I saw some people call Saturday’s stage 1 the most thrilling opening day of a Tour de France in years.
Of course, everyone who said that also watched the race on television. Few riders inside the bunch right now are thrilled about how things are unfolding in this Tour.
Three days of racing delivered mayhem and crashes unseen in recent years. The road was blocked twice Saturday. Sunday and Monday saw more crashes involving high-profile GC favorites. Few are escaping unscathed.
Groupama-FDJ’s Mark Madiot fumed on live French TV that the Tour now is simply too dangerous and that something needs to be done to take the edge off.
Ask around the peloton, and some riders say there is a relatively easy way to reel in some of the dangers of the first week: Bring back the opening prologue.
I’ve written a few times over the past few months about how and why the Tour de France has done away with the prologue. The last one was back in 2012, and since then, the Tour opens with a road stage and the yellow jersey on the line.
That creates an amazing spectacle, but it’s also heightening the dangers of the opening races. Why? Because nearly everyone starts the first stages believing the treasured yellow jersey could be theirs.
Riders say an opening prologue acts as a valve to release some of the tension inside the bunch. With any time trial, no matter how long, there are time differences. Once time differences are established, not everyone goes to bed each night dreaming of the yellow jersey.
I spoke with Michał Kwiatkowski before the start of stage 3 and he said cycling should follow the example of Formula One, which includes qualifying and a start grid.
Cycling’s version a short timed prologue, which would put everyone in their place right from the start, could help deflate some of the tension.
“With a prologue, there are already time differences, and some people would already be too far back,” Kwiatkowski said Monday. “In Formula One, you have qualifying races. Cycling should do the same thing and bring back the prologue. It would make the first stages safer because there would already be a bit of selection.”
With everyone still bunched up on time, everyone believes they can be a hero.
Michael Mørkøv told me before the start Monday morning he expected Monday’s stage to be even more nervous than this weekend’s mayhem.
And he was right. Another pair of late-stage crashes took down some of the top GC favorites in the Tour, including Primož Roglič.
Mørkøv said a prologue might help, but he said the larger dynamics of small roads, GC teams trying to stay at the front, and the sprinter teams fighting to position their riders is what truly adds up to create such a mess.
“I do agree with that to a degree. It would get a bit of distance in the classification,” Mørkøv said. “I reckon that today’s stage will be more nervous than this weekend’s stages even though there are already gaps in the GC, so I am not sure that a prologue would make that big of a difference.”
Richard Carapaz is last man standing for Ineos Grenadiers
Ineos Grenadiers confidently rode into the 2021 Tour with four GC leaders.
The rough roads and treacherous racing conditions in the opening 72 hours at the Tour de France quickly whittled that down to one legitimate option — Richard Carapaz.
The Ecuadoran rider is the only member of Ineos Grenadiers’ “Fab Four” to survive the Tour’s harrowing opening three stages with their GC hopes and team kit unscathed.
After Tao Geoghegan Hart and Richie Porte were caught up in crashes in Saturday’s opener, it was Geraint Thomas’s turn Monday. The 2018 Tour champion tangled up with wheels early in the stage and fell so hard he dislocated his shoulder.
“He went down and dislocated his shoulder,” said Ineos Grenadiers sport director Gabriel Rasch. “The doctors put it immediately back, but he was in a lot of pain. Chapeaux to him for finishing.”
The tough Welshman gritted his teeth as doctors put things back into place, and after riding alone to confirm he could turn the pedals, the team sent back riders to help pace him back to the bunch. Incredibly, Thomas finished in the same group as defending champion Tadej Pogačar (UAE Emirates) on the stage, ceding just 26 seconds.
Thomas went for ultrasound scans at a local hospital, and a decision was expected later if he would be able to continue in the race. A dislocated shoulder, however, could spell doom for Thomas ahead of Wednesday’s individual time trial.
The Tour’s fifth stage is key to Thomas’s chances, and it’s hard to imagine trying to race a long time trial in the aerodynamic position with that kind of searing pain.
That means Carapaz is suddenly the team’s last man standing.
The Ecuadorian made it through the three opening stages relatively unscathed, and climbed to third overall, and climbed 15 places Monday on GC, slotting into third overall at 31 seconds back.
Carapaz was meant to be Ineos Grenadiers’ “secret weapon,” in the sense that the team hoped to let him attack without pressure over the double ascent up Mont Ventoux and in the Pyrénées.
With Thomas hobbled and the other two largely out of the GC frame, that means all eyes will be Carapaz.
A natural-born climber, Carapaz surprised everyone to win the 2019 Giro d’Italia. Last year, he nearly pipped Primož Roglič in the final mountain stage at the Vuelta a España. Had the final summit to La Covatilla in the penultimate stage been a kilometer or two longer, Carapaz might well have won the Spanish grand tour last fall.
Hot off Tour de Suisse, Carapaz looks poised for bigger things in this Tour. Right now, the team will rally around him and hope that Thomas is still able to stay in the race.
What’s sure is that now everyone in the race will be able to focus on him, rather than having to worry about four different Ineos Grenadiers riders attacking on all fronts.
Everyone inside the Ineos Grenadiers team bus will be hoping he can stay upright from here to Paris.
Tour de France is warmup race for the Vuelta a España for Chris Froome
For Spanish journalists (and maybe a few more), the Tour de France is little more than a preparation race for what really counts — the Vuelta a España.
With later starts usually around 13hrs CET and shorter transfers, the Spanish grand tour is a favorite among many in the cycling press corps. Restaurants stay open later and the coffee is a lot better.
The stress level is turned way down at the Vuelta, and for much of the past 10 years, the racing is as good or if not better than the Tour.
All joking aside, for Chris Froome, the Tour is in fact a preparation race for the Vuelta.
Even before crashing in stage 1, the Israel Start-Up Nation star already pulled the plug on GC ambitions for the 2021 Tour. The real goal for Froome is to try to be race-ready for the Spanish grand tour, which he’s won twice.
“We know Chris is not at the level to contest for the overall,” Israel Start-Up Nation sport director Rik Verbruggen said. “Chris really needs the Tour to get ready for the Vuelta. We hope to see him there in condition to make a good race. That would really set him up for 2022.”
Froome crashed hard Saturday, but made it through both Sunday and Monday.
Who says Froome is thinking retirement?
First rain of what could be a wet week
Monday’s third stage saw the first significant rainfall of the 2021 Tour de France.
The race largely avoided the heavy rain this weekend that keeps France’s Brittany region so green. That could change going into the next few days.
Forecasters are calling for increased chances of showers and thunderstorms Tuesday and Wednesday, which could be a significant factor in Wednesday’s decisive time trial.
Some riders don’t mind racing in the rain. Most hate it.