Not many years ago the opening week of the Tour de France was something for followers to get through as the race crossed the plains of northern France with little else than repeat sprint finishes. This year it’s a been an endurance test for TV viewers sometimes but also a gruelling variety event for the contenders with crashes, cobbles and stress. The race has resembled the old board game of Snakes and Ladders. A roll of the dice here and a rider crashes; a roll there and they regain time in another stage.
So it was with the likes of Chris Froome and Richie Porte losing 51 seconds on the opening stage only to regain a similar amount in the team time trial on their principal rivals with BMC Racing winning the stage just ahead of Team Sky. Meanwhile Tom Dumoulin didn’t fall on Stage 1 and had a good time trial but shredded his spokes in the finish of Stage 6 and lost 50 seconds on the final climb at Mûr-de-Bretagne, taking Romain Bardet with him. Rigoberto Urán hadn’t put a foot wrong all week, including a surprisingly good time trial for EF Education First-Drapac, only to lose almost a minute and a half on the road to Roubaix. The winner of the first week among the GC contenders is Geraint Thomas who hasn’t just passively stayed away from trouble but has actively taken time bonuses. He is the obvious contender to take the yellow jersey after tomorrow’s Alpine stage. So far so good but ask Simon Yates about taking the race lead early, Thomas and Team Sky could have a small lead and a big burden to shoulder.
Nairo Quintana and Urán have fared the worst, almost three minutes down on GC but that’s behind Greg van Avermaet. Their glass-half-full scenario is they’re little more than a minute adrift of the likes of Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali et al. Here’s the GC standings of the main contenders relative to Geraint Thomas:
If Quintana’s fared badly Movistar are in a great position with Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Landa, the latter on the same time as Froome and Yates after the Roubaix stage. He crashed and interestingly Movistar dispatched riders back to help, they limited the losses until Romain Bardet’s third puncture saw the Frenchman caught by Landa group which included Oliver Naesen and the Belgian joined in the work and closed the gap, “saving” Landa’s day. Snakes and ladders again.
For all the arithmetic of gains and losses there’s also the things we don’t know, such as the extent of injuries and fatigue which can sometimes compound, a niggle turns into a pain; or sleep is lest restful and a rider starts to feel stale. Landa may have got up but is he injured or as a fresh as a glass of Txakoli? Ditto all the others who have crashed during the opening week. There’s also the story of what didn’t happen. Those with ambitions for the overall classification didn’t take time on their rivals, for example the likes of Tom Dumoulin have an advantage on the flatter roads but couldn’t exploit them. Vincenzo Nibali has been very alert all week but not able to profit. So up to them to make moves in the coming days.
Away from the results Movistar have a blow in losing J-J Rojas to a crash yesterday, it means the imbalance of three leaders with four helpers. Things are harder still at Ag2r La Mondiale where Axel Domont crashed out on Stage 4 and then yesterday a spectator stepped into the road to take a photo and Alexis Vuillermoz rode into him, fracturing his shoulder blade à la Craddock
and at pixel time he’s in the race he’s out of the race. Sky’s Egan Bernal reportedly has broken fingers after slamming into a BMC team car yesterday, if he continues then holding the bars and braking is going to be very difficult. Katusha are down to six riders too.
Richie Porte was done before he was dusted, a crash 10km into the stage had him clutching his elbow in that tell-tale sign of cracked collarbone. The bedevilled Tasmanian crashes out of the Tour on the second Sunday for the second year in a row. It brings to mind the quip of Napoleon who said he didn’t want a good general, he wanted a lucky one. Certainly this is sheer rotten luck, a random crash early in the stage, compounded by falling and landing awkwardly enough to fracture his collarbone. The prognosis is good, he’ll be back on the bike soon and perhaps aim for the Vuelta but this could depend on team politics: with Porte set to leave BMC Racing management may not want him but on balance he’s likely to ride. It leaves the BMC team orphaned for the next two weeks and the silver lining of losing a main contender is that the likes of Damiano Caruso and Tejay van Garderen are liberated to go for mountain raids and stage wins rather than playing sherpa for Porte and so the race will become more lively as a team that had planned to control the race will now be hatching plans to disrupt it.
Reviewing the opening week it was dominated by Fernando Gaviria, Peter Sagan and Dylan Groenewegen. Gaviria achieved the rare feat of being a Tour debutant who wins and takes the yellow jersey but given his performances in the Giro last year he’s hardly the upstart. Gaviria’s second in the points competition but his headbut, perhaps defensive, on André Greipel has cost him points. It’s hard to see how he can better Sagan, the Slovak has the experience and confidence to stay in green. Groenewegen’s two stage wins adds to the story of a new generation taking over the sprints but the old guard may still have their say, they know how to get over the mountains but there are few opportunities left, just one likely sprint finish between now and the next rest day and so what chance some sprinters head for the exit soon?
Siesta: yes the opening week was boring if you watched it all live on TV but it’s part of the sport to the point where French newspapers even publish siesta guides so you know when to tune in. The calm, warm weather didn’t help the viewing figures but a sprint stage is just that. Yoann Offredo was right to ask why others didn’t want to get in the breakaway but there’s simply too much horsepower waiting to chase. It’s not rational to escape, it costs energy and returns little. Although if the wildcard invites don’t do it then ASO will invite others who will next year. The secret for viewers is to tune in for the finish.
Smaller teams: we’ll see if the smaller team sizes makes a difference, in the Giro one hypothesis was that teams feared letting any move get much of a lead for fear of running out of riders to chase later on once the move had a big lead, and thus the breakaways struggled to go clear meaning some of the mountain stages were frantic from start to finish and one result was that several riders cracked at the end, a scenario to reflect on with the Pyrenees. The main reason for the change is making the racing harder to control. Yes there are safety considerations but even if there were teams of four the Tour would be hectic given the front of the bunch is prime real estate and everyone has to hustle to get there and bustle to stay there. Any safety benefits are at the margin, a smaller bunch means an arithmetically reduced chance of crashes, of fewer riders falling and also because it makes the bunch smaller and so easier to overtake for the police motorbikes.
Team Dege: a thrilling stage on Sunday with a pleasing result. As John Degenkolb, Greg Van Avermaet and Yves Lampaert rode into Roubaix all three would have made satisfying winners. Van Avermaet in yellow could cap off a dream week and Lampaert the Quickstepper in his Belgian champion’s jersey as the Flandrien icon. But Degenkolb’s win brings more cheer. It’s not a comeback from zero, after all he’s had wins since the horrific training accident and was third in the sprint on Saturday, but all the same a return to the highest level. So to take the Roubaix stage win was a prestigious return. It showed too, an outpouring of tears and joy.
No racing but a busy day. There will be the usual team press conferences, expect a few “taking it day by day” and “glad to have got through the first week” quotes which are sincere but worth reporting on? Hopefully some bigger announcements await, perhaps the deal to save the BMC team is announced and Trek-Segafredo unveil plans for their women’s team on the eve of La Course? Many riders need the day to recover from yesterday and it’s a busy time for rider agents and team managers as rosters get built for next year, many of the key riders have signed, now come the lieutenants and helpers.
What a difference a day makes. One moment the race is on the dusty farm tracks of northern France, the next it’s encamped around the opal waters of Lake Annecy with the Alpine peaks in view. There’s little to go on for the state of the GC contenders, the small time losses for Froome and Urán at the Mûr-de-Bretagne are notable but easily countered by the sight of them taking long turns during the team time trial.
Looking at the contenders nobody stands out. Thomas leads on time but there’s still the question of consistency across the three weeks leaving Froome and Nibali looking like the experienced choices. Landa is only an attack away from taking the race lead too while the likes of Majka, Fuglsang and Yates sit high on GC but don’t bring many guarantees. We’re only one third of the way around the board.
|Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali|
|Mikel Landa, Geraint Thomas, Alejandro Valverde|
|Adam Yates, Jacob Fuglsang, Romain Bardet, Nairo Quintana|
|Roglič, Majka, Urán|