Team BMC’s Peter Stetina summed up the first week of the Tour de France perfectly when he was interviewed following Stage 7 on Friday: “Sketchy”. That’s exactly what the first week is like, and here’s why: everybody is fresh, every team starts out with big goals and the desire and horsepower to execute on them, and the fans and media attention simply amplify the intensity of every kilometer. It’s a recipe for excitement, but also for crashes. Throw in a visit to a foreign country, some cobblestones, and rain and it’s should be no surprise that guys have been crashing left, right, and center.
The crowds for the first three stages in the UK were unbelievable! It was awesome to see, and that’s sometimes what you get when you take a race as big as the Tour de France to a new venue. It’s a spectacle and people come out in droves. The only downside is that huge crowds increase the likelihood of crashes when people encroach on the road. It’s one thing on the major climbs when the field is spread out and the riders are going a little slower, but when the peloton is all together and going 40mph, the riders get more nervous. There’s a video of a Giant-Shimano rider striking a spectator at full speed. Not only did he not crash, but he cleared the way for his teammate behind him, who was riding even further to the side of the road. I hope the spectator was OK, but that’s an example of how dangerous the conditions can be for spectators and riders.
On Stage 5 it wasn’t the crowds that caused crashes, but the combination of rain and cobblestones. Riding in conditions that were worse than any recent Paris-Roubaix, the Tour de France peloton – which is a very different composition of riders compared to a Spring Classics peloton – splintered and dozens of riders hit the deck. While there was debate as to whether cobblestones belong in a Grand Tour, and I think there are good arguments on both sides of that debate, it’s also worth noting that the speed was incredibly high. The 97-mile stage – through rain, mud, and cobblestones – was completed in 3:18:35, which is just over 29mph!
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The high speed on Stage 5 actually made the stage safer! If the peloton had ridden slower and bunched up, the crashes would have been huge pileups instead of being isolated to a few people in each. Nevertheless, the day saw defending champion Chris Froome abandon, for what we learned later was a broken wrist and broken hand suffered, most likely, the previous day.
Froome wasn’t the only Tour de France favorite to suffer bad luck in the first week. Alberto Contador has been good about staying on two wheels, but he lost more than two minutes on Stage 5 after losing contact with the lead group. Tejay Van Garderen crashed just 15km from the finish of Stage 7, and in a somewhat bizarre display of team tactics he burned through his teammates trying to rejoin the peloton while two more of his teammates were on the front going for the stage win. Maybe there was miscommunication, but Van Garderen might have had a chance to finish with the yellow jersey group if those two teammates had been waiting for him at the base of the final climb.
Andrew Talansky of Garmin-Sharp almost made it through the first week unscathed. He ran into a spectator on Stage 5 and lost time to race leader Vincenzo Nibali (as did everyone else), but wasn’t too banged up. Then, 100 meters from the finish line of Stage 7 he tangled with Simon Gerrans of Orica-GreenEDGE and hit the deck very hard. Immediately fans and commentators scrambled to assign blame: did Gerrans move right too much and take out Talansky, or did Talansky drift left and take his eyes off the road and fall over Gerrans’ wheel? At the end of the day it was a simple racing accident and there’s no point in assigning blame, but the lesson we can all take away from it is: always keep your eyes front and your head up in a sprint. If Talansky had seen Gerrans coming just a split second sooner, he probably could have corrected enough to avoid going down.
The two men who are having near flawless Tours so far are Vincenzo Nibali and Peter Sagan. Nibali’s performance on Stage 5 was astounding and more reminiscent of Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault than modern tactics. When was the last time you saw the yellow jersey in a leading group of three at the end of a flat Tour de France stage? It’s far more common to see the yellow jersey marshaled to the finish by a large contingent of teammates, but Stage 5 was a battle of attrition. Nibali didn’t really attack. The distance, speed, rain, and cobblestones split the field over and over again and he was fortunate and skilled enough to stay upright, stay in the right position, and make all the splits. He looks tremendously strong and comfortable, and as the winner of the 2013 Giro d’Italia and former podium finisher at the Tour de France, he has the experience and pedigree to win the Tour this year. Alberto Contador looks to be his greatest threat, even though he’s 2:37 behind. Alejandro Valverde and Jurgen Van Den Broeck are closer to the leader’s jersey than Contador, but I think Contador will distance both of them in the mountains and time trials. Andrew Talansky and Tejay Van Garderen are still in the running as well, but I think a top-5 from either or both of them is more realistic.
You might wonder why I think Peter Sagan is having a flawless Tour when he hasn’t won a stage yet. He’s been very close, though. He lost Stage 7 by maybe the width of a tire! But his consistency is incredible and the reward for that is the green jersey. The other sprinters (Bryan Coquard, Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel, and Alexander Kristoff) have each individually been faster than Sagan at times, but nowhere near as consistent. He’s already built a 113-point lead in the green jersey points competition, after only 7 stages! I’m sure he rues the missed opportunities for stage wins, but those are individual battles and he’s well on his way to winning the war.
The stages Saturday through Monday will be difficult days for the peloton. Fatigue is setting in and they don’t reach the first rest day until Tuesday. The Vosges Mountains aren’t as hard as the Alps or Pyrenees, but don’t be surprised to see gaps open up and at least one pre-race favorite fold under the pressure. I don’t know who that might be, but consider that Van Garderen, Van Den Broeck, and Talansky have all hit the deck hard, and some reports have Van Garderen involved in 5 significant crashes already. I hope they all can bounce back and get through these next few stages within striking distance of the yellow jersey. If they can do that, and have a good rest day on Tuesday, then Tour de France is wide open for them to challenge Contador and Nibali all the way to Paris.
Have a Great Weekend!
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