As riders enjoy the sea breeze on their rest day some might be nervous if it blows tomorrow. It’s been a lively opening week to the race with the weather a dominant factor and despite both the Alps and the Pyrenees in the opening week there’s little to separate the main contenders.
It hadn’t rained for months, it hasn’t rained since but it poured down during the afternoon for the opening stage in Nice. Hosting the Tour felt like inviting friends round for a BBQ, a surefire way to make it rain. The roads turned slippery and many, perhaps most, riders crashed. The injuries varied but the weather that day, that afternoon even, has had a significant impact on the race.
It’s been a frantic week, yes there was a day when nobody attacked but that was down to a particular combination of circumstances. The Tour de France is a long term contest, apart from the Giro and Vuelta there’s nothing like it across all sports, an “easy day” without attacks is still 180km ridden at 43km/h.
There’s no leading sprinter yet. Wout van Aert has two stage wins but each sprint finish has had its own particularities, the riders falling like skittles on the opening day, Caleb Ewan’s pinball wizardry in Sisteron and van Aert getting the green light to sprint in Privas and then being in the front group in Lavaur. We’ve yet to get a a clear flat sprint. If he was on another team van Aert would probably be leading the green jersey contest but for now it’s a battle between Peter Sagan and Sam Bennett with room for Bryan Coquard and Matteo Trentin and the race is all the better for it. The upcoming week will be crucial as it’s a mix of sprint stages and mid-mountains.
The mountains competition has spiced up the race but it’s more pepper than chilli so far. Benoît Cosnefroy showing his punch on the shorter climbs looks to be keeping the jersey warm for others. Team mate Nans Peters could take over and Marc Hirschi could try another raid and collect it along the way, while David Gaudu was spotted sprinting for points yesterday. But whoever wins atop the Col de la Loze wins 40 points, more than Cosnefroy has harvested in more than a week.
As for the overall classification, so far the contest is being defined by the rulebook rather than the road. Time bonuses and time maluses, to coin a phrase, are shaping the race, Alaphilippe took the race lead only to lose it because he took a bottle too late in the stage while Primož Roglič leads overall by 21 seconds because he’s taken 21 seconds on Egan Bernal in time bonuses, they’ve not actually been separated through racing yet. But if Roglič can sprint, can he handle the marathon? The repeated efforts of responding to moves, jumping for time bonuses are going to sap him and there’s two weeks to go. The pre-race preview made one suggestion that he need “only” needed to follow Egan Bernal et al because he’s capable of pipping them to the finish line for time bonuses plus he’s likely to beat his rivals in the Stage 20 time trial. But it’s a risky strategy.
Jumbo-Visma have been content to let Julian Alaphilippe and Adam Yates lead the race to spare Roglič from the daily media round yet at times it often looks like they can’t stop themselves from riding on the front. Tactically in the mountain stages they’ve been racing like they’re leading the race, deploying their train. But they’re not asphyxiating the race, they even used up Tom Dumoulin as a helper on the Peyresourde and Roglič was left to fend for himself. We’ve seen it before, the Dutch team ran out of steam in the Tour de l’Ain and the Critérium du Dauphiné. Only, to borrow from Sartre who wrote “l’enfer, c’est les autres“, things are more hellish for Roglič now because he’s got a lot of other contenders to worry about. Last month he had to watch out for Buchmann and Pinot but they’ve gone because of crash injuries. In comes Tadej Pogačar, Egan Bernal, Romain Bardet, Guillaume Martin, Mikel Landa, Nairo Quintana, Miguel Angel Lopez, Rigoberto Uràn and maybe Richie Porte.
We’re beginning to see a hierarchy but only the outlines of one. Extrapolate from Peyresourde and Quintana, Martin and Bardet are in the company of Roglič, Pogačar and Bernal as the best; extrapolate from the Marie Blanque and they’re not. Which leaves Roglič as the race leader and so far the best but only just, his lead amplified by sprint for time bonuses rather than distancing his rivals, Pogačar and Bernal will both fancy their chances but for different reasons: Pogačar seems to be able to attack when he feels like it; Bernal because he’s being attacked but soaking up the blows while not ceding a metre despite a relatively weak team. Neither Jumbo-Visma nor Ineos can control the race so the door is wide open for others. Landa will fancy his chances after a comforting ride yesterday, Quintana’s there and is suited to the Alpine stages ahead while Uràn is front group material too
A quick Coronavirus paragraph, knowing next to nothing on epidemiology it’s been something to avoid but it’s the email FAQ of the last 10 days and this blog can add context from politics in France, and look at what the Tour’s rulebook says. This viral sword of Damocles hangs over teams with the “two strikes and out” policy but one risk being mitigated is that of a false positive, according to RMC Radio riders will be tested once and if positive they’ll be subject to two more tests, this is why the tests are being conducted from Sunday to Monday and then the announcement, if it hasn’t leaked tonight, comes out on Tuesday. There are many “will the race make it to Paris?” pieces fuelled by the rising case count in France but most seem to have missed the local context. The authorities in France are committed to supporting the Tour de France and several government ministers, including the Prime Minister Jean Castex during his visit to the race on Saturday, have poured political capital into ensuring the race both starts and finishes so it’s going to take something special to derail things (for the avoidance of doubt and because restating the obvious can help online: the Tour is important but not that important, they’re not going to sacrifice the population for this). There’s a political will to pull out whatever stops are needed and the authorities will more measures if necessary, for example banning spectators, testing the peloton more often and so on. The tone, from the Prime Minister down, is about trying to shepherd the Tour to Paris, rather than seeing it as a stubborn annoyance or a public health risk. Also the race’s rulebook says there have to be 21 stages to award the overall title for the Tour de France, all the talk about racing to take the lead just in case things grind to halt the next day is supposition. Now exceptional circumstances could see this waived or rewritten but as of today the text is black-and-white and Exhibit A in why teams should plan on reaching Paris.
Paris is still far away. Looking ahead to the coming days, we’ve got two likely sprint finishes, first on the Ile de Ré and then in Poitiers, a city which is surprisingly hilly. Thursday’s long stage a hard day with a lot of climbing metres and a surprising tough late climb, the Suc-au-May, and Friday is a mouthwatering mid-mountain stage volcanoes of the Auvergne with a lot of vertical gain and a selective summit finish. Saturday sees the race visit Lyon and then it’s the Grand Colombier on Sunday, the first giant summit finish of the Tour. And the weather? Two more weeks of summer.