Hard As Nails

Rabobank Tour de France

Today’s stage of the Tour de France saw a clever win by Luis Leon Sanchez who attacked Peter Sagan just as the Slovak was riding one handed to eat some energy food. Behind the bunch took it steady on the Mur de Péguère, the steep slopes didn’t incite attacks. Instead the drama came from a section of road that was littered with nails, provoking a wave of punctures. This enlivened the racing but it was not good television. Instead of attacks, we got tacks.

The event has made the TV news bulletins in France. This isn’t the first time it has happened in the race. A century ago nails were almost part of a rider’s tactical arsenal and their appearance on the route of the Tour led to fundamental changes in the race.

In 1905 Réné Pottier was leading the Tour de France. He was declared roi de la montagne on the Ballon d’Alsace climb in the Alsace region, the first big mountain ever climbed by the race. But later in the stage a spectator had thrown nails onto the road and Pottier lost a lot of time, having to wait for his team mate Hippolyte Aucouturier to give him a spare. Pottier later crashed out of the race. Yet he returned in 1906 to win the race although the triumph was brief as he discovered his wife had an affair during his absence and hanged himself. Perhaps the original fragile climber there is a memorial to his achievement on top of the Grand Ballon climb.

RIP René

The 1906 Tour de France was plagued by a series of incidents where spectators threw nails onto the road and only 14 riders finished the race. Labelled les semeurs de clous or “nail sowers”, they caused polemic in the newspapers of the day. It is not known whether the spectators were neutral or acting in support of particular riders and teams. The incidents caused great frustration to the race organisers, so much so that the following year riders were allowed to have a following car.

This change in the rules altered the sport forever. No longer were the riders self-sufficient but instead they could count on outside help. But it was far removed from today’s race convoy with two cars carry spare bikes and wheels per team and additional neutral assistance. Instead a century ago only a few vehicles followed and riders were split into two categories, coureurs de vitesse and coureurs sur machines poinçonnées. The vitesse racers were able to swap bikes and wheels in case of mechanical incident, whilst machines poinçonnées was a bike that had been stamped before the start and the organisers would check the bike at the finish to ensure it had not been swapped. Nevertheless, it marked a change. See mountain bike races today where riders still carry spares but in road cycling riders have full back up.

Modern examples
As we say today the back-up is not ideal. Cadel Evans punctured but the narrow road meant his team car was a long way down the mountain, stuck behind the dropped riders. It’s not the first time in recent memory this has happened. When the Tour of Flanders route was changed for this year, angry locals from Geraardsbergen threatened revenge with calls to spoil the race that now bypassed their town. In 2011 the controversial Giro di Padania – a race organised by separatist Italians – saw nails on the road too.

The motivation behind today’s destruction is not known but this is not a prank. The value of damage done to tubs and the cost of repairs this evening alone is substantial and this is before we know whether Astana’s Robert Kiserlovski crashed as a result of a flat. As the video clip from FDJ-BigMat below shows you can see the cause of the puncture in Thibaut Pinot’s wheel. Pinot had to take team mate Pierrick Fédrigo’s bike in order to finish the stage.

Can they catch the culprit? It should not be too hard given the crowds. It happened between the passage of the lead breakaway and the bunch and perhaps people up there spotted someone scattering the nails. With over 30 punctures reported, we can assume several handfuls were scattered and even if someone was using the old “hollow pocket” trick to drop them down their trouser leg onto the road it could not have gone unnoticed, especially given the amount of phones and cameras around. Some reports suggest there were two sections of road covered with the tacks.

The race was neutralised by Team Sky. There’s an unwritten rule that if someone suffers a misfortune and the racing is not going full speed then people will sit up to let the dropped rider return from their mechanical or crash. It’s subjective but in this case the riders were not racing hard and so there was every reason to sit up. By contrast when Jurgen Van den Broeck dropped his chain on the stage the Plateau des Belles Filles the other day Sky were already committed to driving the race so this was unfortunate for the Belgian but no reason for the others to wait.

Rolland took off on the descent and seemed to want to profit from this moment but he was not aware Evans being in trouble. He told French TV he had not heard about the problems behind and was annoyed to find journalists grilling him at the finish. We should give him the benefit of the doubt for now because remember the team cars were a long way back. The climb was so narrow that the cars were stuck behind the dropped riders – the same reason it took so long to get help to Evans – and so team managers did not know what was happening for some time, yet alone broadcast it over the race radio.

  • Pech en slapstick: having said it was not good TV, there was one amusing moment, watch as team manager Jim Ochowitz slips twice in the ditch.

45 thoughts on “Hard As Nails”

  1. Admittedly not a Wiggins fan, I have to say that was pure class today to let Evans come back.
    He demonstrated the Anglo sense of fair play in exemplary fashion.
    Chapeau to him and to Team Sky.

  2. Another good piece Mr Ring – don’t know how you do it!

    On the Wiggins call, I’m not sure he had much choice to be honest – and of course it was always in his interest to neutralize the stage. But he’s an admirable figure and increasingly wears the jersey very well – for that, chapeau.

    I’ve only ridden down the Peguere and will never forget it – steep, rough and very dark with the overhanging trees. Well done to Christian Prudhomme for including it.

  3. An angry poster on The Guardian blog was saying that in Il Giro, such narrow roads as we saw today would mean team motorbikes instead of team cars – thus Evans would’ve been repaired much more quickly, because the motorbikes can pass more quickly.
    Can anyone confirm if this is true? If so, it’s a good lesson for Prudhomme and his organisation.

    • Not quite. Only on the wildest of slopes does the Giro deploy moto-mechanics but today’s route only got narrow and steep for 3km. Teams worried could post helpers with wheels if they wanted; potentially against the rules but a fine is better than a time loss.

      • Teams had helpers handing up bottles at the top, with hindsight it would have been a good idea to arm them with some spare wheels, even without the tacks.

  4. The climb you refer to that was used during the 1905 TdF was the Ballon d’Alsace, not the Grand Ballon, despite the similar names they are actually different mountains, both in the Vosges.

    • I think Cadel might be alluding to stage 13 of the 2009 Vuelta, when he lost 1m12 to a puncture as Valverde attacking him as he waited for a spare. Wasn’t aware it was tacks, reports talked about the tyre popping 200m from the summit.

  5. I sincerely hope they catch and punish the culprits because as Desoeuvre points out at the end of the interview, a tack lodged in a tyre could have caused a bad fall on the descent.

  6. I’m just waiting to see how Wiggo will be criticized or blamed for this. Probably something along the lines of he was way to scared of attacks and he neutralized not for Cadel, but for himself. Of course, this would be followed by something like “Froome would have attacked”.

    • Wiggins is a true gentleman of the sport and Cadel would have been honoured by his gesture just as he is likewise

      There seems to be IDIOTS all over the world I wonder who Breeds them

  7. So Christian Prudhomme has sought exciting new locations and look at the result. I guess not everybody is a fan of the race. It may be a long time before the Tour returns to these roads.

    Well done to Team Sky for their sportsmanship.

  8. Idiots, do idiotic things regardless of were we all live we have too many of them amongst us!

    Barking owl, I think that is fine racing new roads and new climbs.
    The sense of breaking new ground in unknown territory, adds new dimensions to the stages. A team director’s lack of recon. will make for opportunities for others.

    I did find it interesting that if you view the video you will see TeeJay glance’s back at Evans as Evans shouts at him just as he has flatted! Don’t know when TeeJay, slowed to drop back to bridge Evans back to the main group TeeJay seemed to stay with the Wiggins group . Did TeeJay stay with the peloton to protect the interest of BMC, and just not realize the severity of the puncture incidents? Thinking Cadel would be right back on in a few seconds as normally would be the case.

    Might we see some distillation of the leadership at BMC. has BMC won a stage, will they finish on the podium, or might the white jersey be the only spoils taken by BMC during this TDF?

    Any care to guess?

    • TeeJay said after the race that he thought there were other teammates right behind him to help Evans, and that he should have waited.

      • I do like TJ, so I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Plus, when they talked to him post race, he seemed really upset. So either he knew he messed up and felt bad about it, or he was dressed down by Cadel and management in the bus after. Of course they talked to George too and he sounded high, so who knows.

        For Rolland, I don’t care what he says, he knew that Sky was neutralizing. How does one guy in a group of more than ten not get the message? And even if he doesn’t, how does someone in his team car not tell him no allez.

        Finally, I really like what Sky did. I feel that if it is mono e mono like Berto and Andy, or just a few guys, like with Cadel last year, then keep attacking. That sort of thing is just bad luck happening at a bad time. But, if all of the leaders go over the top of the climb together and one dude flats, then I think it is the sporting thing to do to wait. Also, when the flat is due to some hooligan, you should wait. Chain gate was all Andy’s fault. Tack gate was not Cadel’s fault.

  9. I’m less inclined to give Rolland the benefit of the doubt. For one, it seemed as though the race had been neutralized for a minute or two before he went off the front – plenty of time to get the message in the same way Nibali, et al did. Also, the look and gestures Wiggins and his team made when they saw Rolland go seemed to say “we told the guy we were neutralizing – what is he doing?”. Last, even if it was not conveyed explicitly to him, the Wiggins group was freewheeling down the descent. Even when a group is going slow down a descent, they rarely just coast – Rolland should have known something was up.

    Seemed more like he was either intentionally taking advantage of a situation or else being “willfully ignorant” of the circumstances so that he could have plausible deniability should he be called on it.

    • Pierre Rolland is in the tour riding for Team Europcar, not for Team Sky. He doesn’t have to listen to what they say and he doesn’t have to go along with what they decide. He may or may not have known that Evans was having troubles. He may only have seen that Sky was lollygagging and decided to take advantage of it and (finally) attack. After all, he only has to pay attention to what his Directeur Sportif tells him and from the way he was sitting up and freewheeling when the Liquigas/Lotto Belisol boys caught up with him, he got the message to back down when his team car got to the top.
      Mr. Inner Ring once again deserves accolades for his reporting.

      • Thank you for confirming my point – that he did know there was a detante and chose to ignore it/doesn’t have to respect what Sky wants/only has to listen to his DS.

  10. all this talk about implementing “no radio communication” on races… seems to me, if this had been implemented in this year’s TdF, then would Rolland still be questioned for his move? or could we have witnessed a major shuffling as a result of it?

  11. This seems to be getting to be more “honourable” as the hours pass. Sean Yates said after the finish that Sky could not get any benefit by attacking and therefore decided to try and neutralize the race. That, to me, says it would have been a whole different scenario if Evans (or if Nibali etc had been in Evans situation) was still on 10 secs deficit or even running 2nd at less than a minute, Sky would have attacked and Sean Yates would have very forcibly instructed them to. I am glad they waited but it did play beautifully into Sky’s hand.

  12. When are all the teams going to start having their own motorbikes kitted out with spares and drinks and food
    seems to me to be a much more efficient system giving the roads now being used
    I remember a few years back Bjarne carrying a bike over his shoulder on the back of a motorbike

  13. Re Rolland
    Anyone know what the commentators were alluding to when saying Europcar are already very unpopular in the peleton, anyone know why? Is it the normal ‘Hollywood’ Voeckler dislike?
    Also, my missus mentioned a journalist in L’Equipe is convinced Europcar are dirty, anyone shed any light?

  14. to be fair, L’Equipe reckons everyone is dirty & they frequently allude to that in articles, particularly around Tour de France time…………

    Europcar unpopular….. ?
    Voeckler is a *showboat* type, similar to Virenque, all grimace, grin, no grinta..

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