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The perils of the first week of the Tour de France, and how to avoid them

With anxiety at a boiling point in the first week of any Tour de France, getting through it unscathed is vital to setting up success for the pivotal final stages.

BRUSSELS (VN) The Tour de France is won in the final stages. But for many riders – including those who are vying for overall victory – the biggest challenge can be surviving the dangers of a traditional high octane, frenetic first week.

The first week is the one period of the Tour when every rider is at their peak form and health, and fuelled on ambitions of victory – or helping a teammate win – as soon as possible.

It is also when tension and nerves built up over recent days has spread throughout the peloton – from rookies fraught by first timer’s anxiety, to the most seasoned who know fate can so mercilessly turn and crush their Tour before it has really begun. Whether from a split in the peloton caused by rider inattention or the wind, or a crash due to some brazen if not reckless maneuvering, or the slightest touch of wheels – or any other reason – the hazards are many in week one.

Stark reminders of that were the sights of Danish Tour contender Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) being in the first crash of the Tour with 17.6km to go in Saturday’s opening stage won by Dutchman Mike Teunissen (Jumbo-Visma), and Dutch sprinter Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma), one of the stage favorites, coming a cropper in a crash with 1.4km to go that also brought down reigning Tour champion Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos).

As many Tour veterans will attest, get through week one, and things will start to settle. By then teams will have an idea on whether they will be in the mix for the overall classification, or the King of the Mountains or Points competitions; or if they will be better served to focus on going for stage wins.

So, what are the strategies and mindsets employed to do it?

VeloNews spoke to a number of former riders about that.

Cadel Evans, at the Tour as a global ambassador for BMC bicycles, had a strong circle of henchmen on the former BMC team to protect him in the peloton in week one when he went on to become Australia’s first Tour champion in 2011.

“As a GC rider I had a different approach to the sprinters,” Evans said. “My main thing was to get through the first week without losing time and wasting energy – but also stay safe … and to look at how much energy you can save to do that.

“As a GC rider you have focal points to expend energy just to be in front … easier said than done because everyone wants to be in front. Every GC rider wants to be in front.

“You have to stay focused and block out all the nerves and excitement. One of my strengths was that as a GC rider I had an okay classic [rider’s] capability. So, in the crosswinds and the little group finishes I could sneak a few seconds here and there. It may not make a difference to winning a Tour, but … it never hurts to give a psychological signal to the others. I would feel better if I was in front of a two-second split than behind it. I always went for those. You have to expend energy to avoid the mess [of a finale] anyway, so why not expend some energy and go for some wins? Of course, if you get some time bonuses that is money in the bank.”

Jakob Fuglsang was unlucky enough to be caught up in the first crash of this year’s Tour. Photo: Getty Images

Plans are in place at the Australian Mitchelton-Scott team to ensure their British leader, Adam Yates is protected.

Matt White, the team’s head sports director, is wary about the Tour’s passage through Belgium where the collective ability of the Tour peloton on the stretches of one day classic terrain that the Tour passes – roads that change from bitumen to cobbled stone, that alternate from being wide to narrow and twist and turn and rise suddenly and steeply.

“We are lucky that we have a lot of guys with experience in that,” said White. “[Yates] will be surrounded at all times by multiple riders. We have a plan that he is never isolated. We have climbing depth for certain stages and enough big guys, the old engine room. They will look after him very well.”

Tom Southam, a sports director on the American EF- Education first team led by Colombian Tour hope Rigoberto Uran, concurs with White. “You need a focused team and you need guys who can help out in different terrain,” Southam said.  “You need experience in your team and the team leaders to trust them, to have cool heads and not to panic.”

Southam saw the pressure on the EF-Education First riders when they arrived in Belgium, no matter their experience. That pressure converts to energy-sapping nerves and tension.

“They are different people,” Southam said. “The last race I did was [Tour of] California. There the riders talk to you in a certain way. The make eye contact more frequently with the people because they are more relaxed and friendlier.

“At the Tour you have so many more people at the hotel. Riders don’t want to have to talk to everyone, so they keep their eyes to the floor more. You notice those things.”

Steve Bauer, a former Tour yellow jersey wearer who now hosts VIPs with the CCC Team, notices how riders become stricken with nerves as the start of the Tour looms.

“You see the ‘nervosity’ of the guys in their speech, in their interviews, at press conferences …,” Bauer said. “This is not a chilled relaxed race. It is the big one. Everybody is on.”

So how should riders handle the pressure that they inevitably carry into the race? “It’s a matter of being alert at all times and staying super-focused,” Bauer said. “If you can let some of that pressure off and stay more relaxed, or be tensely relaxed … you have to be ready for everything. Look for where there is going to be trouble before it happens. “

Scott Sunderland, a former Australian professional who is now director of Flanders Classics, said: “It is not about winning the race or the Tour, but getting through unscathed by incidents like crashes and being held up by crashes.

“You have so much hype. There is so much noise: the helicopters and everyone cheering. And you try to listen to the riders and then have sports directors talking to you while you are trying to look for your teammates … That is frantic.”