Garmin-Cervélo could hardly have written a better script to the opening days of the Tour de France. Having put Thor Hushovd into the yellow jersey thanks to their victory in Sunday's team time trial, the Norwegian's sprint ally Tyler Farrar took his debut Tour success ahead of Vacansoleil's Romain Feillu and Movistar's José Joaquín Rojas.
As he crossed the line to give the USA a most timely victory on Independence Day, Farrar made a "W' sign with his two hands in tribute to his close friend Wouter Weylandt, who died after crashing on the third stage of May's Giro d'Italia.
"This has been a horrible last two months with everything that happened in the Giro," Farrar said. "I've had a lot of ups and downs but in the end I wanted to come back and do something special and this is certainly the biggest stage that you can do that. I've trained hard and I could feel I was getting stronger over the last few weeks. It's a little bit unbelievable that it could happen. Everything just came together."
There had been a lot of questions about how the pairing of Hushovd and Farrar would be accommodated in the same team at the Tour, and this stage provided the answer. While HTC-Highroad's lead-out for Mark Cavendish went awry coming out of the final left-hand bend with 750m remaining, Garmin-Cervélo was perfectly set up coming into the finish.
"It's a little bit of a special situation with Thor in yellow and the priority was for him to stay in yellow because the last thing we wanted was for a time gap," Farrar said. "It just shows what a champion Thor is and how classy he is. A world champion in the yellow jersey doesn't have to lead out the sprint for a teammate, but I just can't say thank you enough to him and the whole team."
Yellow jersey Hushovd was on the front of the line, with teammates Julian Dean and Farrar tucked right in behind him and only another three riders for immediate company. Hushovd led to 400m, where Dean took over. Farrar finally made his move with 150m left and never looked in danger of being overhauled, despite an impressive final spurt by Feillu that carried him to within half a bike length of Farrar.
Rojas was well back in third but had the consolation of taking the green jersey. AG2R's Sébastien Hinault was fourth, with Cavendish well behind in fifth.
“This green jersey is the reward for lots of sacrifice, and I'm really happy to wear it," Rojas said. "This was one of the goals, along with taking a stage win, and I'm showing I can get them both.
“It was a dangerous finale, and after the last turn I was a bit behind and had a tough time getting back up front. I took it from a long way out, because I was afraid I would get boxed in, but I was lacking some strength when I shifted down for some more power as I was overtaking them. I didn't win, but if I didn't start sprinting, I wouldn't have taken the jersey. I'm feeling super strong and will keep trying."
Hushovd's impressive performance was enough to keep him in the yellow jersey, making this the first time the Norwegian has managed to hold onto the fabled tunic on the fourth occasion he's held it.
Garmin-Cervelo team manager was beside himself with elation at his team's performance so far in this Tour de France. "Right from the work that Zabriskie did to the incredible work that Ramunas [Navardauskas] did... He was doing 140 km at the front and was still helping out at the front in the final 10km. Across he board it was just beautiful," Vaughters said.
"This has taken a lot of strategy and a lot of management to get everyone focused. We’ve got a bunch of great guys."
How it unfolded
The break of the day began inside the opening kilometer of racing when Mickael Delage (FDJ), Iván Gutiérrez (Movistar), Rubén Pérez (Euskaltel), Maxime Bouet (Ag2r) and Niki Terpstra (Quick Step) went clear. Their lead stretched within the first quarter of the stage, reaching a maximum of eight minutes with 80km covered.
That advantage began to come down as the break and the peloton tracking them approached the day's intermediate sprint at St Hilaire de Chaleons with 104km covered. As the five escapees approached it, FDJ's Delage jumped from the back of the line, and Gutiérrez and Terpstra gave chase. Just as his FDJ teammate Jeremy Roy had done on Saturday's first stage, Delage took the 20 points on offer to the first rider over the line, with Gutiérrez and Terpstra comfortably beaten.
The leading quintet's advantage was cut back substantially as the peloton's speed rose approaching St Hilaire to dispute sixth place in the sprint. A clutch of Lampre riders moved to the front to set up defending points champion Alessandro Petacchi, but the blue and fuchsia jerseys were quickly swamped coming into St Hilaire.
With none of the sprinters' teams fully committed to the sprint, Omega Pharma moved Philippe Gilbert up to the front and it was the Belgian who made the first move. Cavendish and Hushovd battled to get on his wheel, the Norwegian leaning on the Briton, who nudged his rival aside with his shoulder.
The two riders then accelerated on either side of Gilbert, Cavendish streaking by on the left to claim the 10 points on offer for 6th place. Katusha's Denis Galimzyanov led the rest of the bunch over the line, with Gilbert also picking up useful points as his green jersey bid gathers momentum.
Having trimmed the advantage held by the breakaways approaching the intermediate sprint to around five minutes, the bunch was happy to let it remain at around that mark for the next 30-odd kilometres. But it began to drop again as the riders neared the stage's only categorised climb on the Pont de St Nazaire.
The five leaders struggled noticeably in the strong westerly cross-wind as they climbed to the 66m "summit", the bridge over the river Loire. Delage once again opened the sprint and once again timed his move perfectly to claim the only point on offer in the King of the Mountain competition, which tied him for the lead with Gilbert, who will now wear that jersey on stage four having lost green to Rojas.
With the wind picking up, the speed in the peloton chasing behind rose as several teams moved protected riders up towards the front of the field. This injection of pace cut the advantage of the five leaders to two minutes. Heading up and over the bridge that took the race into Brittany, the peloton split in the strong westerly wind. Most of favourites were safely in the front part of it, but Liquigas leader Ivan Basso, Sky sprinter Ben Swift and French champion Sylvain Chavanel were among those caught out.
For a short spell, the pace stayed high on the front of the peloton and those dropped looked to have little chance of getting back up to it. But the pace eased as the riders at the front of the peloton realised that continuing at such a high pace would bring the breakaway within range too soon. So the pace eased and the peloton – or at least the majority of it – regrouped.
Up at the front, the five leaders continued to work together until just inside the 20km banner, when Delage attacked and Gutiérrez went with him. Their advantage by now was little more than 40 seconds. The three riders dropped from the break were soon overhauled by the bunch, where HTC-Highroad began to work for Cavendish.
Although Delage and especially Gutiérrez gave all they had in an attempt to hold the bunch off, they were inevitably caught with 9km remaining, as the bunch rocketed by at almost 70kph led by a string of Katusha riders, with HTC also prominent.
Inside the final 5km, HTC's Tony Martin led the bunch, with teammates Matt Goss, Mark Renshaw and Cavendish behind him. Alessandro Petacchi and Hushovd were among those battling to get on Cavendish's wheel.
Although the pace set by HTC was very high, Vacansoleil's Marco Marcato managed to escape their grip with just over 2km remaining. The Italian's effort always looked doomed, but it seemed to upset HTC's lead-out as gaps appeared in Cavendish's "train". Sky's Geraint Thomas tried to take advantage, although he later explained that he'd thought he had sprinter Edvald Boasson Hagen on his wheel and hadn't realised the Norwegian had been nudged out of the way.
The final right-angled turn to the left with 750 remaining was always likely to be crucial and so it proved. Garmin went it into perfectly set, but it was chaotic behind them. Cofidis's Samuel Dumoulin was worst affected, a knock from an Astana rider sending him into somersaulting into the barriers. But other riders were checked, including Cavendish and Quick Step's Tom Boonen, who was left with too much ground to make up.
"We went into the left-hand bend with about 600 metres to go very fast. I was right on Cavendish's wheel with Petacchi on mine. We came out of it really close to the barricades, but then some rider busted in at full speed and forced me to brake to avoid the worst. It's too bad for Ciolek, too.
"Gerald led me out really well, but right before the last kilometer he also had to pull off a balancing act to stay on his bike. It's a lost opportunity and I also lost lots of points for the green jersey. You never know at the Tour, though, we're going to keep trying. Often all it takes is a couple of good results to get back into the race for the points jersey."
With their rivals out of the picture, Garmin provided the ideal lead-out for Farrar, who delivered the perfect finish. With that first win behind him, the American looks set for more, as do his team who can do no wrong at the moment.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.