TEAM SKY took their biggest step yet in the Tour de France yesterday when Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen scored their first-ever stage win, simultaneously a first victory for a British team in the Tour in more than three decades.
As landmarks go, yesterday’s was pretty big: not since 1968, when Yorkshire’s Barry Hoban proved he was much more than “just” a sprinter with a stage win in the Alps for the national team, has a British team taken a victory in the Tour de France.
Without getting too dramatic about it, then, Boasson Hagen’s maiden stage win in cycling’s showpiece event marks a coming of age both for the 24-year-old - who already has 52 professional wins - and for the fledgling British team, too.
A stage win is a sure-fire sign that after cutting their teeth, and sometimes falling flat on their faces, in their first Tour de France in 2010, 2011 could well be a very different story for Sky; that it came on a day when another promising young rider, Essex’s Ian Stannard, collected another victory for them in the Tour of Austria merely underlines that fact.
As befits such a major collective breakthrough, Boasson Hagen’s win came at the end of a strong team effort. Sprinter Ben Swift sacrificed his own chances to guide the Norwegian and Geraint Thomas to the foot of a nasty little climb about two kilometres from the finish in the Normandy town of Lisieux.
After the climb and heavy downpours had split the bunch in three, with Mark Cavendish among those losing contact, Thomas was responsible for edging Boasson Hagen into position for his final sprint.
That was easier said than done given no team was in control of the shattered peloton and the rain-soaked roads had riders skidding as they tried to accelerate, but with 300 metres to go on a slightly uphill finish, Thomas’s mission was completed.
Finally, it was up to the Norwegian to finish off the good work, comfortably outpowering two of the world’s top sprinters, Australian Matt Goss and Boasson Hagen’s compatriot Thor Hushovd, who is World Champion and the Tour’s race leader. As scalps go, this was impressive.
Inevitably, the comparisons with Hushovd - eight times a Tour stage winner - flooded in, but Boasson Hagen showed that beneath his almost chronic shyness, he has too much drive simply to following Hushovd’s wheeltracks.
“I never watched too much cycling, but I know Thor’s been a great rider and got a lot of victories,” Boasson Hagen said. “I want to be as good as him or better. But either way, though, I’m not changing - I’m still staying Eddie.”
The Norwegian’s triumph, though, is a sign of how quickly he is developing. Tipped as a dark horse for the overall classification in last year’s debut in the Tour, after tendinitis wrecked his build-up he finished 116th, a bare footnote in the race.
Fast forward 12 months and despite a case of shingles threatening his Tour participation almost at the last minute, Boasson Hagen came close to netting Sky’s first stage win on Wednesday’s finish with a gutsy but mistimed late attack in the final kilometre. This time there were no such errors.
“I was feeling good up the last climb and I was on the front all the time,” Boasson Hagen explained. “Yesterday [Wednesday] I messed up but this time I could see the line and get the sprint. I’ve been practising my sprinting a lot, but generally I’m improving all round.”
That is no exaggeration. Like Bradley Wiggins himself, Boasson Hagen’s biggest step forward this year has been his climbing. At the Criterium du DauphinE, Wiggins’ most important stage race victory to date, the Norwegian was - together with Thomas and Columbian Rigoberto Uran - one of the last riders to drop away from the Londoner’s side on the Alpine climbs.
If that particular pattern is repeated in the mountains next weekend it could not be ruled out, either that Boasson Hagen becomes a serious challenger for the Best Young Rider - a lead currently held, for the sixth day running, by Thomas.
“He’s been looking at the jersey [of Best Young Rider] in the team hotel and I think he’d like to wear it, too,” Thomas joked. “He could well end up wearing it, too, after the Pyrenees. If he wants it before, though, he’ll have a fight on his hands.”
In the long-term, too, Boasson Hagen’s win in the first week of the Tour will ease the pressure massively on the team - and most importantly Wiggins - in the second and third.
Furthermore, even if the Briton is off the pace, Sky can still argue that their stage win is an indication they are getting the measure of the Tour de France. After yesterday’s historic victory, it would be hard to dispute that.
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