Friday Group Ride #225

Friday Group Ride #225

Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish are out of the Tour de France. The favorites are strung out, up and down the GC, with Vincenzo Nibali in yellow, Marcel Kittle sweeping the sprints, and a lot of kilometers still to ride. The first week, from the Grand Depart in Yorkshire to the beginning of the French escapade , has thrown up a lot of surprises

Many will blame the cobbles that featured heavily in stage five for the crashes that shook the race up in this first week, but maybe the rain falling that particular day had as much to do with it. The first week of the Tour is typically nervous, with the entire peloton eager not to be caught out early on, all of them seemingly relearning to ride in a large pack on narrow roads at speed. And so, the combination of rain and rough surfaces shook the race hard, although it would appear most of the crashing occurred on smooth, albeit slick, pavement.

We might recall the Passage du Gois, the periodically flooded land bridge the Tour included in 1999. The greasy surface of the Passage caused a decisive pile up that more or less decided the race on the second stage.

Each year the Tour’s route design receives microscopic scrutiny. It is released early, both as a means to draw attention to the race when our attention might be elsewhere, and as a way for the teams to include strategy sessions into their schedules.

Who will it favor? The climbers? The time trialists? No one in the peloton should be surprised by the course. There is ample time to dissect, to reconnoiter and to prepare. And yet each year you hear riders and team managers complaining about this or that in the route. The cobbles shouldn’t be there. The time trial is too long/short. There are too many/not enough mountain top finishes.

We need to discount those complaints. What the teams want most is predictability and control. They want to be able to plan and to execute a strategy. I believe the best courses, and conditions, disrupt that predictability and control. The drama of the race is made of opportunism, instinct and will-testing difficulty.

There is a lot of talk about rider safety, but of course, riding in a pack of nearly 200, at speed, in the sunshine, over perfect roads, is still going to produce a fair amount of road rash and a couple or three broken collar bones. The sport itself isn’t safe. Where to draw the line then?

This week’s Group Ride asks, do the cobbles of Northern France belong in the Tour? Are they just gimmicks? Or do they serve a vital balance, ensuring that an all-rounder has a real shot at the final podium? Do you prefer the Grand Tours as climber’s races? Do you think the organizers are sacrificing rider safety in the interest of greater entertainment? And how will this all shake out as the peloton snakes toward Paris?

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20 comments

  1. Tom in Albany

    1a. Do the cobbles of Northern France belong in the Tour? Yes! They’re a road surface. I think they need more gravel too.
    1b. Are they just gimmicks? Yes! But they’re interesting and historical to the region and the race so, why not?
    1c. Or do they serve a vital balance, ensuring that an all-rounder has a real shot at the final podium? Yes and well, no. They help balance but I don’t think it’s a good balance. An all-rounder needs more than just a single cobbled stage to get onto the podium. The GTs aim towards TTers and Climbers. Do both well and you’ll place well. Do both very well and you could get the podium and maybe win. Do one of the two magnificently and the other not so bad, you could podium and maybe win!
    2. Do you prefer the Grand Tours as climber’s races? No. The mtns are often very entertaining, though. And you get great spectacle and jaw-dropping shots on Hi-Def TVs.
    3. Do you think the organizers are sacrificing rider safety in the interest of greater entertainment? I don’t know if they’re sacrificing it or simply ignoring it. In the end, it’s up to a rider to slow down if he’s uncomfortable and to realize his cababilities. Wiggins slowed down on wet descents but was good enough to win. Same for Froome. Jens Voigt broke his face when perhaps he should have used his brakes in a timely way.
    4. And how will this all shake out as the peloton snakes toward Paris? Someone will win. There will be exciting finishes and more controversy. I’m shocked Nibali has such a lead this early. It should make for an attacking group of GC co-favorites, though. I predict excitment and I think that the winner will be decided before the final ITT. Though, truth be told, I have no idea who it will be!

    YMMV

    1. Aar

      Great response. I agree very much.

      One thing I would like is refocus from cobbled stages to difficult flat stages. Carefully placed rollers and areas prone to severe crosswinds are other ways to make flat stages that separate the pack. Last year, Cav won a stage by bridging to the front echelon at the perfect moment in high cross winds. That stage also shook up GC quite a bit. I believe there should be 3-4 difficult flat stages, including one cobbled, gravel or submerged during high tide stage in every TdF. Further, there should be no more high mountain stages than there are difficult flat stages.

    2. cash

      Well said. The tour is entertainment, no different than a rom-com or an NFL game. If it doesn’t entertain it’s failed it primary purpose. And stage 5 succeeded in spades. I was riveted, glued to the couch and my coffee got cold from neglect. The tour needs more stages that hold the fans rapt attention from beginning to end. Who will end? I have no idea, and that’s what makes it fun.

  2. MattC

    Not only do I think they belong, I think (much like Aar) that there should be MORE! In fact, I think the race should be vastly changed year to year. Why does every year favor the TT/Climbers? Why not a sprinter winning overall GC? Or a Hard-man of the classics? One year put in FIVE (or more) cobbled stages. The next year have 5 ITT’s. And the next have tons of mountains. Give EVERYBODY a shot at a Tour GC win. And besides, also as Aar stated, NOBODY is forcing the racers to ride above their skils on wet or cobbled conditions…that’s THEIR responsibility. If I decide to ride a downhill chasing a faster descender and crash, do I cry foul and say the hill was too dangerous? NO. that’s on ME to ride w/in my limits. Same w/ rain, cobbles, mtns, you name it. The winner of le Tour (as it’s currently designed) SHOULD be the best all-arounder…and that includes cobbles.

  3. Michael

    This week’s Group Ride asks, do the cobbles of Northern France belong in the Tour? Yes – without a doubt
    Are they just gimmicks? If you watched this stage, you know they were no gimmick. They definitely separated the men from the boys and showed off and rewarded superb bike handling skills.
    Or do they serve a vital balance, ensuring that an all-rounder has a real shot at the final podium? They are a type of equalizer that stops racers from becoming too specialized. Specialization in people usually ends up being a little weird. We want real athletes being the winners and role models.
    Do you prefer the Grand Tours as climber’s races? Quick answer is No. That said, I think the mountains are where the power of the teams are somewhat negated and the man against man is more in play. Over the years some of the most dramatic moments are on mountain stages. And, don’t forget descending skills which only the mountains provide. As another commenter said though, hard flattish stages with a few hills and windy sections test the mettle of a cyclist as well and should not be ignored.
    Do you think the organizers are sacrificing rider safety in the interest of greater entertainment? Hard question, but, as in the cold windy sleeting snowy stage on the Giro showed, the best riders rise to the occasion. I have not seen riders ever forced into blatantly unsafe actions. You can always point out safety concerns but the risk is what makes it exciting. Sanitize the sport and you make it dull. Heck, just run and series of time trials on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
    And how will this all shake out as the peloton snakes toward Paris? Who knows and that is why this is fun to spectate and hopefully fun for the riders too.

  4. Peter Dedes

    I remember when Bernard Hinault led the riders’ protest of racing conditions in the ’80′s. We have shorter more entertaining stages. I think as fans we value disruption and unpredictability, and a route that lets that happen is golden. Even a mountainous Grand Tour like last years Giro provided entertainment in spades with all sorts of attacking. What I don’t want is the drone of a team smothering the race.

  5. NickL

    The best overall rider is better determined when technically difficult stages are including in the Tour, Giro or Vuelta. Obviously, it was a bad decision for the braintrust at Sky to exclude Wiggins from the team.

  6. Triston

    Assuredly, yes — they belong. The cobbles shouldn’t be relegated to spring races alone. If time trials can decide the tour, so should cobbles be a factor. I can certainly appreciate the dedication required to be successful in the TT discipline; however, I’m tired of seeing le tour being decided by TTs alone. Certainly, climbing is and should be a natural component, as well as the ability to stay connected on the flats in crosswind. But not to the exclusion of true all around talent.

    Nibali was a favorite of mine going into the race. The way he hit the cobbles like a seasoned roubaix rider just strengthened my opinion.

  7. Jay

    I stated in another post reply yesterday that I felt that the cobbles not only should be included, but other challenging terrain such as gravel roads should be considered as well. Why should a rider like Chris Froome be considered a prohibitive favorite because the race plays to his strengths? He is not necessarily the best overall rider as his troubles on Stage 5 clearly suggested. Riders that would be considered lesser by some, given the hype surrounding the GC contenders, negotiated the same stage without incident The formula for the stages should give all of the top riders equal footing for the overall GC. There is too much emphasis on the mountains, time trials, and playing safe on the remaining stages. There needs to be some mechanism that encourages and rewards the guys willing to take a flyer and surprise everyone with long range attacks instead of the boring formula that exists on almost every stage of every grand tour. The Tour might be the biggest race on the calendar, but it has also been the most boring. The first week of this year’s Tour seems to be breaking that mold, but there are stiil two weeks, so let’s see what happens…

  8. SusanJane

    Is this about who wins or about entertaining the fans? Tennis fans like the drama queens but it is about who wins and how they did it. They don’t rough up the court or change the ball size with each game. Nike and all the rest are happy getting the product out there; but they do not run the player or the staff, let alone who looses due to inferior equipment. Tennis is nothing like cycling, of course. Cobblestones and all the rest are mostly about profit, folks. If the course were the same every year the Tour would be a very, very different race. It would stabilize everything. But it would become horrendously boring. Everyone would know when to attack, etc. Only certain riders could win a stage, leaving little for opportunists. We love the drama and uncertainty of changing routes and conditions. Sponsors and the ASO know that. The riders want a hard race, but I suspect they would really love less drama. If the cobbles were in the race every year it would be no different then standardizing the course in other ways. If I’m right, the ASO puts them in at intervals were most everyone has forgotten how brutal and how devastating they actually are for the riders and the race. Nibili may have won a 21 day race based on a single stage — what’s sporting about that? The cobbles took legitimate contenders out of the Tour to be replaced by others who were less worthy previously? That’s not about racing. That’s about 41 different crashes. That’s total shit. Either put in the cobbles every year or always leave them out.

    1. Anonymous

      Susan,
      I disagree with your comment that the cobbles put a lesser rider in the lead and took out worthy contenders. If you look at the number of crashes while actually on the cobbles vs the crashes on the smooth pavement, you’ll see that a much greater percentage happened off cobbles. Froome went down on slick wet smooth pavement. Not once, but twice. He left the race because of poor bike handling and inattention traffic Islands. Where did the cobbles enter into that equation?

  9. Gary

    Cobbles, doping, bike specs, and Bureaucratic policy. Open the gates of hell, let them do what ever they need to, to win. They’re paid athletes, train all year to be the best and we are the shleps that their marketeers, TV and the like profit from. Either that or go back to steel framed bikes, beer, and smoke, where it all began.

  10. Champs

    If 10 miles of cobbles force a selection before the race even begins I’m fine with that. Winning the Spanish climbing championships or coming out on top in the Italian carnival doesn’t entitle you to a yellow jersey. Competition at the Tour *is* different.

  11. Les Borean

    I haven’t been a longtime TDF watcher, but I assume that surfaces imbedded with cobbles are themselves imbedded in the tradition of the tours. ‘nuf said.

    “The sport itself isn’t safe.”
    I initially took that to mean pro racing isn’t safe. But maybe you were alluding to cycling in general being a high-risk sport. The race reflects what we plain folk do on PCH or Tuna Canyon for that matter. Only with more intensity. We all, riders and racers know what we’re getting into and we do it anyway.

    I prefer the tours as a mix of rider skills.

  12. Pat O'Brien

    Cobbles in the TdF? No.
    Are they gimmicks in the TdF? Yes
    Are the organizers sacrificing rider safety? Yes, and not only with cobbles.
    Do 100 mile plus stages with multiple HC climbs produce boring races? Yes

  13. Quentin

    I spent more time watching stage 5 than I spent watching all the rest of the first week combined. That pretty much sums it up. For all the hand wringing about what these kind of stages will do to GC riders, the cobbles themselves often seem to have less impact than predicted, and inevitably mishaps that didn’t happen on the cobbles end up having a bigger impact (as was the case for Froome this time). That should be expected given that it’s less than 1% of the total distance covered by the Tour. Meanwhile, we got to witness a truly impressive feat by Nibali this year.

  14. Pat O'Brien

    Interesting post Les. About 15 years ago, I had just started riding regularly, we had a free health analysis at work. Complete physical workup along with life style surveys. One of the results was how our health and habits were adding or subtracting years from our expected life span. Cycling, according to the RN who ran the program, was a wash. You add years by the exercise, but you lose the same amount because of the risk of injury or worse. Don’t know if that is true today, and I kept riding anyway.

  15. Les.B.

    Pat O’Brien:
    My previous doctor put it a different way. A geezer like me, he had served in ‘nam. In his career he had tended to a lot of injured cyclists.
    He stated that he thought I’d live to be a hundred. And then added that if I did not live that long, the most likely reason would be my being outed by a car.
    In fact, that nearly came to realization last week during a left turn in an intersection a block from home, when an SUV from the opposite direction flew through a stop sign.

  16. Parker English

    The cobbles are good for entertainment. They are bad as a test for the strength of a cyclist who rides on the road. On the one hand, they cause mechanical failures which are not the responsibility of the cyclist. On the other hand, they cause other people to crash and impede the progress of the cyclist.

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