The transition stage—the long, predictable parade filled with fruitless breakaways, tempo riding, and fast sprint finishes—is dead. It was 102.
The first week of the Tour de France has always been hectic and nervous, filled with crashes and abandonments. But there has been a distinct trend toward shorter, more complicated stages in recent years.
“You’ve seen it in the Giro [d’Italia] this year as well,” said Sky team principal David Brailsford, speaking of the death of predictable stages in recent grand tours. “I don’t think [transition stages] exist anymore, the race is on all the time, you’ve gotta concentrate the whole time, the teams that can be there and manage the situation for any eventuality at any stage is the team that’s going to come out on top.”
Sunday’s stage, a flat route from the grand depart in Utrecht to the Zéland, on the windy coast, proved to be anything but routine as a storm blew in off the sea and smacked squarely into the peloton. High winds, more than 30 miles per hour in places, shredded the field into four major groups, spread over more than five minutes.
In sending riders along a notoriously windy coastline, and across causeways completely unprotected from the elements, Tour de France organizer ASO knew precisely what might happen. So did the teams.
“That’s what we expected, exactly what we expected, exactly what the organizers wanted,” Brailsford said. “The weather turned up on cue, and created the excitement and the suspense [the ASO] were hoping for.”
The changes, spurred it seems by the experimentation of Giro d’Italia organizers RCS Sport, can make for better TV viewing, eliminating the lulls that used to be common before the race reached the mountains.
“I’m sure it’s pretty exciting to watch,” Brailsford said of the windy, stormy coastal stage to Zéland. “It was a bit nervous for us, but for everybody else it was good viewing.
“These short, exciting stages, I think it’s good. I think it’s very very good, from a spectator point of view. It’s not great for us, but…” Brailsford trailed off, and then laughed.
With the inclusion of technical routes like those found on stages 3 and 4, up the Mur de Huy and across the cobbles of northern France, opportunities for pure sprinters continue to diminish. There are only four, perhaps five, pure sprint stages in this Tour de France. The GC contenders must stay constantly vigilant, too.
On Sunday, the peloton was sent across blustery causeways, with precisely the effect one would expect. On Monday, it tackled the Mur de Huy, and only through bad luck and a bad crash was the tough, classification-changing finale not the story of the day. On Tuesday, the race tackles the cobblestones for the second time in two years, and carnage is all but guaranteed. We’re four days in and a straightforward sprint stage is nowhere to be seen.
Mario Cipollini must be rolling in his yacht.