Sprint stages get no respect. I like to call them "flyover" stages. Similar in nature to the derogatory term used by US coastal folk when discussing the middle of the country that they "fly-over" to get to the beautiful states bordered by the ocean - these are the stages that the casual cycling fan only watches by fast forwarding until the last 5k to see the sprinters battle for green.
Nothing wrong with that, to each his own, but like the coastal snobs that miss out on much of the amazing beauty the central US has to offer, those waiting for the high mountains or TT's are missing out on some of the most amazing and exciting racing Le Tour has to offer.
These flat stages aren't just 200k of rolling along waiting for the frenetic last 5km leading up to the sprint. There is arguably more tactics played out in these stages than in any other type. It almost always starts with a breakaway...many times from within the first km. These breaks are filled with domestiques out to be disruptive in the hopes of creating a miracle and staying away and winning from a smaller group sprint.
It rarely happens, and more often than not their hopes are dashed within just a few km of the finish where they are passed with heads down and arms straight as the peloton steams by on their way to a bunch sprint. Sometimes there will be a pat on the back from one of the peloton in acknowledgment of their hard work. Their job is done, they got facetime for themselves and airtime their team and they can rejoin the group and follow them to the line.
Back in the peloton there is a ton of activity as well. It is just more mental and tactical than physical for most of the race. As the split grows between the break and the pack, the discussions start to happen as to who will do the work to bring them back. The responsibility primarily falls to the top sprinters teams, but there are many factors that go into the decision to move to the front. How does your man feel today? Does another team seem more desperate for victory? And what of the yellow jersey? Is it on a GC contender who could care less if he loses it? Or is it worn by one of the smaller teams who's only goal in the bigger picture is keeping it on his back and winning stages? You play your hand too soon and you could end up doing a lot of work that doesn't need to be done.
Omega Pharma Quickstep played their hands perfectly today. The work was started by Lotto-Belisol and Argos-Shimano at around 60km to go. Then OPQS lifted the pace dramatically at 40km to go and the break maintaining a somewhat concerning 5 minute lead. That push dropped the split to a more manageable level and then the Orica Greenedge boys put in a blistering turn at the front to insure that their man Gerrans stayed in yellow for one more day.
At the end the the remnants of the group featuring Japanese hero Yukiya Arashiro of Europcar - who was in virtual yellow for much of the race - was finally swallowed up and the stage was set for the first sprint of this tour with all of the top sprinters involved. It was not to be however, as a huge crash with 200m to go literally blocked the road and stopped a number of riders from competing for the stage. Luckily Dish, Greipel, Sagan, Kristoff and EBH made it through unscathed with the Manx Missile taking an easy win over an impressive Edvald Boassen Haggen of Team Sky.
The victory marked Cavendish's 24th tour stage victory and brought a sense of normalcy to the race...he's supposed to win after all. I expect he will have a few more opportunities to increase that total on his quest for another green jersey.