Commentary: Pavé is the solution to a boring Tour
Every few years I add another video to my Bike Racing Video Hall of Fame, the collection of YouTube clips that I watch on repeat while procrastinating at work. These aren’t just any old bike race videos, but rather the Grade-A select stock of YouTube videos. Fabian vs. Tommeke on the Muur in 2010. Contador vs. Lance to Verbier in 2009. Chris Horner on l’Angliru in 2013.
My friends, I believe Sunday’s ninth stage of the Tour de France will be a first-ballot inductee to my YouTube hall of fame. Years from now, I will still watch the video with intrigue as the heroes of the 2018 Tour bounced their way across the cobblestone roads to Roubaix.
The 15 sectors of pavé created chaos within the peloton — every sector saw crashes, punctures, and a reshuffling of the group. Nearly every major GC contender was forced to battle back from a crash, mechanical calamity, or biological explosion. And somehow, those efforts paid off — the overall remained relatively unchanged, due to the Titanic struggle of a few teams to fight back.
Romain Bardet suffered a litany of mechanicals, chased all afternoon, and lost just seven seconds, calling his comeback a “miracle.” Chris Froome tangled with teammate Gianni Moscon and tumbled into a ditch, just inches away from yellow jersey holder Greg Van Avermaet. EF Education First-Drapac mount a heroic, all-hands-on-deck chase back to the group after its GC man, Rigoberto Uran, tumbled at perhaps the worst possible moment.
We were gifted amazing photos and video clips of the carnage. Olivier Naesen bunny-hopping his bicycle over Rafal Majka. Chris Froome doing the “Superman” leap off of his bike. Let’s all rejoice that both men were able to continue with the race without suffering major injuries.
Long story short: Sunday’s stage jolted us awake after several days of snore-worthy sprint stages.
We’ve seen the Tour rumble over cobblestones plenty of times, however, Sunday’s stage established a new level of mayhem. At no point during the stage did the outcome feel predetermined or inevitable. It was wild.
The inclusion of such a stage raises several important questions: Should legit Roubaix-grade cobblestones become standard issue in the Tour de France? Should the race make it a point to include a punishing, chaotic stage like this every year to upend the general classification? Are the crashes and mechanicals simply too extreme for a race that should be decided in the mountains?
Look, I am completely sympathetic to the plight of the pro riders, and the last thing I want is for injuries to determine the outcome. The race will undoubtedly miss Richie Porte, who crashed out on a seemingly innocuous stretch of asphalt and broke his collarbone. And I wonder if the Tour dodged a bullet on Sunday — there were broken bones, bruises, and bumps, but no life-threatening injuries.
Still, I must admit that Sunday’s stage created compelling drama — the type that glues viewers to their seats for an entire five-hour stage, and yes, gets them to re-watch the stage for the 1,000th time during a boring conference call. Could Bardet battle back? Would Nibali attack? What was Jakob Fuglsang doing?
That level of drama and unpredictability is what Tour organizer ASO is looking for, right? In recent years, the race has given us shortened 100km stages, and bizarre, perhaps gimmicky courses that are designed to inject action into the race. It’s no secret that ASO has embarked on a quest to upend the boring, controlled racing style that fans often blame on Team Sky and its army of talented domestiques. The Tour has become a battle for seconds; gaps are earned in time trials, and only on the hardest summit finishes. Swashbuckling attacks are no match for a $30 million team of all-star support riders, who can simply snuff out the aggression.
As we saw on Sunday, Sky’s army of domestiques could not tame the stones. Sky tried, and kudos to the team for riding at the front for much of the race. Even the richest team in the bunch was no match for the stones. Egan Bernal, Michal Kwiatkowski, Moscon, and even Froome all kissed the ground at some point in the race, and Sky spent much of the final 30km fighting to keep its riders in position.
That’s why, as a viewer, I welcome more cobblestones stages — why not have two during the race? Does each journey over the pavé need to contain the bite of Sunday’s course? For the sake of the riders, no. Perhaps ASO’s course designers can strike the right balance between carnage and drama.
The Tour will continue to seek out new formats and courses to inject drama into the race. We’re all waiting to see how next week’s 65km stage 17 to Bagnères-de-Luchon plays out. But perhaps the Tour organizers needn’t rack their brains to determine the proper parcours for drama. They simply need to look north, to the cobblestone roads to Roubaix.