Dangerous routes, injuries and increasing heat have all played their part, but growing tension in the peloton can also be attributed to the lack of a clear patron — an authoritative rider such as Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain or Lance Armstrong.
In years past Armstrong’s leadership was undisputed, earning him the nickname “Le Boss.” But Armstrong circa 2010 is not the rider of a decade ago, and with a long list of GC contenders vying for the top spot, he no longer controls the front of the field as he once did.
In Armstrong’s three-year absence there was a conspicuous leadership vacuum in the bunch. Having Armstrong back, but without his old power, seems to leave riders unsure of what to do and where to look.
Having won the last four grand tours he’s started, Contador is unquestionably the most talented stage racer in the group. However, he is reserved and not generally seen as an authoritative leader.
Other GC riders also lack that special aura needed to rule the bunch. Andy Schleck is too young, Cadel Evans too eccentric, Denis Menchov too quiet, Ivan Basso too far removed after his suspension, and Carlos Sastre, though a former Tour champion, is too nice — and also is not considered a favorite at this race.
On occasion a sprinter can leave his stamp on the peloton; recent examples include Mario Cipollini, Robbie McEwen, and Tom Boonen. Even Mark Cavendish had a certain authority at last year’s Tour, which grew as he amassed each of his six stage wins. But the Manxman has been nowhere to be seen in the first two sprints, and his status in the peloton appears to have dropped following his role in the Tour of Switzerland field-sprint disaster.
In the absence of a GC rider or sprinter, Fabian Cancellara has emerged as the rider with the most pull in the pack. From winning the prologue to neutralizing stage 2 to dominating on the cobblestones on stage 3 to wearing the maillot jaune, the man nicknamed “Spartacus” — after the leader of a slave uprising against the Roman Republic — has assumed the role.
That was never more evident than on stage 2, when 60 riders crashed on the Stockeu, and Cancellara first neutralized the peloton and then struck a deal with the chief official to nullify the points on the finish line. Thor Hushovd had the most to win that day, yet he stopped his Cervélo team from sprinting in Spa. Later Hushovd’s comments spoke volumes about Cancellara’s influence.
“I don’t agree with the decision, but Fabian made the call to stop the stage,” Hushovd said. “And I don’t want to make a hundred enemies in the peloton.”
Even Armstrong said it was Cancellara, not him, that had initiated the “gentlemen’s agreement.” VeloNews asked Cancellara after Wednesday’s stage if his actions in the Tour thus far have made him the de facto patron of the peloton.
“Ah, patron. … I’m always trying to find a balance, in life and in cycling,” Cancellara said. “You can never make everyone happy all the time, but at least I’m trying to do something. There’s been a lot of things going on, a lot of talk, but at the end of the day, you can’t make everyone happy, and everyone has to decide on their own if it’s right or not.”
What is evident is that more and more riders are finding themselves unhappy at this Tour, and once Cancellara’s reign in yellow comes to a close, in the mountains if not sooner, the pack will look for leadership elsewhere. Without it, there could be more helmets thrown, more punches thrown, and more apologies demanded.
VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood contributed to this report.