How does a Tour de France team tackle the varying elements of the two stages through Yorkshire? Belkin sports director Merijn Zeeman talks Nick Westby through their approach.
The universal consensus among directeur sportifs is that Sunday’s route from York to Sheffield is not one where the Tour de France will be won, but it certainly can be lost.
Half-a-dozen punchy climbs on the run into the Steel City, culminating in a 33 per cent gradient up a narrow Jenkin Road, have left team bosses looking precariously at the stage map.
There is a fear that the peloton will be split, that the final throes of Sunday’s race could put general classification contenders in arrears.
From Chris Froome to Alberto Contador, the message from yellow jersey favourites is one of caution.
That is not the verdict, however, in the Belkin camp.
The squad from the Netherlands (formerly Rabobank), whose general classification challenger Bauke Mollema is among the candidates for the maillet jaune, are taking a different approach.
“Day two is a possibility to not only defend, but to attack and see what possibilities we have to make the others lose,” says their sports director, Merijn Zeeman.
“Day two is going to be a big day for GC contenders. In the last 50km, the climbs come very quick and you have to be very concentrated.
“Some riders will make mistakes in that sense and anything can happen; gaps, crashes. That day will see time differences develop.”
Belkin, with Mollema in particular, want to take advantage of any hesitancy.
Zeeman is confident in Belkin’s bold plan for stage two because he was one of the first team bosses to visit Yorkshire to reconnoitre the routes.
In early May, he drove both stages, recording the route and diligently noting where time could be made and lost.
“These stages are very important to see, and it’s not only the mountain stages,” said the 35-year-old, who stayed in Sheffield at the house of a Dutch expat who got in touch with the team to offer his hospitality.
“I wanted to see the start in Yorkshire for myself, but I also saw stages in the Alps, the time-trial stages and the cobbled stage, plus the flat stages where you have to deal with cross-winds. In the end, I saw about 75 per cent.
“Yorkshire really impressed me. I liked the scenery and the attitude from everyone, which I noticed straight away.
“The signs on the road, the campsites, the yellow bikes – that was very nice to see.
“That gave me the feeling that everybody is looking forward to the Tour. The way people welcomed me was very special, I don’t see it that often. They were very polite and enthusiastic. It will be a very special start.
“Stage one and two are not stages we see a lot of in the Tour. The English roads and scenery is different to France.”
The challenges, Zeeman noted, are more demanding than teams are accustomed to in the early stages of a Tour de France.
His team is built around Mollema’s GC bid, with a host of young Dutchmen all waiting in the wings to take over the lead if required.
And if the opporunity arises, particularly on Saturday, then they are happy to let sprinter Lars Boom go for glory.
“Stage one is pretty hard until the last 20km when we turn on the big roads to Harrogate,” said Zeeman. “The roads are wider there and it’s easier to control for the sprint teams.
“Before then, it’s hard with the two climbs and the narrower roads. It’s going to be a nervous day for the bunch and not easy to control for the sprinters. It means ourselves and all the teams have to be ready and on our game from day one.
“Our priority throughout the race is to protect Bauke.
“When there’s a smaller group, we have a guy like Lars who can sprint very well, so if we get the opportunity we will take it. If we can say after that day Bauke is on the same time as the winner and other GC guys lost time, then that’s good.
“But the Tour de France is not an ordinary bike race, though. In a general bike race, the last 40km are more hectic for the riders and more entertaining for the fans, but in the Tour it’s like that from the very start.
“You get a nervous peloton and you’re definitely going to get that on day one.
“If it rains and it’s slippery then it’s not so easy for a sprinter’s team to control it.
“The benefit we have is I know the roads well, I know where things might happen. I know where to stay in front.
“If the sprinters want to make a bunch sprint then that’s okay, but good luck surviving the earlier problems.”