Tour de France

Nerves fraying in GC-sprint mash-up

Some of the Tour's fastest riders are frustrated with the number of GC teams crowding the front of the bunch even in sprinter's stages

ANGERS, France (VN) — As if the sprint stages are not dangerous enough, the pack’s fast men continue to struggle with GC teams “getting in the way” of the mass gallops.

“In the flat stages, we don’t want to fight with the GC riders and the sprinters,” said an exasperated Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) after finishing fourth Monday. “Everyone is fighting for the front because they won’t want to lose the gap, but it’s making it more dangerous.”

What’s going on? GC riders are desperate to stay near the nose of the peloton for fear of missing out on a split if the pack fractures. That means more bodies are trying to squeeze across the road as the peloton roars in for the sprints at 60kph.

“The mentality has changed. In the past, the GC riders would float back, but then it evolved that splits happened, so they don’t want to be caught behind the split,” said Monday’s stage winner Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data). “They’re [GC riders] are afraid of losing three, six, or nine seconds if the peloton splits. They don’t want to get caught behind the split.”

A rash of late-stage crashes a decade ago involving GC implications prompted the UCI to extend “safe zone” from 1km to go to 3km to go, in order to give the sprint stages more breathing room. The idea is that riders will finish on the same time as the winner after passing the 3km to go barrier if they come in with the main bunch, with exceptions made for crashes and mechanicals.

Splits, however, are counted, and the time is taken from the first rider of the front group, to the first rider of the second group, not from the last rider in the front group to the second, so it means that even small splits can add up. And that fear of losing a few precious seconds is what’s cranking up the pressure inside the peloton.

After Cavendish kicked to his second win in three days Monday, nerves were frayed at the line. Sprinters were muttering that the GC teams, particularly Team Sky and Movistar, refuse to give quarter to the sprint trains in the closing kilometers.

Despite the race jury announcing at the start of this Tour that they will take a liberal hand in ruling on splits during the sprint stages, the GC riders are not taking any chances. Their teams are pushing them all the way to the line.

Worries over splits in the peloton have been growing over the past few years, especially with the Tour route designers adding more short, punchy uphill finales. Those stage finishes are not mountaintop finales (where splits do count), but they’re steep enough to provoke gaps in the bunch. Even Monday’s final 500m was steeper on the road than it appeared in the book, and as riders peel off, and others sit up who are not in the GC hunt, splits inevitably happen.

In June, Two-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) was caught out in a similar split in a lumpy finale in stage 4 at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné, when he lost nine seconds to GC rivals after a gap opened up. Who was in the front group? Sky’s Chris Froome.

Cavendish added that with the “stakes so high in cycling today” that GC teams are even pressing the bunch in the sprints with the idea of cutting the bunch, and taking a few valuable seconds if they can.

“Now some riders actively want to be ahead of the split. It’s not about not wanting to be caught out, they want to be up there, and hope there’s a split and get a few seconds,” Cavendish said. “It’s not the course [producing the splits], but it’s the riders who do it. … They’re taking risks.”

Sky is certainly leaving nothing to chance, and is keeping Froome protected behind a wall of black and blue jerseys. On Monday, they were driving hard at the nose of the peloton, with the double-sided goal of keeping Froome out of trouble at the front, and then to delivering him safely for the sprint. Look where’s he finished in the Tour’s first three sprint stages: 25th, 10th, and 22nd.

Team Sky said their tactics in the first week are simple: keep Froome safe. Sky sport director Servais Knaven said the team has assigned Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard to pilot Froome through the sprint stages.

“Chris follows their wheels,” Knaven said. “You don’t always know where you can end up in a sprint, but it’s always important to be in a good position. The crashes can happen anywhere, but you’re more likely to be a crash in 80th position than if you’re near the front.”

Sagan insisted that the UCI should reconsider the rules, but nothing will change before Tuesday’s long fourth stage. With another lumpy finale and a bunch sprint on tap, you can bet the GC riders will be desperate to stay at the front of the pack, even if that means upsetting the sprinters.