Let’s limit this to one Tour de France highlight. It’s a tough pick, do we celebrate Tony Martin’s enormous ride across the Vosges? Celebrate Ag2r’s joy as the team stood below the podium in the pouring rain while Blel Kadri took the applause for his stage win? What about the French pride at two riders on the podium, the way the sport was reaching people like it used to? Or those huge crowds in Yorkshire and London?
The highlight was the stage to Wallers-Arenberg, 155km and several cobbled sections.
It hasn’t rained for years in Paris-Roubaix. You wouldn’t wish the grim conditions on an enemy yet at the same we have to have a rainy Roubaix once every generation for the sake of the challenge. Only this year’s cobbled classic didn’t deliver and ironically we waited for a rare visit by the Tour de France to the cobbles and in July too.
In fact it was raining so much that some of the cobbled sectors had to be abandoned. The late changes only added to the drama.
Chris Froome did crash out but he was really the victim of the previous day’s crash. We hindsight we know he’d broken bones so starting the cobbled stage was only going to end in a premature exit. He fell before the cobbles started. Others had been expressing reservations about the cobbles but this would only had Christian Prudhomme and his team cackling. Fear has long been part of the Tour de France’s aura whether myths of marauding bears in the high mountains a century ago or sending 190 riders down a cobbled track in 2014. The more riders went public with worry, the more people planned to day the day off to watch the stage. In the end nobody abandoned on the day.
What we got was vintage racing. The Tour didn’t use the fiercest pavé but it was enough to split the field and make the GC contenders nervous. Jurgen Van den Broeck crashed (pictured) but recovered and for all the slipping and sliding there were no big injuries. Further back Bjarne Riis said Alberto Contador had problems with his gears but the Spaniard looked uncomfortable on the corners and lost time. Alejandro Valverde lost time too, at one point the entire Movistar team was pacing him back.
But enough of the losers. Lars Boom’s stage win was almost forgotten. The Dutchman showed his power and perhaps he’s more suited to sharper, more intense efforts than a 250km classic? Up to him to disprove it next year. It was a convincing performance by Boom but not quite a team effort as Bauke Mollema suffered that day, the team’s hunt for a sponsor suggested it was every man for himself.
What made some forget Boom’s performance? Astana’s riding was so strong that Vincenzo Nibali extended his lead in the yellow jersey, performing better than the likes of Niki Terstra and Fabian Cancellara. The Danish media were wondering whether Jakob Fuglsang could finish on the podium as on the GC he was two seconds down on Nibali with the closest challenge Jurgen Van den Broeck at 1.45.
Why the highlight?
Paris-Roubaix is a great race but this was more. It had more action, the cobbles were wet and there were several stories in one episode: the fight for the stage win, the overall contenders out of their comfort zone and in Froome’s case literally out.
Better still this was a special stage. The Tour hadn’t used the pavé for a long time so the race’s return risked falling prey to the hype with the reality not meeting expectations. But it delivered. The race won’t return to the cobbles for a few years either so you had to enjoy this race or risk waiting a long time again.