There are as many reasons for wins as there are riders in the peloton. It’s rare that you can look at a win and pinpoint the exact reason behind it, beyond that of hard work. Thomas Voekler’s win in the fifth stage of the Tour de France is one rare occasion where the cause is obvious as bump in Michael Jackson’s record sales.
Sure, Voekler of Bbox Bouygues Telecom had to drop breakaway companions Anthony Geslin and Yauheni Hutarovich (Francaise des Jeux), Marcin Sapa (Lampre), Mikhail Ignatiev (Katusha) and Albert Timmer (Skil-Shimano), but that’s not why he won.
He won because 19 teams said, ‘We’re not chasing.’
It’s an odd day when 19 teams decide not to work hard enough to bring a breakaway back. You can’t say they didn’t work, but we all know there’s a big difference between walking the halls and playing warden to the escapees’ convict. And riding tempo for a whole stage is a tantamount to buying a lottery ticket and refusing to look at it.
But what could cause so many teams to unite? Aside from almost nothing, believing someone else will eat the fish you just hooked might do it. It’s interesting to note that the rider’s union is notorious for being perhaps the weakest in professional sports. It’s not really a distinction you want, so seeing something unite such an easily fractured bunch is memorable.
Columbia-HTC brought them together. Now, this was no kumbaya-singing-‘round-the-campfire fellowship. No, this was a genuine Us vs. Them. The question on the minds of 19 teams was, ‘Why should we work to bring a breakaway back if the net result will be us getting beaten in the sprint by Mark Cavendish?’
It seems that Cav’s two consecutive wins inspired a case of mass ennui powerful enough to allow a breakaway to stay away and take the stage, ensuring yet another day of no victory for 15 teams.
Mark Cavendish certainly isn’t the first rider to win back-to-back stages of the Tour de France. After all, Mario Cipollini won four stages in a row in 1999. Those wins came on the heels of Tom Steels taking two stages. If the peloton had ideas the way it did today, we’ll never know; the next day was the Metz time trial, which Armstrong put his name on. As a side note, the 1999 Tour de France is significant in modern Tour history because only 12 men won stages. Four riders accounted for all but six stage wins. Ouch.
Then, in 2004, Lance Armstrong won five stages in seven days, including three in a row. And yet the peloton didn’t give up. Why? Well, for one, the stages Armstrong scored could only have been won by a select few riders. For the average Tour rider, those stages were already beyond reach and Armstrong’s supremacy was a known fact.
But something is different with Cav. Something about him seems unstoppable and in the world of sprinting, that impression is distasteful and unusual, if not entirely foreign.
But what if those teams had really turned on the steam and brought the breakaway back, say with 5km to go? What then? We would have been cheated out of seeing Voekler drop his companions and put his head down.
Flat Tour de France stages are a special the way bachelor parties are special. For most riders, such an opportunity to break loose comes along maybe once per year, much like friends getting married. It’s a legendary day, full of efforts you really wouldn’t want to repeat on a daily basis. They make for great memories, even if the big prize isn’t yours.
But winning one is like the wedding. For the average rider, this chance may only come once in a lifetime. You’ve done everything right and now all eyes are on you making good on your promise to work hard.
What I saw in Voekler’s salute echoed that feeling, that the kisses he blew were a thanks to the crowd for their support, an acknowledgement that his place in such a grand spectacle was ordinarily very small and he was grateful to have a chance to be on stage.