Stage 5 of the Tour de France from Gap to Privas was remarkable because nothing happened. The riders reached the KM0 point, race director Christian Prudhomme waved his flag but nobody attacked. It was down to some particular circumstances so some notes on this…
This was always going to be a sprint stage but there were still four reasons to attack. First because occasionally the breakaway makes it, not often at all – and we’ll explore this in a minute – but it happens, see Damiano Cima’s stage in the Giro last year, he just held off the sprinters. Second because of the publicity aspect, the “commercial break” and a chance to show the jersey on TV, how much this is worth is debatable a sponsor can just buy TV ads for a fraction of the cost of having a team but culturally it’s part of the sport. Third because the smaller teams are invited to the Tour de France with the implicit expectation they’ll provide “animation”. Finally the joy of racing, to have a day in front.
Now onto the reasons why not to attack. Yes a breakaway can make it but in the first week of the Tour de France it’s statistically possible but only just, and comparisons with past years are difficult because once upon a time the escapees could reasonably expect to build up a ten minute lead, maybe more. Today as soon as it gets to four minutes a team gets on the front and matches them, it’s better risk management from the sprinters teams.
There were specific reasons on the day too. The weather played its part, there was a headwind and who wants to ride into a headwind? It was also a downhill start, harder still to escape. There was also an intermediate sprint at 47km so the risk that the sprinters’ teams tried to lock down the race. This year’s route with the early Alpine stages means Benoît Cosnefroy leads the mountains competition, nobody could go and collect a couple of points and find themselves in polka dots.
As mentioned already, the ProTeams with “wildcard” invitations are expected to attack but things are different this year. Arkéa-Samsic are all in for Nairo Quintana so nobody’s wasting energy in a fruitless move. B&B Hotels have Bryan Coquard for the sprints and the team had reconned this stage with its uphill finish and they liked Le Coq’s chances, so they weren’t going to send anyone up the road. Total Direct Energie have Niccolò Bonifazio for the sprints and riders working to support him in the finish and maybe could have sent someone up the road but Jérôme Cousin and Mathieu Burgaudeau had gone up the road the two previous days, Lilian Calmejane’s not feeling great and Romain Sicard’s better in the mountains. Other riders across the peloton are are nursing wounds from crashes on the opening day. So it meant few candidates to attack.
Given these tactical considerations it might happen again in the coming days too, maybe tomorrow even. But the B&B Hotels team will be wary, they’ve been invited to the race and may not get the call next year if they don’t attack. Whether it’s worthwhile is debatable, if they’re certain to be reeled in then why try? Because it allows TV to pan back and forth, the time gap can be analysed and it looks like a race rather than a procession.
So when to attack, what chance has a breakaway got? Stage 19 of the 2017 Tour de France is the last chance a breakaway succeeded on a flat stage. Glance at the day’s profile above and it looked like a sprint stage but it was late in the race and half the teams in that year’s Tour de France hadn’t won a stage so we got a very strong move going clear that day and Edvald Boasson Hagen won. In 2012 Pierrick Fédrigo won a stage that could have gone to the sprinters but that was also late in the race. In 2009 Thomas Voeckler won a stage suited to the sprinters and in the first week too. Put simply an attack from KM0 on a flat stage in the opening week of the Tour de France is doomed but there are options in the third week.
KM0 and normally someone attacks, usually from one of the smaller teams. This time a mix of factors from the weather to team tactics meant nobody moved this time, not one person even tried. It’s rare but also entirely rational, why go in a forlorn move? Maybe to justify the invitation, to return the favour and provide a show but to go in the first week is to draw the short straw.