NUITS-SAINT-GEORGES, France (VN) — What a year to broadcast the Tour de France live on TV, start-to-finish every day.
Just when cycling started to embrace the idea that short is the new long, the 2017 Tour is going old-school in its first week.
“It’s all part of racing for three weeks in a grand tour,” said Orica-Scott’s Mathew Hayman. “I understand the fans, being on the other side, waiting for something to happen. These are long days for everyone.”
The most exciting thing about Thursday’s 216km stage 6? A parasol blowing onto the roadway. In Tuesday’s 207.5km stage 4, before the finish-line crash involving Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish, the day’s major thrill involved one rider — Wanty Groupe’s Guillaume Van Keirsbulck — in an all-day solo breakaway.
That’s not to say the action at the pointy ends of the stages hasn’t been gripping. Marcel Kittel’s won in a photo-finish Friday against Edvald Boasson Hagen. It’s just the proceeding four to five hours have initiated siesta mode.
“The final is always exciting no matter how long it is,” said Dimension Data’s Steve Cummings. “It’s five to six hours out there on the bike, and it makes for a long day. If you do 50km less, it’s the same result, and maybe a bit more punchier.”
So do these long transition stages still belong in the Tour de France?
Just as races like Giro d’Italia, Vuelta a España and even the Tour have embraced the notion that shorter stages can pack more punch, many say length still counts.
“If you look short-term, it doesn’t add anything to the race,” said Cannondale-Drapac’s Charly Wegelius. “Even if it doesn’t overtly have an effect today, at some stage, on some mountain down the road, a GC rider or stage contender will sit on his saddle and give in. There may be something in these stages that will have something to do with that.”
That’s especially true at the Tour de France.
Not only does the distance and speed make the Tour harder than other races, the cumulative effect from week one could make week three more exciting. Or at least that is what everyone is holding out hope for.
Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) often says long, demanding mountain stages are when a grand tour is decided. But Contador has made a name for himself by ambushing his rivals in short, explosive stages, like at Fuente Dé in the 2012 Vuelta or last year on the road to Formigal.
“This is the Tour de France. It’s going to be a race of resistance,” Contador said. “You have to survive these first stages, and not lose time. These are days filled with stress. People start to feel that weariness in the third week.”
This year’s Tour features a few shorter, explosive stages ideal for a Contador raid. Watch for the 101km stage 13 in the Pyrénées. But there doesn’t appear to be too many ambush scenarios this year.
“The only way to beat Froome is to catch them napping,” said Orica-Scott sport director Matt White. “This year’s course doesn’t lend itself to doing something like that. These long, flat stages are playing into Sky’s hands. They slowly start to tire everyone out.”
Long transition stages are part of the history the Tour. Part of any Tour’s journey fills in the blanks as the race rounds France. Organizers vary the course year to year, and much of the first week or so depends on simple geography. By starting in Germany this year, the Tour had to push south. At least the route dips into the Jura Mountains this weekend. Imagine if they had taken a straight line all the way down to the Pyrénées.
“Racing bikes, at its essence, is about endurance and about suffering,” Wegelius continued. “And even if that means enduring nearly six hours of not a whole lot going on, the kilometers and the long hours in the saddle are part of the race.”
On Thursday, journalists were asking Froome if the race jury should impose the “extreme-boredom protocol.” The Sky captain had a polite chuckle, but agreed that these long, relatively uneventful transition stages have their place.
“These [long stages] are part of a grand tour. I have no issue with them, but I think you might get the same result with a 50km shorter stage,” Froome said. “I am not complaining. I quite enjoy these longer days, and being more relaxed. We can chat a bit in the bunch.”
For Wegelius, a Tour winner should be a rider who can handle everything the Tour throws at them, even if it means twiddling their thumbs for a few stages.
“Dealing with these stages, the distance, the heat, it’s part of the Tour,” he said. “We shouldn’t lose sight that the winner of the Tour should be a complete rider who can manage everything in the Tour. And part of that is racing for six hours in 40-degree weather on flat roads.”
Three weeks, 21 stages, and more than 3,000km of racing, that is what the Tour de France is. As a rider might say after a long, hard day in the saddle, it is what it is.