For the first time since 1980 the reigning Tour de France champion has withdrawn from the race.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.
Even 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