Last Sunday, Chris Froome slid across a rain-slick road with his limbs tangled up with Roman Bardet like a game of high-speed Twister. The 2017 Tour de France was only one day old. Two days later, a minute before the crash that sent Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan home, a touch of wheels splayed out a dozen riders across the tarmac, and Geraint Thomas’s yellow jersey spun on the asphalt like a top.
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The Tour de France peloton is a dangerous place to be even when the yellow jersey isn’t on the line. In fact it’s often most dangerous when the yellow jersey isn’t on the line. The Tour is a rolling ball of stress across its early flat stages, 180 moving parts intent on squishing themselves into the same place. In recent years, crashes in otherwise benign stages have ended the GC hopes of Froome, Bradley Wiggins, and Cadel Evans. Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin went home while wearing yellow too. Amidst this chaos, keeping team leaders out of trouble is no easy task.
“There are two sides to keeping a rider like Andrew [Talansky] or Rigo [Uran] safe,” said Charly Wegelius, Cannondale-Drapac director. “The first side is just a question of saving resources and saving energy, which means riding in the right place in the peloton.” That’s at the front, most of the time. But not always.
Avoiding and anticipating traps is key. That could be crosswinds, or a narrowing road, or a short climb that isn’t in the roadbook. “It means keeping them fueled, keeping the stress levels down,” Wegelius said. Most teams try to create a cocoon around their key rider. They assume his own teammates are least likely to make a dangerous move that might cause a crash. “If a rider feels supported and surrounded there’s a part of his brain that can just switch off and trust his teammates,” Wegelius said. When a rider is relaxed he expends less energy. That energy will be needed when the road tilts up.
Trek-Segafredo assigns at least three of Alberto Contador’s teammates to stay by his side in the early part of the stage “just to keep him out of trouble,” said Luca Guercilena, the team’s general manager. He has other teammates dedicated to fast finales. “You should use riders able to lead-out a sprinter just to keep Alberto in good position and out of trouble. When he gets too packed in, these are the guys with the power to move into the air and get him back up to the front.”
On the tricky run-in to the first uphill finish of the Tour’s stage 3, Trek sacrificed potential stage winner John Degenkolb to ensure Contador remained in position. “But we have priorities. When you have a GC guy like Contador you have to make a decision. You have to sacrifice some goals to chase others.”
Wegelius said the second side of the safety equation is communication. The ability to react and adjust is also crucial.
“Every rider doesn’t feel the safest in the same place in the peloton,” he said. “Some GC riders always want to ride in the first five. Other ones just want to chill at the back until the right moment, then move. It’s sort of a question of tailoring the way the team moves around the riders needs. And then at times adjusting it because the rider might want to stay at the back too long.”
Those adjustments are often made by a road captain. This is usually a veteran rider designated by the directors to help carry out the day’s plan. “There are things from the car you just don’t see, and things you don’t’ feel in your legs, obviously, because you’re in a car,” Wegelius said. “Having a good go-between that has that sort of awareness is really key.”
Simon Clarke often plays that role at Cannondale, though Wegelius pointed at Taylor Phinney as a likely replacement when Clarke is given his own shot at glory. “The trick for a road captain, or where a road captain can be effective, is when riders can’t complete their assigned jobs,” Clarke said. “I can assign other guys to cover, adjust the plan on the road.”
Despite the crashes that brought down Froome, Thomas, and Bardet, among others, the start of this particular Tour has thus far been relatively uneventful for GC favorites. Heading into a big weekend of climbing, no GC rider lost significant time or suffered a major injury. Still, all teams know they can never let their guard down.
“It is getting more difficult,” Guercilena said. “As you can see, the peloton arrives packed up in the last kilometer. But that’s the race. That’s the Tour. You just do the best you can.”