Tour de France 2020

The inevitability of disaster — crashes in Tour’s treacherous first week

Three nervous days remain before the Tour begins to sort out with the TTT, then the mountains, and GC favorites hope to avoid disaster

AMIENS, France (VN) — In a sport founded on legs and horsepower, it’s crashes, and desperate efforts to avoid them, that dictate the narrative of the first week of the 2015 Tour de France.

Riders came across the line Wednesday with a mix of exasperation and relief following the 189km stage 5 that packed more tension and nerves than the previous day’s trip over the cobblestones. Wind, rain, cool temperatures, and an ever-anxious peloton made Wednesday the most nerve-wracking stage so far in this already-tense Tour.

“It was very hard today, with the wind and the rain. It was very nervous. There was more tension today than there was yesterday,” said BMC’s Samuel Sánchez. “The nerves grew during the stage. There was a crash, then more nerves, then another crash, and even more tension.”

The first week of every Tour spells trouble for the peloton, and so far, this year’s Tour has followed the script. To make matters worse, organizers have packed the opening week with a string of classics-style stages, with cobblestones, short, punchy climbs, and roads open to the coast wind.

Riders seemed just as relieved as surprised when they crossed the line in one piece.

“It was a miracle to get across the cobbles with the favorites [Tuesday],” said Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), who won Monday’s stage atop the Mur de Huy. “Everyone is looking forward to the end of this first week. This is terrible.”

So far through this Tour, crashes have marred every road stage, but Wednesday saw a return of the dreaded tense stages packed with crashes from start to finish.

More than a few big names have been sent packing early, including Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), who crashed Monday and did not start Tuesday, Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), Simon Gerrans and Daryl Impey (both Orica-GreenEdge). Jack Bauer (Cannondale-Garmin), Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge), and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) joined that growing list Wednesday.

If the peloton was hoping for a breather following Tuesday’s cobblestones, they were wrong. Rain, buffeting wind, and narrow roads made Wednesday’s fifth stage perhaps the most tense so far of this Tour in terms of crashes. And there were plenty of them, with nearly a dozen pileups and major spills throughout the stage.

“These opening stages of the Tour are always ones with nerves and tension. People might not realize it on TV, but there is a tremendous fight for position,” said Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo). “Everyone is trying to avoid crashing.”

Somewhat surprisingly, none of the major, pre-Tour favorites have lost time due to crashes. Last year’s podium man Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) has been the lone victim, halfway through a week than many expected to see more time losses. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) were caught out when the peloton split in Sunday’s opening road stage along the Dutch coast, losing 1:28, but no one’s hit the deck and been forced to exit the race among the “Fab Four.”

Yet there is a sense of imminent doom among the GC favorites, who only want to get to the team time trial Sunday with their GC options fully intact.

“It’s terrible, because everyone has the same information and has the same plan, but the road is only as wide as it is,” said Cannondale-Garmin sport director Charly Wegelius. “There is no guarantee. It seems like people are almost getting resigned that something is going to happen in the first 10 days of the Tour. If it’s one guy the first day, then it’s another guy the next. It’s now part of stage racing.”

Every bike race is held on open roads, under whatever Mother Nature throws at the peloton, but at the Tour, everything is dialed up even more. With so much at stake, the pressure to perform, and the big payoff for success, the Tour is unlike anything else the peloton sees all season.

“Just look around you, this is the Tour de France,” said MTN-Qhubeka sport director Alex Sans. “One stage victory can change your career forever. Everyone is fresh, everyone is motivated, there’s more pressure. Every rider here is on top form. That means people will take more risks.”

The first week of any Tour is made worse due to a sometimes-lethal combination of factors. A faster, stronger peloton, tracing over a modern road system, laced with traffic furniture, often spells disaster. There is always an extra layer of tension until a real selection is made in the general classification. Until a long time trial or a mountain stage imposes order on the GC, everyone still has dreams of the yellow jersey dancing through their heads.

“This year, we have many favorites, and that means that all the teams are trying to be at the front at the same time,” said BMC general manager Jim Ochowicz. “Once we get into the mountains, the race begins to settle down. It’s just getting there in one piece that’s the hard part.”

The first week is especially fraught with tension and conflict, because the GC teams and the sprinter teams are trying to squeeze into a limited swath of asphalt.

“The level of the teams across the board is higher. The same thing in sprinting. Before it was one or two teams, now everyone has a train,” Wegelius said. “And in the GC? Today you saw it, there were six teams lined up across the road, all single-file. It’s turning into a big drag race.”

There’s no way of predicting when or where disaster will strike. Tuesday’s bumpy ride across the cobblestones saw relatively few crashes, especially compared to the chaos on a similar stage in 2014. The biggest crash of this year’s Tour happened Monday about 55km from the finish, on a wide-open road, when the peloton was barreling down on the day’s breakaway. All it took was a touch of wheels, and riders toppled like bowling pins on a strike.

So far, there hasn’t been a finish-line crash, either. It seems just a matter of time. Everyone just has their fingers crossed.

“If you relax for one minute in the Tour, you’re going to lose it. So from kilometer zero to the finish line, it’s full focus,” said Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing). “The only time you get to relax is on the two rest days, and in between the stages.”

Three more days. That’s the countdown. Three stages stand between the peloton and the team time trial. From there, it’s open roads straight into the Pyrénées.