Today’s been too big to keep the stage wrap for tomorrow so here’s some thoughts on events.
The stage started before the racing began. Most will have woken up this morning and opened the curtains in their hotels to see the rain and groaned but perhaps Tour boss Christian Prudhomme smiled? The tension started rising with nervous tweets from many riders but few complaints. Everyone had a right to be stressed by the roads ahead.
The riders assembled in Ypres where King Philip I and Eddy Merckx, a combo of royalty, saw them off. The Menin Gate and a start by a war cemetery to remember the death of approximately 500,000 was a strong enough message to help us avoid metaphors of war in sports coverage, talk of battles and combat for a mere bicycle race put things in perspective.
Two cobbled sectors were scratched from the course such was the flooding due to the rain. With hindsight it made no difference to the race although presumably it could have been worse for some. Certainly there were enough of the pavé.
But we didn’t need the cobbles for drama. After the first break went the pace didn’t drop with the bunch covering close to 50 kilometres in the first hour and a nervous time in the bunch. Chris Froome fell, this time his right side showed white flesh through the torn black kit. But he seemed fine, he was back on the bike and even out of the saddle, something that’s not easy with a bad wrist. But it was long until he crashed again. Yes he didn’t need the cobbles to crash but the cobbles on the stage surely added to the tension and speed which in turn added to the crash risk. The accident wasn’t caught on camera but we see him standing by the side of the road and it was clear something was wrong. Hunched forward he started to hobble, the instinct to get back on the bike clearly countered by the pain. Encircled by Team Sky staff he climbed into a car and with that his race was over. With one wrist in a brace he was struggling to control the bike and the latest this evening is that is that Richie Porte was anointed as team leader for the stage and given the “bodyguard” protection of Geraint Thomas.
It’s the first time since Bernard Hinault in 1980 that a defending champion quits the Tour. If you’re a fan then it’s a sad moment and if you can’t stand the sight of him then you should be sad too because you won’t see your preferred rider challenge and perhaps beat him either. For neutrals it means the Alberto Contador duel’s over and we lose a GC contender.
The Wiggins issue drags on but let’s put this away quickly. Even if Wiggins was riding we saw in the Tour de Suisse that he wasn’t riding well; plus he doesn’t have a forcefield either, he too crashed out of the Tour de Suisse and of course left the 2011 Tour with a broken collarbone too. But it’s not about the legs or bike-handling, the two don’t get on. Team Sky haven’t put them in a race together since Oman in early 2013 and as Dave Brailsford explains in The Cycling Podcast the risk is a team split in two or riven by tension rather than a united force. Richie Porte is Plan B and the word before today is that he’s flying. We’ll see in the mountains.
Back to today’s racing and Vincenzo Nibali and the Astana team ruled the roost with all his rivals stuck in various ways. Jurgen Van Den Broeck was the best off, now sitting 1.45 behind Nibali but he crashed today. Alberto Contador struggled with the pavé. After the stage Bjarne Riis said there problems with his gears and given Oleg Tinkov’s regular tirades against SRAM the only question is whether the team ride Shimano or Campagnolo next year. But from the TV the Spaniard seemed to have problems with his trajectory, you could sense the nervousness. Alejandro Valverde was delayed and had the whole team pacing him back at one point and spend the rest of the stage playing catch-up. Many others were much further down, so much that the King of the Mountains competition could hot up now because several riders are dropped so far down the rankings they’ll have space to operate.
But let’s not exaggerate the time differences. If anything the gaps on the GC now mean plenty of variety, riders will have space to attack and take risks.
Lars Boom won the stage and behind Sep Vanmarcke was celebrating the triumph but Belkin’s Bauke Mollema came in 34th, 2.44 down. I don’t know the team plans but the outcome suggests the riders had varying ambitions. For what it’s worth Boom’s already linked to Sky for 2015 while Mollema’s said to be close to Orica-Greenedge.
Too soon to tell?
It could be far too soon to measure the impact of today’s stage. We know Nibali took time, we know some crashed . But we don’t know who is injured. Even superficially lost skin means losing sleep and reduced recovery, it adds up like compound interest over the three weeks.
Nibali’s performance wasn’t just superior to his grand tour rivals because his third place today saw him finish ahead of Fabian Cancellara, Niki Terpstra and other classics specialists who had a free ticket to ride for themselves. The Sicilian won’t be rushing to ride Paris-Roubaix in 2015 but this underlines just what a good day he had. Better still, Astana collectively had a great day.
Do cobbled stages have their place in a race like this?
Yes but sparingly. Like climbing Mont Ventoux the Tour should do it from time to time but not as often as we’d like. Keeping a distance helps to preserve the myth. Otherwise it’s not as if the cobbles are a surprise and if you’ve got a phobia of the porphyry then go ride the Tour of Austria.
Lars Boom won but Vincenzo Nibali’s the winner. However if today’s stage looked like Paris-Roubaix in reverse it is not Roubaix-Paris. It was just Stage 5 and Paris is almost 3,000km away. It’s too soon to tell what the outcome of this stage will be. We’ll see things unfold this week and events today will even send shockwaves that go beyond the Tour de France, for example the Vuelta is already looking mouthwatering with Chris Froome facing the Quintana brothers.
Footnote: even my computer crashed today, the hard disk going the same way as Andy Schleck’s knee. A borrowed laptop should keep the show on the road but tomorrow’s stage preview is uncertain.