You can't win the tour alone. The flat stages featured in the first week tend to be fast, and feature a peloton riding as a single group through often narrow town streets. This is one reason crashes are most frequent during the first week. These stages favor the sprint specialists, and if the team has a contender for the overall sprinter's jersey, the focus is on supporting him.
That's how things shook out on Wednesday for the winner of Stage 4, André Greipel (who won today's stage, too). What does "support" mean, exactly? Think of a rolling offensive line, guarding the specialist from rivals while fighting for position near the front of the peloton. In the final few kilometers, the team will "lead out" the top sprinter, providing a slipstream as the group accelerates toward the line. On Wednesday, Greipel got a perfectly executed leadout fronted by three teammates. Each successively pushed the pace and established position at the front of the field. As the group approached the line, each lead rider peeled off the group in succession, and in the final meters Griepel shot into the lead with plenty of energy left. The leadout accomplished its goal: It pushed Greipel's rivals to the extreme and left him in the best position to win. It's now always successful, but 2,173 miles is a lot of road to travel alone.
Meanwhile, Mark Cavendish failed to win Wednesday's stage after getting caught up in a crash just 2.6km from the finish. The mother of his child and possessor of a large collection of photos, Peta Todd [link NSFW], tweeted her anger at Team Sky for not supporting her boy:
This is people's lives. If you haven't got the intention of making sure you have the team to look after the World Champ don't just wing it. He is just a man.
(Inevitably, the tweet was deleted.)
On this day, he did have support from Bernhard Eisel, but he too was caught up in the crash. Peta does make a good point. Team Sky is focused on supporting overall favorite Bradley Wiggins; protecting Cavendish could cost them down the road, when Sky has to protect Wiggins in the mountain stages. That's where the race will be decided. Cavendish is the reigning world champion (as well as BBC Sports Personality of the Year), and likely not at all happy with the minimal support he is getting. Expect him to leave Team Sky and perhaps Peta's boy could get a team of his very own.
Today, André Greipel won again, with another assist from Team Lotto-Belisol:
I won again a stage in the Tour de France. It was a bit crazy because there was a crash with three kilometers to go. But Greg Henderson brought me back up to the front. It was a hard sprint; one of the hardest I've ever done!