The Tour de France is the race of the year for 90% of the cycling world. It’s kind of a Big Deal®. Entire careers are made or destroyed during the three weeks in July that host the Tour. GC contenders spend the entire season, these days, building up for the Tour- sacrificing time with their friends and families, training unthinkable numbers of miles, weighing their food, living a life that most people would consider nuts. And yet, with all the things wrong with the race and the fact it has become “too big to fail” in many ways, it is still one of the most incredibly beautiful spectacles in all of global sport. But you already knew that.
After the first rest day, the main story of the Tour is almost more about who is no longer in the race than who is leading the race. After a few days in the UK, before heading to France, the peloton was already down one of the most important riders of the past few years. And now that the race has hit the early mountains and passed over the cobbles, the GC field has been decimated unlike any prior Tour of the modern era.
In case you’ve been traveling to a remote desert resort without wifi and need to get caught up on happenings, here’s a little breakdown on the first part of the Tour.
The Tour was off to a blazing start on the roads of England, with the UK press and fans whipped into a frothy lather, thicker than the head on a fresh pint of Guinness. After a lengthy media blitz heralding the new British Empire of cycling and its heroes Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish, the British public was expecting the race to unfold in a “knighting” of Cav. Instead, an admittedly over-aggressive Cavendish tangled with Simon Gerrnas (Orica), bringing both riders to the ground behind stage winner Marcel Kittel. Kittel picked up exactly where he left off at the Giro. And Cav’ exited the race with injuries to his shoulder that required surgery.
Stage 2: Nibs nabs it!
You know, that Vincenzo Nibali kid might have a future in cycling if he keeps this up. On a stage that featured a very tough profile, similar to Liege-Bastogne-Liege with lots of steep climbs, it was clearly a stage for somebody who could handle the repeated steep pitches. Turns out, Nibali is pretty darn good at that kind of thing. The stage saw riders spat out the back early, and often. By the finish, it was a select group of GC contenders and tough guys, and looked every bit like the finish of a Spring Classic. The narrow roads and spastic fans added a level of danger to the racing too. Nibali attacked solo from the splintered group, taking the win in fine form and taking the yellow jersey off the very broad shoulders of Marcel Kittel. But would it prove to be too heavy a burden, too soon?
Stage 3: Kittel blitzkriegs London
The London finish was supposed to be another opportunity for British cycling to shine, practically created solely for Mark Cavendish. Sadly, with him in a hospital, he would not get the chance to ascend to the throne that many had dreamed of. Instead, Marcel Kittel again put on a clinic with the help of his teammates of Giant-Shimano. Showing the field a clean set of wheels at the finish line, Kittel thoroughly stamped his dominance on this Tour’s sprint contenders. The usual early break spent the day dangling like a carrot in front of the sprinter’s teams, but once the finish line began to draw near, the inevitable was brought to reality.
Stage 4: Bonjour Msr. Kittel
Finally on French roads now, the Tour was back in its birth country, not that Marcel Kittel bothered to stop and practice his French before smashing the field once again. In what appeared to be a lost cause for the hulky German with immaculate hair, Kittel managed to steal victory from the jaws of defeat, sprinting past Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) just before the line. Kittel had been caught in traffic and a disrupted leadout meant a bit of privateering. Katusha and Kristoff were convinced they had the win with an early jump on Marcel, but once he found an opening, he was unwilling to be denied. Astana kept their man Nibali safely out of harm’s way and the never ending crashes that began in the UK and followed across the English Channel to France. Unfortunately SKY’s main man and defending Tour champion, Chris Froome, fell very heavily and injured his wrist and hip- already sore from a bad crash during the Dauphine. The cobbles of Roubaix were waiting, and the nervousness was apparent on the riders.
Stage 5: BOOM!
Lars Boom took the biggest road victory of his career, Vincenzo Nibali blew minds by riding unbelievably well on the cobbles to third place behind his teammate Fuglsang, and Chris Froome crashed twice and had to abandon his defense. In a stage filled with drama and savage beauty, the departure of Froome was a sad headline. The stage was raced under horrid conditions of wind and rain, resulting in innumerable crashes, and decimating the peloton. Yet even with these terrible conditions, the race was ridden at a blistering pace that defied logic, and tortured the riders who were uncomfortable with the cobbles. The months of sweaty anticipation and fear came boiling to the surface almost from the second the stage began. Things were blown apart quickly, with most of the worst crashes happening before the first secteur of cobbles. Both of Froome’s crashes took place in those nervous miles ahead of the cobbles, so he never even had the chance to find out if he had the ability to fight it out. The brilliance of Boom was repaid with an emotional victory that can truly carry the title of “epic” without causing people to roll their eyes at the word. And Nibali proved that a quiet Spring was not the sign of his intentions for this Tour, as well as his team. Astana rode impeccably, placing three riders in the top ten of the stage- a forceful message to the other teams.
Stage 6: Gorilla gets one
It looked like the sprinters might be denied the chance to fight for the win, thanks to a last second attack by Mical Kwiatkowski (OPQS) as the peloton tried to squeeze its mass through the seemingly unending traffic circles leading up the finish line. With nervous GC contenders trying to stay out of trouble at the front, and sprinter’s teams trying to set up leadouts, Kwiatkowski’s move looked like a brilliant move. Ultimately, the sprinters managed to get organized (sorta) and set up the sprint. Marcel Kittel, who had dominated all the previous sprints, later admitted he didn’t have the legs after the previous day’s cobbles and did not contest the sprint. Lotto was the best of the rest, setting up Andrew Greipel for his first victory of this year’s race.
Stage 7: Trentin treats OPQS to their first win!
After losing their Golden Boy, Mark Cavendish, Omega Pharma-Quick Step was a little desperate to get a stage win. Ironically, so was Peter Sagan! After finishing in the top five of every stage, but missing the win, Sagan was hungry to finally seal the deal with the green jersey on. In the closing kilometers of the race, on the final descent into the finish, Sagan attacked with Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and the two looked the goods. Sagan and Van Avermaet were caught just a few kilometers before the finish, setting up the sprint from the reduced field. With a few tough climbs near the end of the stage, the pure sprinters were gone, setting up Sagan for his best shot at a stage win. However, in a photo finish, Matteo Trentin just managed to beat Sagan by a few centimeters. The OPQS rider is very popular, so his win was one that drew praise from many in the peloton. Sagan however, was visibly frustrated on the podium as he slipped into another green jersey without a stage win. Another sad highlight to the finish was a spectacular solo crash by Andrew Talansky, as he looked to get out of the sprint, and instead ran into the rear wheel of Simon Gerrans. Gerro was in the process of jumping into the sprint and was cutting across Talansky’s path, but Talansky was looking the other way over his shoulder, and was sent flying across the asphalt—rather unhappily.
Stage 8: Kadri steals the show
AG2R rider Blel Kadri, winner of the 2013 Roma Maxima with a long solo attack, struck gold with another long attack. After joining a small group of riders 35km into the stage, Kadri ditched his friends and soloed to the line with approximately 25km remaining in the hilly stage. Kadri’s win was the first by a French rider at this year’s Tour, insuring that the French would not leave empty handed. The stage finished with some of the first real climbs of the race, and the attacks behind Kadri were impressive. In the final moments of the stage, Nibali and Alberto Contador were locked in a head to head fight. Contador launched attack after attack, with Nibali gamely covering each one, until Contador finally broke free in the final few meters and took back three seconds. Contador finished in 2nd, with Nibali in 3rd, and Kadri once again grabbed the polka dot jersey and the love of France.
Stage 9: Panzerwagen!
If you didn’t know Tony Martin’s nickname is Panzerwagen before the start of the stage, you certainly knew it afterward. Martin blitzed to a solo win, as if he was taking another World Championship time trial title. After setting off in an early break, Martin dropped the large breakaway group and took Alessandro de Marchi (Cannondale) with him for a bit, before deciding that he needed a little time alone with his thoughts. Once solo, he set off to do what he has been able to do better than anybody else in the world for the past few years, and smashed the clock. The 28 riders chasing him down could not match his speed and power, but they did manage to place Tony Gallopin (Lotto) into yellow at the end of the day. Nibali and Astana had decided to allow somebody else to have the burden of yellow, and Gallopin was no threat to the final GC. A Frenchman would wear yellow in the Tour on Bastille Day- angels could be heard singing.
Stage 10: Oh SNAP!
A day after his solo victory and show of force, Tony Martin was again on the attack early. This time though, he had young teammate Mical Kwiatkowski with him, in an attempt to set the young Polish rider up for a shot at taking yellow on the hilly stage. Tony Gallopin fought hard to retain yellow during the French national holiday, but he was shelled to bits by the GC race unfolding dramatically. Martin set up Kwiatkowski with a show of teamwork that was so far unrivaled this year. Kwiatkowski then attacked the rest of the break as Martin faded from his unreal efforts, taking Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) with him. Rodriguez was looking to take over the climber’s jersey, which he did, and wanted the stage win too. Kwiatkowski wanted yellow, so the two worked together, with Rodriguez doing as little work as possible. Kwiatkowski’s efforts of the day caught up with him though, and he faded as Rodriguez danced away to what he thought was a stage win. He had no idea what was unfolding below him on the chaotic roads further down the mountain. Nibali launched a searing attack and was hunting Purito down, quickly reaching him with ruthless ease. Once the catch was made, the two traded punches, until Nibali ultimately cracked Rodriguez harshly. Nibali took the win, regaining yellow just a day after letting it go. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) finished an impressive 2nd, while Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) settled into 3rd.
Sadly the main story of the stage, was not that Nibali had ridden so masterfully, but that Alberto Contador had crashed heavily and had to withdraw from the Tour. Two of the three top contenders for the Tour were now gone, leaving Nibali as the sole pre-race odds on favorite in the race and wearing yellow. The subtext of the Contador crash involved the bike he had been riding—or not—that had been spotted snapped in two pieces. Early reports stated that his bike had snapped, leading to his crash. Later it was learned, after many confusing and conflicting stories, that the broken bike had actually been broken while on the roof rack of the Saxo-Tinkoff team car. In a Tour that has been riddled with numerous crashes and drama, Conatador’s crash and surreal bike controversy only added to the need for a rest day.
The coming block of stages before the second rest day will provide a few more chances for the sprinters, but it will also have two gnarly climbing stages (13 and 14) that finish on nasty climbs. The already decimated peloton will need to attack Nibali and Astana at every opportunity if they want to unseat him. Problem is, who can do it? Froome’s understudy Richie Porte sits in 2nd now, and is a good climber, but he’s looking to limit his losses on the big climbs ahead, rather than put time into Nibali. That said, this Tour has proven that anything is possible.
American riders in the Tour have had a rough go so far. Talansky started well, but after a series of crashes has fallen well down the GC and has an almost impossible task ahead of him. Tejay van Garderen (BMC) has had a rough go due to crashes too, but has rebounded nicely and is now in 7th. Tejay’s a strong climber, so he stands a good shot of moving up and possibly onto the podium. 42yr old Chris Horner (Lampre) has ridden himself into a bit of form, coing to the Tour with very little racing miles thanks to a tragic training crash before the Giro. He’s now in 17th, out of GC contention, but free to look for a stage win. Ted King (Cannondale) managed to go better than last year’s early departure, but withdrew during stage 10. The remaining US riders, slogging away in support roles likely enjoyed the rest day and prepared to get back to work during stage 11.
We’re getting into the good stuff now, so grab your crusty bread and red wine and prepare for some more weird fireworks. The Tour’s not nearly over, even if it’s not the Tour any of us thought we’d get. And honestly, I gotta say, that’s a good thing.