The Sky Problem

The Sky Problem

For the first time since 1980 the reigning Tour de France champion has withdrawn from the race. In ’80, Bernard Hinault withdrew from the Grand Boucle, clearing the way for Joop Zoetemelk’s only win. And in stage 5 of the 2014 Tour, Chris Froome found himself on the deck for the third time in two days, and it proved to be one impact too many for the slight Briton.

Froome’s withdrawal has caused more hand-wringing than the mop detail for an aircraft carrier. This isn’t how the race is supposed to go, and because the racing isn’t sticking to the script, fingers must point.

People have already blamed the fact that ASO included cobblestones in stage 5. That wasn’t the problem. Froome was in the team car even before the first stretch of pavé.

It’s hard to blame the rain. Rain happens. It wasn’t raining when Froome crashed in stage 4. Further, a great many riders went down in stage 5, including no less a marked man than Tejay Van Garderen.

The real problem seems a larger issue of team management. When Froome went down on stage 4, he was riding four rows back from the front, unprotected by teammates. What appears to be two Orica-Green Edge riders collided—it seems one rider put his bar into his teammate’s hip—and either bounced or overreacted several feet to his right. At the time Froome had exactly one teammate with him and he was to Froome’s left, not ahead of him, clearing the way.

Once Froome was up and had let go of his wrist, David Lopez helped pace him back to within sight of the pack so that he could spend some time at the race doctor’s car. But by then the damage was done. The way he held his wrist post-crash had the look of a rider who had fractured a scaphoid bone in his wrist. Those wrist-grabs are of a piece.

Tour de France 2014 - 5. Etappe - Lars BoomEven if Froome hadn’t crashed twice ahead of the cobbles, his Tour was, in all likelihood going to end during stage 5. He complained that he was having trouble controlling his bike and if he was struggling to steer on roads that were merely wet, he was doomed to hit the deck even more once on the cobbles.

Ultimately, Froome’s demise is David Brailsford’s responsibility. Froome should have been surrounded by teammates during stage 4. That may not have prevented his crash, but it would have reduced the chance. Similarly, once he did crash, Brailsford should have surrounded Froome with teammates for stage 5, but the team splintered in the rain and chaos, again leaving Froome isolated enough that he crashed twice more.

And what of Brailsford’s failure to bring Bradley Wiggins? Wiggins was (not to flog the deceased equine) Sky’s best performer at Paris-Roubaix. He also pledged himself to work for the team. Wiggins is known to be mouthy, but his reputation isn’t for being a traitor.

Which brings us to Brailsford’s greatest mistake of all. No plan B. With the Froome-Wiggins duo, Brailsford may have had some tense meals, but at least he would have had a proven GC rider in Wiggins once Froome crashed out. Sky is now looking to Richie Porte who, while stronger than some French cheeses, isn’t proven as a team leader, and the Tour de France is no place to try on the CEO’s tie and jacket.

Missing the Tour de France isn’t good for Wiggins’ efforts to negotiate a contract with a new team, but Brailsford has now been proven definitively wrong for not bringing Wiggins, and that may help his value. There was always a chance that Wiggins would have shot off his mouth while Froome was wearing yellow, but that didn’t and won’t come to pass.

Many of the riders—even Fabian Cancellara—have questions ASO’s wisdom for including cobblestones. Tejay van Garderen said, “I think ASO needs to rethink putting days like this into the race.” He went on to opine that the race should be decided based on the strength of the riders pitted against each other. You know what? We got that race last year and the year before. It was boring as hell.

Bike races need an audience in order to draw sponsors who pay for the circus. The sheer drama and unpredictability of stage 5 made it a stage that managed to top stage 2 for viewer excitement.

Bill McGann, author of the two-volume “The Story of the Tour de France,” believes the race’s recent history amounts to a “climbing championship” due to the incredible importance placed on climbs over time trials. It’s hard to argue the point. And making his case is the sheer fragility of riders like Froome.

One wonders how Eddy Merckx or Bernard Hinault would have fared on a day such as this. We can at least be assured the Cannibal wouldn’t have shied from the challenge. Cyclingnews quoted Merckx saying, “I would have loved to race out there on the cobblestone in this Tour de France.”

Perhaps the only good news on the day’s stage is that Vincenzo Nibali rode like a man deserving the yellow jersey, from the front, with determination and waiting for no one.

Now we have a race.


Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti

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  1. marek

    I’ve never been a fan of W/kg uphill tests that some of the grand tours have become in recent years. We can debate what a grand tour should be, but why not representative of the season? Sprinting, classics (hilly & cobbles), sprinting, climbing & descending as well as TTs. Gives a wider type of rider the chance to win making the racing less predictable. A good thing no? To win you then still need to be specialised but at least decent in other styles. Mix it up 🙂

    Interestingly, despite the slick cobbles, the only rider to DNF was Froome (and he crashed on asphalt). Plenty of other riders crashed but seemingly nothing serious.

    Comments from Prudhomme worth reading …

  2. jorgensen

    I think Brailsford should have engineered a detante between his two top guys well before July. That did not happen. Ouch. ASO was reasonable and reduced the length of cobbles, weather is weather. It was not good to see so many crashes, but perhaps there is some wisdom in the classic road bike geometry that the current class of bikes does not provide. I read that Froome was unhappy with his bike’s steering. Scapegoat? Or, just the wrong machine for the task?

  3. Aar

    IMHO, yesterday, the crosswind hardened stage in 2013 and the cobbled stage of 2010 are the three best TdF stages in recent years. I agree with McCants as you quote him above. Modern TdF victors are either climbers who are not horrible time trialists or awesome time trialists who are well above average climbers. I believe the winner of a grand tour should be the best all around rider. To be that, one needs to be equally adept in the high mountains, at time trailing, on rolling terrain and on challenging flats. Cobbled stages and crosswind swept stages make flats challenging. I’m tired of watching six six hours stages per Tour of guys slogging up high mountains only for a few pixies to flit away in the last twenty minutes to fight for the yellow fleece. I want to see three to four stages each of challenging flats, time trials, rolling hills and high mountains in every TdF. That’s 12-16 stages centered around the yellow and white jerseys and 5-9 stages centered around sprinters. As a result, we might just start getting true all around riders in yellow, green and white again. That would be a return to riders like Merckx and Hinault winning Tours and having a shot at green as well. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that it is really refreshing to see Peter Sagan, a sprint biased but ultimately more of a well-rounded rider, contending for and winning the green jersey.

  4. adam

    Good read.
    My only take away from this is that intervals in Tenereife are not the same as racing in March, and it was foolish to think the former was a substitute for the later. Valverde surprised me with how he did in some of the Belgian Semis this year and Nibali’s had experience on the Strade Bianchi and that worked in their favour.

  5. MCH

    The first week of the Tour has been fantastic! IMO, over the last decade or two, the route has become boring and predictable. As a result, we’ve seen the rise of Tour super specialists like Froome, the Schlecks, and Tejay. Riders who complain when the conditions aren’t perfect. Froome even complained last year when Contador attacked on a descent – pitiful.
    On the other hand, this year’s route has turned convention upside down. A climbing stage on stage 2, cobbles on stage 5 – great stuff. My hope is that this creativity continues. If it does, the prototypical Tour rider will have to change too.

  6. Chris S

    Good recap, Patrick. I agree that even though it’s dangerous, including the cobbles has led to a more exciting race, and will give us a more well-rounded TdF winner instead of just the guy with the highest watts per kilo. I’m a fan of exciting bike races, and now that Froome won’t ride away while we all watch the race for best-of-the-rest, it’s going to be good. Contador’s best moments are when he’s behind and has to attack, so these next few weeks will be thrilling, I hope. Nibali certainly rode like a winner yesterday, even if a part of that was simply good luck for him and bad luck for others. But that’s bike racing! Damn good bike racing.

  7. Kurti_sc

    I haven’t been a fan of Brailsford and this recent round of racing without much regard for your protected status rider and the lack of a more solid plan B just cements it. Porte May yet prove himself. We’ll see.
    I’d like to see am interview with Wiggins on this! And he’s often brash enough to give one here.

  8. Full Monte

    So what you’re saying is, there aren’t enough true hardman stages in the Tour?

    A cyclocross champion found himself in his element yesterday, rode gloriously. That was entertaining.

    Nibali defended the yellow jersey by riding one of the best stages of his career despite appalling conditions. That was entertaining.

    But 45 riders went down, two abandoned (including the defending champion), and one’s riding on a torn gluteus maximus today (yes, he literally broke his ass). That’s not so glorious, and in fact, that stage was a bit too close to really dangerous and career-ending conditions for my taste, overall. (Would it have been so had it not been raining? Probably not.)

    While Fabian criticized the inclusion of yesterday’s cobbled stage into the Tour, he also said something to the affect that he (and riders like him) would be a favorite for the Tour if there were more classics style stages like yesterday, less climbing.

    Personally, I’d like to see the big guys have their day, and break the stages out of the climb or sprint, climb or sprint, climb or sprint formula we see now. I’d like to see the bike handlers show their stuff. (Did you see Sagan weave his way through the field after his mechanical two days ago? My goodness, the kid’s got a career as a stunt rider if he wants one.) But I also don’t wish to see wanton carnage, either. As a rider who has done his own share of crashing, I have a sympathetic reaction every time I see a rider on the deck. I know that pain, and I wince in recognition each time.

    Please don’t misunderstand, fellow commenters: I think every rider in the peloton is a hardman in their own right. But it would be cool to see stages that feel and look like a Classics race, giving chances for big all-rounders to win the Tour, rather than TT or climbing specialists.


    As for Wiggo and his attitude/disposition. I think he looks at himself as less athlete, more entertainer. A rock star, even. As such, he channels Keith Richards, or maybe more accurately, Pete Townshend, whom he actually resembles. So when he goes off script, calls out critics as wankers, and lets the un-PC language fly, he’s Wiggins the rock star, not the cyclist. And as for him being left off Sky for this year’s tour, I can only echo Bobke: I told you so.

    Maybe Sky should’a hired Phil Jackson to sort out the personalities. Don’t know if his triangle offense works in cycling, though.

  9. John Kopp

    I totally enjoyed yesterday’s stage over the cobbles. The only problem was the rain, but that doesn’t stop any other stage. There are races every year over the cobblestones, so yes they belong in the Tour. They are not a problem if you know how to ride a bike, and clearly not everyone in the tour can. Make that claim.

    As far as Sky and Wiggins, Bobke summed it up best with his comment “I told you so!”.

    We certainly have a race this year!

  10. Hoshie99

    I think the rider isolation points you make are very valid. In contrast, Astana seemed on game-plan yesterday.

    That being said, the notion about a Plan B is just not a great strategy to me either. Porte is good enough for a Plan B. With the Froome / Wiggins tetras in the same tank, it is highly likely nothing good would have come of that either except it being very good telly and social media fodder.

    When you manage a team, either in the office or out on a road, you have to have some unity of purpose and basic lines of respect among the team , even if people disagree on a few points, or things tend to go sideways pretty fast. At least that has been my humble career experience and something that I can imagine crossed Brailsford’s mind in his selection.


  11. tj

    Brailsfords plan B is Port. There’s been lots of reporting on that. Lets wait a couple of weeks before we declare the team sky strategy a failure. Wiggins would have been a good plan B, I agree, but Port may be better in the long run. Podium this year?, yellow next? Considering that Brad ain’t getting any younger, his skelator weight from 2012 seems to have been beefed up to his anti gravity detriment, there are heaps of mountain top finishes ahead, and not so many klics of tt’ing, Brailsford might just be hailed as a strategic genius.

  12. Gary

    The inclusion of cobbles will be the debate for a long time. It was certainly not a surprise since they were shown in the course unveiling last year.

    The rain + cobbles turned a tough day into an epic one. It envoked a unique set of skills that aren’t generally part of the climbing/TT/sprint format the race usually follows. The bottom line is a rider has to complete all the stages which may or may not be to their preferences.

    The thing that has made this years early stages interesting (as in eyebrow raising) is the loss of 3 major riders (Froome, Cavendish, and [arguable] Andy Schleck). Contador may be the best climber, or at least close, but there are plenty of other factors to navigate besides fitness.

  13. Shawn

    I have to disagree with a number of your points.
    1. Wiggins would only be a viable plan B in a Tour with a lot more TT miles. An unproven Porte has a better chance of getting on the podium given this year’s course.
    2. Froome’s stage 4 crash wasn’t due to a lack of protection but his working his way up the side of the peloton, a notoriously dangerous spot on narrow roads.
    3. According to Chris Horner on CyclingNews, Froome’s last crash was not due to being isolated but his front wheel hitting a crack in the pavement.

    I do think Sky have mismanaged the whole Froome & Wiggins dynamic. They should not have let it fester and become so dysfunctional.

  14. hhbikes

    I don’t recall seeing such a commanding ride from Nibali. Very nice. He rode like a champion. Can’t wait to see more.
    On another note, 3:18 for nearly 100 miles with rain and cobbles-really? 29 mph avg!

  15. ChrisC

    Didn’t Porte win Algarve in 2012 and Paris-Nice in 2013?

    No, those aren’t Grand Tours, but I’m not sure that he should be described as “unproven” as a team leader.

  16. SusanJane

    Someone, I’m not sure who, said that the cobbles are not just a mind set, not just bike handling skills, not just tactics, but very different technology. Most riders who seriously compete in the monuments put in huge amounts of times mastering the cobbles — Boonen and Cancallara don’t get on the cobbles for a few days of recon to test themselves and their equipment. These riders will never win the Tour. I know the same argument can be said about time trials but we all know that is a much different animal and riders do multiple times trials a year who are potential Tour winners. What I want to know is why do they keep putting the cobbles in the first week? If you want to make them a test for the Tour winners it seems more logical to edit/educate the peleton by working out the nerves and the less skilled riders before then.

    In my opinion, Wiggins would not win the Tour if he was there to step up.

    It’s Nibili’s Tour to loose but my pessimism is he will win. I hope I’m wrong. I hope it is a battle in every sense. But I doubt it. Did you really look at everyone’s faces coming across the line today? Unless a miracle happens, Nibili was the only one who didn’t looked crushed.

  17. Jay

    Whoever said the Tour was supposed to be easy? Keep the cobbles and tilt the playing back so it also favors the true all around riders. Eddy Merckxx wouldn’t have whined about Stage 5. He would exploited it. The Tour is boring in terms of race strategies, don’t lose time in the mountains and gain time in the time trials. Every other stage is racing not to lose. The first five stages this year have been better than previous years because everyone has to race. There is no sitting back and being cautious. Too bad for Froome, but at least there should be a more exciting race this year.

  18. Li Chin

    Very well written. I know Froome will have problems in this year’s Tour. Given his performance at the Dauphine; he is very prone to falls and crashes.

  19. Lumpy

    Nibali, with Vino running the ship and 3 Astana up front on the cobbles let’s wait for the drug test.
    Cobbles take the race away from the big hill climbers, a good thing.
    Why not have a cross day, a mt bike day, a BMX day, a crit, a track day, a trials day.
    It would put the focus on being an All Around Athlete not a 6’2″ 145 pound freak of nature with the ability to measure micro doses of chemicals.
    Riding 30 mph for 100 miles for 20 some odd days is an incredible feat I am truly in awe. But let’s mix it up!

  20. MCH

    I can’t help but think that if the tour specialists included some of the spring classics in their racing schedules, obstacles like the weather(!) and cobbles would have been less of an issue. Unfortunately, I can’t recall a tour winner since Lemond who raced all season and really was a true all-rounder.
    Of course, we could go the other direction completely and hold the tour on F1 courses – perfect pavement conditions, lot’s of run-off, cancel stages when the weather threatens, etc. Or better yet, hold the stages on indoor velodromes – this way weather is never a factor. Or perhaps better still, stages could be held on rollers – this way there’s be no danger of overlapping wheels, traffic furniture, etc. Tejay should be happy with this – the strongest man would win, and there’d be absolutely no drama.

    1. Jay

      Wiggins is similar. He was more of an all rounder that became a GC rider and has now transitioned back to being more of an all rounder. He was the first Tour winner to ride Paris-Roubaix since Greg Lemond did, and he managed a top 10 placing. I have developed a new respect for Sir Bradley based on what he has done this season, all the while being discounted by his own team.

  21. Rod

    Agreed. I had this discussion with a friend en route to a TT last weekend – that the problem with Sky was that they were one of the few teams that had two legitimate tour contenders and benched one through lack of relationship management.

    Could you figure Bill Walsh of SF benching Jerry Rice because he didn’t get along with Terrell Owens? Nope, even with both huge egos, management told them to put their big boy pants and work it out. And conversely, when Montana and Young were deemed unable to be held together one was let go for the best of everyone.

    It is bad management that lets personnel issues limit the team’s flexibility, especially when a chaotic event is expected (e.g. cobbles). And that said, another one of my friends said “well, if Porte actually wins the thing then maybe plan B wasn’t wrong”. He’s got a point there, this is not finished and he rode well the rest of Stage 5.

  22. Ron

    See Steve Tilford’s take: I agree with him, this tactic doesn’t work. They’re riding closely together with the intent of avoiding dangerous situations, when their actions are causing the dangerous situation. If they spent more time racing in the bunch and less time in isolated far flung locales training with their teammates, they’d be comfortable enough to know they’re ok in their positioning and will go with the ebb and flow of the pack. Maybe a minimum number of racing days should be required?? Just a thought…

  23. Alex TC

    I’m all for hardmen-style tests in the Tour (or any GT). I just think they should be spread out instead of concentrated into one single stage like they usually do. That is what really make things too tende and more dangerous than necessary for too many riders.

    Yeah it’s selective but a bit too much for a GT in my opinion. Put, say, a few cobble, badly conserved and even some smooth dirt stretches here and there, 5 or 6 stages, is perhaps one way to keep the action, the drama and the real test to the riders while making racing safer.

  24. bill

    Sky seems to be a soup sandwich. I watched Wiggins hammer up Mt Diablo and we saw his strength on the cobbles. I think it’s apparent that the reward of bringing Brad outweighed the risk. On another note: Froome didn’t have his A game on the cobbled stage. (he’s a great rider, but too fragile…….and I hate it when people call him Froomey) First time I’ve given Lance any love in a few years but at least when he rode the cobbles in the tour he embraced it and had a great strategy. Postal hammered at the front. Wondering why Sky didn’t follow that script. As for Cancellara complaining about the cobbles and deciding to drop out…….well as much as we love him that was Junior Varsity.

  25. MQ

    I completely agree with your sentiment Padraig, I understand it was hard, neigh on impossible for Froome to continue, but I can’t shake the feeling that it was, maybe not soft, but not endearing. I can’t see that story being included in the 200 year anniversary highlights package. All the glory stories you see from yesteryear is from hard men enduring.

    However, to play devils advocate for a minute. I’m also not entirely comfortable with seeing these guys treated like circus animals, making them go through some pretty horrendous conditions for our entertainment. To be fair, the earlier races like the giro and Milan-San Remo seem to make the riders suffer more than the tour, at least when it comes to weather. I can see the trend continuing as the race organisers try to outdo each other with ever more challenging courses in an effort to chase viewers (cash).

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