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Tour de France

Q&A with Magnus Backstedt: On crashes, racing the pave, and sense of pending doom

Crashes, narrow roads, foul weather, and cobblestones in the first week of the Tour; ex-pro Backstedt says it's all part of the game

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HARROGATE, England (VN) — Magnus Backstedt didn’t win a lot when he was racing, but when he did win, it mattered, including a stage at the 1998 Tour de France and the 2004 Paris-Roubaix.

Now 39, Backstedt is a commentator on Eurosport during part of the season. But during this year’s Tour de France, he’s serving as a VIP driver, and otherwise soaking up the Tour ambiance in his adopted home of England.

Backstedt knows a thing or two about what’s in store for the riders in the opening stages of the 2014 Tour. Narrow, treacherous roads, wind and rain, cobblestones waiting in Belgium, and the yellow jersey waiting at the line in Harrogate; it all adds up to a potentially disastrous recipe for the GC riders.

VeloNews caught up with “Big Maggy” about the inevitably of first-week crashes, how the pros deal with that sense of pending doom, and what he thinks could be done to lessen the risk of disastrous crashes:

VeloNews: How bad is the pressure for the GC riders in the opening week of a Tour?

Magnus Backstedt: Everyone is vulnerable in the first week of the Tour. It’s inevitable that there are going to be massive pileups. Everyone wants the yellow jersey in the first stage. Everyone takes a few more risks. That combination of the GC rider trying to stay out of trouble, and everyone else trying to win the yellow jersey, that doesn’t go very well together. There is an awful lot of added stress in the first week. Whatever you can do to calm that down, by having a strong team around you, by riding in a specific way, if you’re prepared for it, you can eliminate the stress by an awful lot.

VN: I remember the big crash in 2012 at Metz. How do the top GC riders deal with that a sense pending doom in these first stages, or do they just get on with it?

MB: It’s part of bike racing. You know at some point you’re going to eat shit. It’s going to happen. The only question is when, and how bad. Since we all started racing our bikes, we know at some point you’re going to hit the deck. You can do everything you can to stay out of trouble, but it’s a bit sad to see some of the GC hopefuls getting caught out in a crash, losing time, or going out of the race entirely. The first week always ends up affecting the race going forward.

VN: Is there anything the race should or could do to make those stages safer?

MB: The only thing you could do is to make sure you have a slightly longer prologue to set a bit of a hierarchy to start off with. That would eliminate some of the muck in the GC. It just settles things down. Everyone is taking crazy risks in the final, we saw that last year. There was a big crash. It doesn’t help when the yellow jersey on the line in the first day.

VN: There are suggestions that there is less respect within the modern peloton; that before, the GC riders would get out of the way in the sprints. Is that true?

MB: I don’t think there’s less respect between the riders, it’s just that the stakes are higher. The higher the stakes, the happier you are to take higher risks. The sport’s changed, because it’s more professional, there’s more money to be made, there’s more media attention. You get that one-day ride, and you can set yourself up nicely for a significant amount of time. I know personally that I dove headfirst into corners, taking that risk, to win a stage in the Tour de France, to set me up for a few nice years.

VN: And if you win a stage at the Tour, you never have to buy a beer again. …

MB: That’s one part of it! There is still respect between the riders, but because the stakes are so high, the riders are happy to take the risks.

VN: What about these narrow roads, stone walls, and sheep on the road?

MB: Welcome to Britain. That’s the way it is over here. They are relatively narrow. You have to deal with what you get given. It’s the same for every rider. It can be dangerous up here; we could have a few guys going home the first few days. We’re likely to lose one or two. That’s bike racing. If you’re not prepared for that, you shouldn’t be here.

VN: How do top GC riders deal with that? I remember Wiggins crashing out of the 2011 Tour, he probably could have won that year as well. …

MB: Some people do become a bit hesitant. Most bike riders I know, you take your knock, you dust yourself off, and keep going. You just got to get on with it. That’s always going to be the case in sport.

VN: It’s a reminder at just how dynamic the Tour really is, with open roads, the weather, the fans, the crashes. …

MB: The fact that this isn’t classified as an extreme sport is beyond me. You saw the video from Tour de Suisse, with Degenkolb fighting, that is absolutely brilliant footage. That technology opens up the peloton to everyone, to see how tight it is, how dangerous it is, how crazy it can be. We’re racing on open roads, diving into corners that we think is a 90-degree corner, but you don’t really know.

VN: And we’re seeing cobblestones in stage 5. As a former Paris-Roubaix winner, I am sure you think it’s a good idea to include them in the Tour?

MB: I don’t see why not. In my book, the Tour de France winner should be able to win on every type of road, in every type of conditions, whether it’s rain or cold, cobbles or smooth, they should all be able to cope with it all. The team around you needs to have similar ability to look after their main man. These are proper cobblestones this year. I’ve got nothing against it, but that might be because I love riding the cobbles. It’s part of cycling.

VN: This Tour is set up with a great first week of racing. …

MB: I think it’s going to be brilliant.