Once again, the nerves of the first week of the Tour de France struck the peloton, doing little to change the leaderboard but ending the chances for several GC hopefuls. Crashes are common, and it’s incredible what the riders endure. Unless they’re getting loaded into an ambulance, most cyclists drag themselves to the finish line, grimacing in pain, sometimes only able to hold the handlebar with one hand. It doesn’t end there, either. Assuming they can sleep through the pain of the bed linens against their road rash, they have to climb stiffly back on the bike the next morning and crank out another 200 km or so.
Not only will a crash result in injury, but a pile-up causes delays. It’s pretty remarkable to see: a huge stream of color moving smoothly down the road suddenly cleaved in half. The front half nevers breaks pace, and the cyclists have to pick themselves and their bikes out of the wreckage. Unless the “maillot jaune”, the race leader, is involved in the crash, race etiquette allows any riders ahead of the crash to continue down the road, gaining a valuable advantage. Sometimes, they’ll even whip up the pace to build the lead. The riders involved in or behind the crash must then spend extra energy to rejoin the leaders, but first they must wait for the debris to clear, sometimes changing tires or even bikes, before racing to catch those lucky (or crafty) enough to be in front of the crash. In today’s stage, many riders picked up their bikes and ran through the grass on the side of the road to get past the fallen cyclists and resume racing.
The Garmin-Slipstream climbers suffered the biggest losses, primarily Christian Van de Velde and Tom Danielson, who finished 17th and 9th in last year’s edition, losing 2:08 and 9:11 respectively. Presumed team leader Ryder Hesjedal caught up with the leaders after sustaining a tire puncture late in the stage. Astana’s Janez Brajkovic and Alexandre Vinokourov also hit the deck. Jani got patched up by the doctor in the medical car while riding next to it and finished with the leaders, while Vino lost just under a minute.
For some, it was a very successful day in the saddle. As in previous days, a breakaway formed early, and 5 riders headed up the road. For the third day in a row, Team Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank’s Michael Morkov was a part of the breakaway, another ideal opportunity to gain King of the Mountain points and improve his hold on the polka dot jersey. The sprinters raced for points in the green jersey competition at various points on the course, Mark Cavendish once again looking strong and foxy.
One rider happy to avoid a crash today was Johnny Hoogerland, who was part of a breakaway in the 2011 tour when a French TV crew’s car hit him and Juan Antonio Flecha, sending Hoogerland into a barbed wire fence. He earned the KOM jersey that day and heroically survived the entire race into Paris. He still sports the scars from that fence on his legs.
Today’s break was unlikely to survive with 3 moderate climbs in the last 16 km. The riders in the break evenutally launched individual attacks, which failed to deliver a solo breakaway and served to weaken their effort. The peloton, driven at the front once again by RadioShack-Nissan’s ironmen Jens Voight and Yaroslav Popovych with assistance from the BMC riders, absorbed the riders from the break. As he had in Stage 1, Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel attacked in an attempt to make a solo bid for the stage win. This time, he misjudged a corner and lost his advantage. It was strange to see Ivan Basso, a former Giro d’Italia champion who once finished on the podium of the Tour de France, lead the peloton up the penultimate climb as a domestique, working for teammate Peter Sagan.
Mastering the small climbs and technical turns as he had two days ago, Sagan took the stage win. And again, he did a bizarre little dance on his bike as he crossed the line. What ever happened to a simple fist pump? He explained that this new move was a tribute to Forrest Gump…apparently, his teammates told him to “just run”. I guess it makes more sense than the victory chicken dance moves from Stage 1.
For the GC contenders, the trick in the first week is to avoid crashes and stay upright. Their domestiques, or support riders, are working hard to keep them safe. This will be the plan for the next few days. And Fabian Cancellara and RadioShack-Nissan will fight to keep the yellow jersey. Barring any surprises, they should be able to do so until the final climb of Stage 7, which is 6 km long and averages a 7% grade. It is likely too much to ask Cancellera to keep pace with the climbers, one of whom may claim the race lead. For the next few days, however, it’s an opportunity for the sprinters.
Melanie Friedlander is a contributor to Steel City Blitz and spends the NFL offseason following professional cycling. You can follow her on Twitter www.twitter.com/girlsurgeon.