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?