the Tour de France.

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Froome rode into the next day after his initial crash. Despite being patched up during Stage Four and after it, his injury proved too painful to ride on with.

Froome will be missed when the Tour convoy moves into the mountains, his preferred battleground. But in the hours that followed his packing up, the resilience of the race itself was highlighted by a gripping remaining 68 kilometres.

The sight of a mud-soaked, yellow jersey-wearing Vincenzo Nibali and his Astana team-mates putting big time into his rivals was reminiscent of his pink-clad solo confirmation of glory in the snow up Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the 2013 Giro d'Italia's penultimate stage. A man blazing through the undesirable conditions with class and verve.

Should he go on to add this Tour to his palmares, Nibali's ride will be one of this edition's defining images (not forgetting Belkin's Lars Boom either, the actual winner of the stage).

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A mud-soaked Vincenzo Nibali powering over Stage Five's cobbled sections in yellow could well become one of the 2014 Tour's defining images. It will certainly be one of its most memorable.

For now, it is a move that has demanded a response. Italy's Shark will have to fend off attacks from the likes of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), the Spanish contenders among those bruised by the cobbles but not yet broken.

As for the British, Team Sky and their Welshman Geraint Thomas, or Orica-GreenEdge's first-year professional Simon Yates, could still contribute. For the most part, though, British cycling's memorable but brief involvement in this Tour will be confined to its first week.

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