Christian Prudhomme is an optimist, a romantic and a dreamer. When the Tour de France route was unveiled last October the message from the race organiser was a race where the long time trials and a shortage of climbing would incite the climbers into daring raids, offering Alpine theatre and Pyrenean panache. Only this year’s vintage has not met those expectations, the climbers were neutralised and the most daring raid was came on the rest day when the gendarmes swooped on Rémy di Gregorio.
Much of this is not Prudhomme’s fault. The crash on Stage 6 took out plenty of riders and many of the survivors soldiered on with injuries. And any remaining hopes died when Team Sky put their train to work, asphyxiating the others with a high pace that prevents attacks, it is impressive work but it reduces the contest.
Still, was it realistic to expect riders to make up for lost time by going on a big attack? I don’t think so. Today we saw Alejandro Valverde win the stage. But he was so far down overall that he could get away. The idea of actual contenders battling for the yellow jersey with risky raids is always unlikely. Let’s look at three reasons why this was over-optimistic:
- Historical precedent: can you remember the last time riders threw caution to the wind and took off on daring long range moves? It’s very rare. Last year we saw Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador try but it was so surprising because it’s rare; it worked for Schleck but failed for Contador. Before this perhaps we have to go back to 2006 and Floyd Landis’s manly Morzine mania. Over the years such bravery is very rare, to this day many still celebrate Hugo Koblet’s exploits from 1951 on the roads from Brive to Agen.
- Risk: as mentioned on here before, an attack is risky. If it works in the mountains you could gain time but if it fails you will lose. Riders are not wild risk-takers and the system of UCI points rewards those able to secure consistent overall finishes ahead of the stage winners. We might want to see riders try big moves but the system means they are paid to do the opposite. For all the debate and hot air generated over race radios, the most sanitising effect on races is the UCI points system where generous rewards go to riders who might be invisible to the TV cameras during the race.
- Tactics: even if Sky were not in the race, if a rider takes off up the road then they would soon find other teams chasing and a thin climber can rarely take much time back, their advantage is rapier-like attacks. Even if they could get away, our imaginary climber has to cope with descents, valley roads and more, terrain where they lose to the rouleurs.
In short, long range attacks have been rare in history, riders are not incentivised to try them and even if they gave it a go they might find the time triallists would eventually reel them back.
But what if we bought too much into Prudhomme’s claims? When the route came out he couldn’t stand up and say “ok, this is one for the time trial guys to limit their losses“. Instead he had to hype it up, to give us something to dream about over winter. After all declaring “the climbers must go on the attack” is another way of saying “the time trial specialists will hold the cards“.
Prudhomme will take some satisfaction. Several stage wins mean the French audience – still important for business – is satisfied; it could have been worse. Prudhomme is an anglophile and British success is good for business, taking the race to another new audience in a large and accessible consumer market will delight the race’s sponsors (think Skoda, Nestlé). Now this is no comfort for fans but the Tour is a business, it was created to sell newspapers in 1903.
What about next year?
Can things be changed to make the race for the yellow jersey a bit more exciting?
- You could have a harder first week where the yellow jersey is more likely to change but there’s a balance here, too hard and you begin to see the overall classification take shape. Big climbs are exciting but once we establish a rider’s power/weight ratio we establish the overall rankings too.
- A more radical idea is to reduce the team size from nine riders to seven or even six riders. This means a squad has less manpower to control the race and the second order effect is that you could invite more squads to the race which would make things a lot more random. It’s not a wild idea, Prudhomme likes the idea but speaking to La Dépêche du Midi he explained it would not be easy:
“It would be a genuine solution, but I’ve got to remind you that we’re not in charge here, and I could remind you of the general panic that followed a proposal to bring down teams of nine riders to eight riders in the grand tours. So let’s not even think of six.“
Team managers work hard to build a team and having a big squad of 30 riders but only taking six would frustrate many. It would also dilute the power of the existing, incumbent teams so let’s not expect these turkeys to vote for festive celebrations.
But perhaps it’s time to be recognise that the race organisers can’t offer guarantees, they cannot make things happen. Maybe we – fans and race organisers alike – need to abandon the pretence that a race director is a film director who prepares the scenes, chooses camera angles and even supplies a script. Yes, the race organisers can design different types of races but there are limits.
Crashes took out some riders, Team Sky have been too strong. If the 2012 is not a vintage year for yellow jersey excitement, perhaps this likely to be the case given the route but misfortune made things even less of a contest? Ultimately the race comes down to the riders and perhaps no amount of extra climbs, narrow roads or otherwise can guarantee excitement. A move to reduce the size of teams could make the race exciting but many existing team owners would reject this.
If Prudhomme is an optimist, good for him. To borrow a French phrase, he “sins by optimism”, and if dreaming is his biggest fault things could be worse. Is he naive? I don’t think so and promises of excitement and bold attacks are what is required from him, every race organiser since Desgrange has tried to boost the race beyond reality. Indeed his work to reshape the race is making things more exciting. He is also a businessman but as race director, let’s not assume he’s omnipotent. Maybe it’s our fault for wanting the biggest race of the year to always be the best?