A day which on paper, looked easier than stage 1, but featured enough punchy climbs to make the finish completely unpredictable, stage 2 delivered it all. A vibrant arena, a thriving atmosphere, a breakaway battle and a reignition of the rivalry that has defined the Tour de France for the past four years. And a few hints as to the form of the rest of the top riders, too.

From roll out in Cesenatico, it looked to be a day which might go kindly for the breakaway. A strong 11-man group quickly found their way clear of the bunch, and a peloton led by philosophical veteran Romain Bardet in yellow was a peloton in no hurry to catch the escapees. The gap pushed out to over eight minutes, and after yesterday’s gruelling day of climbing and intense heat, there was a more languid sense of a race finding its rhythm to the early to mid part of today’s stage, and allowed us all to relax and enjoy a reunion between cyclocross's favourite sons, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert.

That wasn’t to say there wasn’t tension. On the radio channels, all the talk was about wind. Headwinds, crosswinds, being alert to the wind and ready for changes in wind direction, and making sure teams were positioned accordingly. It was an issue which never really materialised – aside from a mini-echelon formed in the breakaway group – partly because of the chaos caused at the intermediate sprint point, where a crash almost occurred at the front of the sprinting bunch, and actually did occur at the rear – with two of the beleaguered Visma-Lease A Bike team victims, including Wout van Aert. And we all held our breath. Van Aert back on his bike, we exhaled. Matteo Jorgenson back up too, his arm tended to by the team car, as Laurens de Plus of INEOS Grenadiers appeared to be the rider worst off.

In the breakaway, Jonas Abrahamsen was resplendent in a full polka dot skinsuit, and he went unchallenged through the first four of the day’s six climbs to add to his lead in the competition – bagging top honours at the intermediate sprint point too, to finish the day in the lead of the green jersey contest too.   

Team dsm-firmenich PostNL’s desire to spend the day setting a chilled pace and basking in the reflected yellow glow of their leader was scuppered by the teams of the race favourites, with UAE Team Emirates and Visma-Lease A Bike not the only teams pushing the tempo at the foot of every climb, INEOS and Red Bull joining in for good measure and causing the gap to the lead group to concertina.

Mark Cavendish was thankfully feeling better following a difficult day yesterday, smiling and chatting in the peloton and finishing with the grupetto but only 24 minutes down today compared with yesterday’s 39.

The race really kicked off when it arrived in Bologna though, for two loops of a circuit that included the stunning San Luca climb. The atmosphere was incredible, and the different personalities of the individual Tour stages was clear to see – a real contrast with yesterday’s stage, Italy bringing the noise again as the race sang into life up the steep slopes of San Luca.

The first time up the climb, the breakaway split in half under pressure from Axel Laurance (Alpecin-Deceuninck), and it became clear who would be able to challenge on the second time around, and who would likely fall by the wayside. With the peloton still over three minutes down, there was no doubt that this day would definitely be one for the break.

And so it all came down to the final ascent. Despite an early attempt from Nelson Oliveira of Movistar, the attack that stuck in the end came from Kévin Vauquelin of Arkéa-B&B Hotels – the 23-year-old Breton one of two riders from his team in the day’s early break (the only team to place two riders in the lead group). Those who have been following Vauquelin’s career would not have been surprised to see him take the initiative on a nasty gradient – he’s had success at Étoile de Bessèges in the past, a race that loves a steep finale, and was second only to Stevie Williams on the fiendish Mur de Huy at this year’s La Flèche Wallonne. San Luca’s average of 10.6% conceals pitches of up to 20% along its leg-snapping 1.9km, and Vauquelin dug in and dropped all but Abrahamsen, and he too exploded with 500m still to ride to the summit, leaving Vauquelin to ride solo to victory, the first Tour de France stage win for his team since their inception.

Meanwhile, the GC group was decimated on the second time up the climb, with wreckage left scattered down San Luca’s unforgiving slopes, wreckage that included the yellow jersey Romain Bardet, and rather more surprisingly, Primož Roglič. They were all left in the wake of the two expected protagonists of the race: Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard reunited once more, it was very much game ON for this year’s GC battle, which once again, looked set to be a head-to-head. And it’s still only stage 2.

There weren’t enough cameras to cover everything that was going on, such was the nature of the shattered groups, so it was something of a surprise when it appeared from the data on screen that Remco was ahead of the Bardet and Roglič group, and seemed to be getting closer to the two rivals (who were working together by this point, it should be noted for the record). Indeed, once the finish line came into view for Jonas and Tadej, two riders were hot on their heels – Remco, and Richard Carapaz, and they closed the pair down and finished on the same time, meaning the GC lead is now a four-way tie.

Yes, it’s a long three weeks, the big mountains await, the clock doesn’t lie, and all the other cliches you might wish to quote at this time, but intrigue remains as to the relative form of all the riders involved despite the seeming dominance of the two old buddies Tadej and Jonas.

And at the end of the day, Romain Bardet will hand over his lead to the Slovenian with the grace and dignity we’ve come to expect from him – he’ll always have that one yellow jersey though.

FEATURE: Free the French

Front-loading French success means pressure off for fruitless GC hopefuls

Two stages, two wins for French riders, and a yellow jersey for good measure. It’s a beautiful dream for the host nation, but the fact it’s all taking place in neighbouring Italy is something of a cruel irony, particularly on a day in which they teeter on the brink of an uncertain future, politically speaking. A day on which they could really have done with the distraction, on home soil. But despite the fact it’s taking place over the border, the sport mad-nation can console itself in the victories of Bardet and Vauquelin, and lose themselves in the race of their hearts, in a sport that stands as a symbol of cycling as a whole. A self-fulfilling prophecy - or so they would hope, despite the face that more often than not, it ends in disappointment.

Rob Hatch said this on the live broadcast, of Bardet: ‘all of those years of pressure; the weight of expectation of a success-starved nation sitting on his slender shoulders.’ Before going on to suggest that he wasn’t feeling the pressure now – with nothing to lose, he was finally free to go out on a high.

Hatch's words ring out beyond stating the facts of Bardet's situation on that moment. They reflected the experience of generations of French riders, for whose expectant compatriots nothing less than success on the biggest platform of the all will do. Even when that success is next to impossible to achieve.

Groupama-FDJ's David Gaudu is the latest in a long line of ill-fated GC hopefuls. His recent efforts led him to an impressive 4th place in 2022, a position that should be lauded among his countrymen but was instead met with apathy and a wish for what could have been. The best placed French rider on GC in 2023, in 9th, Gaudu once again did the best that he could, with no other rider who could better his overall achievement. And he came in for harsh critique. The full focus of the French adoration pointed squarely in the direction of Thibaut Pinot, who had to do nothing more than attack on a familiar climb to gain a place in the annals of French cycling history.

Internalising the pressure over the years, the thoughtful, eloquent and quiet romantics Pinot and Bardet may have shouldered the burden of that expectation earlier in their career, but as they bow out, seem to be freed of it by an adoring public who have, it turns out, loved them all along. You don't know what you've got until it's gone, and while the cycling world mourns the loss of Pinot, the man himself rests, posting joyful pictures of his farming exploits, revelling in a life after cycling. Bardet too seems to be flying in the knowledge that the pressure is almost over for him too, though he has seemed more pragmatic in his handling of it, moving away from a French team to see out his career. A wise move, in hindsight.

So why persist in the face of such underwhelming odds and an even more tepid response? Why indeed. It's clear Gaudu can ride hard though he is fitful and idiosyncratic, yet somehow his efforts are perceived as failures, bringing him into the firing line, instead of having him bask in the glory of the hapless romantic rider archetype, like his former teammate Thibaut Pinot. His win at the Tour de Jura in April underscored all of his assets – his ability to fight, to entertain to display a dogged resilience that we have seen flashes of before - in Paris-Nice 2023, keeping pace for a while with Tadej Pogačar and out-riding an undercooked Jonas Vingegaard, and he's proven he can win against the best too, taking stages of Itzulia Basque country, from a break, in 2021, and even nicking a sprint finish against Wout van Aert, at the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2022.

The stage hunting escapades of the likes of Lidl-Trek's Giulio Ciccone, unshackled from the burden of GC responsibilities, is a suitable comparative perhaps, and a similar role would be fitting use of Gaudu's talents, and for this Tour at least, his dogged, exuberant protégé Lenny Martinez too.

Losing 29 minutes on the overall on stage 1 might have caused the pair to come under fire - despite a recent bout of covid suffered by Gaudu - if it weren't for the shiny yellow distraction of Romain Bardet at his best (disclaimer: it may not have done - I haven't actually read L'Equipe), and today, Gaudu's fellow Breton Vauquelin took two for the team, giving hope that this Tour could see more French success. On stages. Not GC. Was the time loss a ploy? Perhaps. Whether intended or unintended though, it opens Groupama-FDJ up to new possibilities, that have already borne fruit with a podium finish for climbing domestique Quentin Pacher today.

The sooner the French make their peace with their current situation, the easier the lives of their riders will be. The next big French GC hopes are already on the horizon, and the strength in depth of the nation's cyclists has arguably never been better. Free the riders from free oppressive burden of GC responsibilities, in the face of certain failure, and free your mind to the dynamic possibilities of a French domination of breakaway victories that has already surpassed the previous three years total number of French stage wins, and already equalled 2021, in just two stages.

Free Gaudu. Free Martinez. Free the French. And let them continue to fly the flag, once the border has been crossed and they are back on home turf.

by Anna McEwen

1-1-1 Things of the Tour de France

by Mathieu Fraisse

Stage 3 : Piacenza - Torino

1 food: Chocolate !

Torino is the Italian capital of Chocolate. The most famous being the gianduiotto, named after Gianduja, a local commedia dell'arte mask. They’re shaped like ingots and usually wrapped in silver or gold foil. Piedmontese gold!

In Turin you can also drink Bicerin (meaning “small glass” in Piedmontese), a traditional hot drink made of espresso, drinking chocolate and whole milk.

With a museum and CioccolaTÒ, a two-week festival dedicated to chocolate, Turin is a must visit city for any self-respected chocolate aficionado!

1 rider: Matteo Sobrero 

Born in Alba near Turin, it couldn't be any more local than Matteo as our rider of the day. The Tour de France will be crossing the former Italian Time Trial champ's hometown at the end of today’s stage!

A special moment for the Red Bull-Bora-Hansgrohe rider, who will be in charge of keeping Primoz Roglič out of trouble on a flat stage. Not much time to spend with family though as we will be heading to France tomorrow!

1 fact: Turin, the perfect link between Italy and France 

Before moving to France on stage 4, there's no better city to finish Tour de France 2024 Italian Grand Départ than Turin (even if technically we'll be starting from Pinerolo tomorrow 😏)

Turin and France shared history and even territory! The Piedmontese capital was briefly under French control in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, during the Napoleonic Wars.

Nowadays, you can still find French heritage in the architecture of the town and even in the local dialect ! On our way to France now 🇫🇷

Stage 3 Preview

Stage 3 Profile (courtesy of Tour de France official website)

And relax. Well, if you're a climber at least, and not responsible for looking after a GC rider, you can breathe a sigh of relief and clock off for the day. And the sprinters' teams can congratulate themselves on getting over two tricky stages to take aim at the first flat stage of the 2024 Tour. It's not without its challenges, and given this year's Tour so far and the state of racing in general, you wouldn't bet against a mass attack of punchier type riders on the final climb of the day, as it's certainly no pancake. Perhaps then not one for the purest of sprinters, one could see the likes of De Lie, Pedersen and Van Aert duking it out in Turin, but equally, with the potential for a three-peat for the French, it would be unwise to rule out an in-form Bryan Coquard (Cofidis).

Either way, calling it a 'nailed-on sprint' is unwise, and who knows, we could well see a repeat of the so-called sprint stages from the back end of the 2023 Tour, which saw breakaways go all the way to the line. It's the longest road stage of the race this year though, so at the very least we can predict it will be quiet for the first few hours.

WBR Team Predictions: Katy - Sam Bennett, Mathieu - Arnaud de Lie, Stine - Mads Pedersen, Sam - Wout van Aert, Anna - Arnaud Démare

Before you go...

Arkéa-B&B Hotels celebrating their team's win as they crossed the line.

This Tweet from EF Education-EasyPost.

And finally, this image from yesterday’s Rouleur was one of my favourite angles of the finish. France will be proud. And tomorrow, we go again, ad why not dare to dream that Bryan Coquard, Arnaud Démare or Axel Zingle can score a French hat-trick, to really finish the Italian job in style.

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