NICE, France (VN) — I’ve been to plenty of opening stages at the Tour de France, but today by far was one of the most dangerous I’ve ever seen.
“Sketchy” was the key word to describe Saturday’s race conditions. Riders said more than half the peloton crashed today. What a way to start the Tour — uffff.
It hadn’t rained in months on France’s sunny and dry Cote d’Azur, and a late-summer storm doused roads just as the bunch turned into the hills. All the oil, dust, olive oil from trees, and gunk that spews out of Lamborghini’s and Ferrari’s that’s been baking in the French summer sun for weeks turned into a treacherous soup in what riders described as an ice rink.
“More than 100 riders crashed today,” said EF’s Rigoberto Urán. “And even after they neutralized the descent, four riders crashed anyway.”
It was good to see riders take control of their destiny, and they quickly hatched a plan between themselves to neutralize the descents. Too often riders and teams will take unnecessary risks in the endless quest for results.
There was a feeling inside the bunch that no one wanted to risk their entire Tour by attacking on wet roads down narrow, twisting descents that are dangerous enough already in the dry.
Astana obviously did not get the memo, but the pack showed their collective will acting in unison. Let’s see if it happens again.
“There were a lot of crashes. And when it rained, it really made the descents very slippery,” said defending Tour champ Egan Bernal (Ineos). “It was a good thing the peloton neutralized the last descent because there would have been even more crashes.”
With the peloton on edge, the race jury made the right call to take the GC time at 3km to go. That still didn’t stop a massive pileup that caught out Thibaut Pinot and three of the Movistar riders.
“The call to stop the clock with 3km to go was a good one on behalf of the organizers,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White. “The guys decided they wanted to neutralize the race, but not everyone agreed, but that’s racing.”
Of course, every cloud has its rainbow. There was one rider who was happy as a pig in mud: Alexander Kristoff.
“For me, I am used to these conditions home in Norway, so it was OK,” said Kristoff, who kicked to a huge win. “The neutralized descents and slow racing helped me stay in touch with the group.”
If everyone else was licking their collective wounds Saturday, Kristoff proved that a father of four can still win a stage.
The Tour always surprises.
Lotto-Soudal gets clean slate
There were a lot of questions Saturday morning about the fate of Lotto-Soudal in the 2020 Tour de France.
Overnight, the French government imposed on the Tour organization, and insisted that the two-strike rule include all riders and staffers, not just riders as race officials, UCI and teams had agreed upon just hours before.
That raised the specter that the Belgian team, which sent home one staffer with a confirmed COVID positive and another with symptoms, might be out of the race or at least on the edge.
Tour director Christian Prudhomme assured reporters at the start Saturday that the team is safe, at least right now.
Prudhomme said since the rule was re-introduced overnight Friday — as first reported by yours truly after staying up until midnight to write the story — that the staffer part of the two-strike equation would not be applied.
So, at least from the start of the Tour in nice, Lotto-Soudal is on the same level as its rivals when it comes to counting their COVID matches.
Why I miss the prologue
OK, maybe there is a sublime beauty of having the yellow jersey contested in the first stage in a bunch sprint.
Christian Prudhomme has been a big promoter of the idea that the jersey should be won out on the open roads.
Call me old-school, but I personally miss the opening prologue and the subsequent time-bonus battle that ensued between the sprinters to fight for yellow.
The last opening prologue was in 2012, when Fabian Cancellara won in Liège. Since then, two other time trials have opened the Tours, in 2015 and 2017, respectively — with distances too long to be considered prologues — and every other year the yellow jersey was contested in a traditional road stage.
Does that make for more exciting racing? Maybe, but maybe not. I’m no fan of time trials. I know they are a tremendous skillset of cycling and essential part of stage racing, they’re boring as hell to watch. And I loathe them as a final-day decider in a grand tour (OK, it was exciting once, back in 1989).
But prologues are a different story. They’re short, they’re fast, and they don’t always go to a pure time trialist. Sprinters and riders with top bike-handling skills can also execute a very competitive prologue. They’re like a sustained sprint for 7 minutes — talk about lactate buildup.
And what a prologue does — at least what it used to do — was set up a thrilling tug-of-war between the sprinters for yellow in the opening days of the race.
Back in the day, with intermediate time bonuses and finish-line bonuses in play, sprinters would chip away at the prologue winner, and they’d have a real chance at yellow before the route hit the first major climbs. It spiced up the first week, and made those “boring” sprinter stages a tad more interesting.
Don’t get me wrong. Hats off to Prudhomme and the Tour staff for spicing up the Tour formula over the past several years. Things weren’t always better “back in the day.” But prologues were and can be a thrilling way to open the Tour.
I say bring it back. Not every year, but at least have one on the offing every few editions. There’s room for everything in the expansive canvas that is the Tour de France.
Stage 2 expectations
What to expect for Sunday’s stage 2? Well, for sure, there will be a new yellow jersey.
Kristoff admitted as much (it’s refreshing for a rider simply just admit their capabilities, isn’t it?). The lumpy route, with two first-category climbs in the opening half, back-ended by Col d’Eze and Quartre Chemins has Thomas De Gendt written all over it.
It’s also one of those classic “you-won’t-win-the-Tour-here, but-you-can-lose-it” kind of days. Pinot better hope he’s feeling good tomorrow, or his Tour could be over even before it starts.
We’ll be punching up a Tour diary every day throughout the race. We’re not quite sure what will end up in this space each day, so tune in to see what we come up with.
Vive le Tour! It’s going to be a wild ride.
Andrew Hood has covered every Tour since 1996, except last year when he broke his left clavicle two days before leaving for Belgium.