One Week Into The Tour

Monday, 14 July 2014


The first week of the Tour de France has flown by, so much has happened during the past 1291km. The Tour seems to create its own time and space and Yorkshire seems to be more than a week ago. It’s been a week packed with action and drama yet the race has only just got going and this weekend sees the .

Daily Action
Some stages have taken a while to get going but they’ve all provided action. Monday’s stage to London was formulaic but bolstered by big crowds and provided action at the end with a sprint finish in central London won by Marcel Kittel. Even Thursday’s plain stage to Reims came alive in the finish with crosswinds that caught out several riders.

Christian Prudhomme and his team seem aware of the repetition of flat stages for the sprinters. They’re unavoidable given the geography of France but the aim is to try a mix, for example Wednesday’s game of stones on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix.

More Action?
Flat stages that end in a sprint are never a ratings success and those that do tune in risk being frustrated. Even the previews on here tip viewers not to tune in for the whole day and this is to an audience of cycling fans. Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf (€) reports the UCI’s looking at measures to make the racing more exciting:

  • the idea of team time bonuses where if a rider from one team is up the road and takes a time bonus at an intermediate point this time is gifted to another team mate or credited to all the riders on the team
  • another suggestion is to offer UCI ranking points, the sport’s de facto currency at intermediate points as an incentive to attack, a reward for the efforts
  • revisit the radio ban

I can see the motivation but would caution with tinkering, the sport is already incredibly complex for newcomers to grasp and as it tries to expand around the world having to explain the concept of a team time bonus risks making it all the more complicated. As for race radios they get a lot of blame but I’m less certain. The argument says that team managers direct their riders to control a breakaway in the way the US Airforce operates a drone. I’m just not so sure and none study into the topic says race radios haven’t changed the success rate of breakaways vs sprinters. Anecdotally we’ve seen teams almost keep the breakaways too close this week and without radios the race could be kept on an even tighter leash. Radios are only a means of communication for information, they don’t change the underlying tactical aspect of having several sprinters teams with a strong interest in controlling the race.

Crash rate
Some are wondering if there are more crashes this year. I don’t think so, the bunch is as nervous as ever in the first week. The rate of abandons is slightly higher than average but we’ve had several stages in the rain but some crashes have just been freak accidents, take Chris Froome’s fall on Stage 4, it could have happened to anyone, any time but it took out the defending champion and Mark Cavendish has picked himself up from many a sprint before. One curiosity with the crashes is the loss of lieutenants:

  • Alberto Contador wont have Jesus Hernandez by his side
  • Tejay van Garderen’s lost Darwin Atapuma
  • Bauke Mollema loses Stef Clement
  • Team Sky lose Xavier Zandio
  • For Lotto-Belisol, a double loss as Jurgen Van Den Broeck loses Bart de Clercq and André Greipel loses Greg Henderson

Chris Froome’s exit is obviously the biggest change for the race. If he can ride a static bike with his wrist in plaster sooner than he could be back for the Vuelta; if not it’s a race against time. Judging by one video alone the mood isn’t too dark on the Sky bus.

Froome’s abandon means the chance of a lifetime for Richie Porte. We’ll see more about his fitness but the burden of leadership’s landed on him and how he copes with the weight will be fascinating. He’s said he wants team leadership and the plan was for the Giro, now it’s all very different, his experience of leading Paris-Nice last year will be invaluable. As for Froome, the latest is that he can resume training in two weeks but any more isn’t known.

If you’re superstitious note Froome tried on a prototype skinsuit for size with staff from Le Coq Sportif, the idea being to ensure if he was in yellow for the final time trial in Bergerac he’d have clothing that fitted perfectly. Tempting fate? Perhaps but so did Richie Porte, Vincenzo Nibali, Jacob Fuglsang, Tejay van Garderen and Alejandro Valverde. Alberto Contador declined, promising to check in again with the tailors later in the race.

Sagan in Green
Peter Sagan’s consistent run in the opening week means he leads the points competition and with such a large margin that second placed rider Bryan Coquard could win two stages while Sagan doesn’t score a single point and the Slovak would still be in green. Coquard though is continuing his challenge, contesting the intermediate sprints. It’s visible and being second to Sagan in your first Tour is a good result too. And if Sagan falls ill or crashes?

Commemoration
The race handled the war memorial aspect well. Tributes were made, events explained on television but it didn’t stop the festive aspect of the race, largely because the serious aspects were kept separate from the stage finishes.

Astana win the first week
Giant-Shimano have had a great week but have ended it with an injury for John Degenkolb and Marcel Kittel was dropped on the run into Reims. Whatever happens next they’ve won big so far. This weekend much of the world will look to this Sunday’s World Cup final but if you want to see a sports team in sky blue and white in control don’t look to Argentina but Kazakhstan’s Astana team instead. Vincenzo Nibali has lead the race since Stage 2 when his strong attack earned him the race lead and since then he’s only looked stronger. The cobbles saw him well protected by Lieuwe Westa and Jacob Fuglsang. They’ve still got all their riders and Nibali’s strong ride at the Italian championships was supported by Michele Scarponi who we should see in the mountains. It’s bound to intimidate other teams. It’s unlikely to trouble Alberto Contador but he’s got to attack. Monday’s true summit finish to the Planche des Belles Filles will be a very instructive finish because it’s the big test of climbing. And with it we’re likely to see timing comparisons and talk of wattages.

Vosges into the unknown
We have three stages in the Vosges mountains. Few riders have ridden these stages but these are probably the ones to check. The roads are irregular and at times have a wild feel whether climbing or descending. The race has gone out of its way to chose small roads to make the racing harder. Several times the riders will be on a climb, round a corner and find the gradient doubles. This can happen at any time in the Giro but but it’s unusual for the Tour where most mountain stages borrow the classic climbs.

Conclusion
One week in and there’s been plenty of suspense and drama already. Even the standard sprint stages have had their moments and while some might explore ways to make every stage more exciting I think we need to explore geography rather than artifice.

For now Vincenzo Nibali is in the perfect position with a lead on all his riders and his team is looking strong. His position is so luxurious that Astana probably want to give the yellow jersey away. As for the overall classification Monday’s stage will reveal be the first serious revelation. Even the rest day promises to be interesting with news due on the future of the NetApp-Endura and Giant-Shimano teams.

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