Tour de France 2014: British hopes fade in opening stages
Breathtaking, brilliant, bloody and brutal - the 2014 Tour de France has brought dramatic highs and crushing lows for British cycling, all inside the first few stages.
While 2.5 million people lined the route, Le Tour captured the heart of a nation as it weaved its way through Yorkshire over two glorious days.
Riders sped through narrow country lanes in the Yorkshire Dales on their way to Sheffield before a final jaunt from Cambridge down to central London.
Britain was on a high. The tour's opening three days on the island were such a roaring success that race director Christian Prudhomme described Yorkshire's Grand Depart as the "grandest" in the race's history, insisting the Tour would return to these shores in the future.
But the early elation, tinged with sadness at the exit of sprint star Mark Cavendish after a crash on the opening stage, has turned into major disappointment with the retirement through injury of defending champion Chris Froome on stage five.
Cavendish, 29, hit the deck hard in a sprint for the line on day one, resulting in a dislocated shoulder and ligament damage. The Manxman, who was chasing a 26th Tour stage win, will also miss the Commonwealth Games later this month after having shoulder surgery.
British hopes remained high for Froome to clinch back-to-back Tour titles, but he damaged his wrist in a fall on stage four and went down again twice the following day. Enough was enough, and the 29-year-old limped to the Team Sky car in the rain, holding his wrist, his Tour in tatters.
|Brits not on tour|
|Sir Bradley Wiggins, 2012 Tour winner, left out by Team Sky, along with British National Road champion Peter Kennaugh and runner-up Ben Swift|
|David Millar not picked by the Garmin-Sharp team because of health concerns, while Alex Dowsett was left out by Movistar because of illness|
|Ian Stannard out before the start with a back injury|
|Mark Cavendish withdrew after dislocating shoulder and Chris Froome out after third crash|
That leaves Welshman Geraint Thomas and 21-year-old debutant Simon Yates, a late addition to the Orica GreenEdge team, as the only Britons left in the race.
Thomas is still 14th overall, two minutes, 16 seconds adrift of leader Vincenzo Nibali, and may be allowed to try for stage wins. Yates, in his first Grand Tour, is 26 minutes down on the leader.
Speaking after Froome's exit on Wednesday, Thomas said: "Professional sport can be brutal and I'm gutted for Froomey. But we will regroup, keep fighting and I won't stop until we reach Paris. There's still a lot of racing to go. You don't compete in sport just to make up the numbers."
Thomas's main job now will be to support Team Sky colleague Richie Porte, the new focus of Sky's efforts for the general classification (GC) in Froome's absence, with the Australian currently 1:54 behind Nibali in eighth place.
"Today showed how hard it is to win the Tour de France, but the team will have prepared for this and they'll deal with it," said Sir Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 Tour winner who was left out of the Team Sky squad.
Wiggins's omission - along with compatriots David Millar of the Garmin-Sharp team and Movistar's Alex Dowsett, who were not picked because of illness, and Sky trio Pete Kennaugh, Ben Swift and Ian Stannard - raises an interesting question.
Should team principal Sir Dave Brailsford have included Wiggins in his team alongside Froome as a plan B?
Not according to three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond.
"I haven't seen anything in the first days that would have made any difference if Wiggins was included in the team," said the American, who won the Tour in 1986, 1989 and 1990.
"It's tragic for Chris, for him to not be able to defend his title and to have to leave the race in that way must be his worst nightmare - it would have been mine."
Before announcing that Wiggins would not be part of the team, Brailsford dismissed the idea of having him as a back-up leader.
"The bottom line is, as far as my experience has been, if you want to win the biggest events in the world, normally the guy with plan A tends to win," he said.
"It's not often you get 'let's revert to plan B' and win. It's not the norm."
|Sporting woe in 2014|
|Rugby union: England suffer 3-0 whitewash in New Zealand|
|Cricket: England defeated in Test Series by Sri Lanka|
|Football: England bottom of Group D at World Cup in Brazil|
|Tennis: Defending Wimbledon champion Andy Murray loses in the last eight|
|Cycling: Froome and Cavendish crash out of Tour de France|
|On a brighter note: Lewis Hamilton won the British F1 Grand Prix|
However, Team Sky do now need an alternative option and it is in the form of Australian Porte, who won Paris-Nice in 2013, rode strongly in the Tour that year as well as 2012 and is in good form coming to the event after a slow start to the season.
"Richie is a good rider and that is why we chose him to be our back-up GC rider and he is climbing better than he has ever climbed and if we can get to the mountains unscathed then there is all to play for," said Brailsford.
But it means a British rider is no longer in contention to win the Tour for a third straight year. Will British interest, after such a raucous start, now dwindle in an event in which it revelled so recently?
In three of the last six years, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award in December has gone to a cyclist. But Sir Chris Hoy is retired, Cavendish injured and Wiggins unwanted, for the Tour at least.
Perhaps a knight rider will come to the rescue, when Wiggins takes to the track and road at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow next month. But for now, it's all about what might have been.