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Tour de France

Will Frischkorn’s Tour de France diary, stage 5

Sun and a screaming tailwind made for what was one of the easiest days on a bike this year. We'd all prepared mentally for a hour-plus head smashing today before the break would go clear, especially after the relatively quick launches the past few, but people once again seemed content to relax. Twenty minutes of flying down wide open roads and when a few guys got a small gap the field was quick to sit up, yells to chill all around. A few minutes slow, a huge "nature break" as they call it on the radio here, and we settled in for a long one.

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By Will Frischkorn

Tour de France 2008: Frischkorn off the bike

Tour de France 2008: Frischkorn off the bike

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

Sun and a screaming tailwind made for what was one of the easiest days on a bike this year. We’d all prepared mentally for a hour-plus head smashing today before the break would go clear, especially after the relatively quick launches the past few, but people once again seemed content to relax. Twenty minutes of flying down wide open roads and when a few guys got a small gap the field was quick to sit up, yells to chill all around. A few minutes slow, a huge “nature break” as they call it on the radio here, and we settled in for a long one.

With a nearly straight on wind at our backs we cruised at 45ks an hour with little stress. Lots of time to catch up with others in the bunch and relax a bit. For me it was another great opportunity to flush out the legs, and after a little while I was feeling back to normal. With a bit of sun, and heat climbing gradually as we headed straight inland, there were a lot of trips back and forth for bottles, but not much else.

At about 60k to go the nerves started getting a bit itchy in the bunch and the speed began to ramp up. A number of roads here are repaved for the Tour, making the finale even that much quicker. The last 20k were all 60+, and with everybody fighting to be at the front the vacuum was insane. I could only imagine watching the field from above, riders moving around like a washing machine, yet somehow managing to keep it mainly upright. In the middle of the bunch it was as tight as any race you could imagine, requiring constant leans, little bumps, taps on the breaks to avoid the wheel ahead or the squeeze of riders sandwiching the bars. Not a lot of work for the legs, but a ton for the head — one moment without focus and the result wouldn’t be so much fun.

With 5k to go the speed lit up and with a few corners to narrow the bunch it was simply follow the wheel ahead and hope nobody in front of you botches it — at nearly 70 coming to the line stopping doesn’t happen so fast …

One thing today was a good example of however was the pattern of a flat stage and what a breakaway does there to establish order. A number of people have asked me about this recently, so here goes my attempt: When we roll out and the battle ensues, it’s at first largely a combination game. The break is formed by legs, but equally as much by the composition of riders and the field “allowing” them to roll. Depends on the race, obviously, but at stage races it’s key that the number isn’t too many, that nobody is a real threat, and that the right teams are represented. If a rider from one of the teams expected to take responsibility on the day goes up the road, then others from the similar squads follow and the move is generally killed. A new group forms, riders re-shuffle, and eventually the right guys are there and the bunch relaxes. This provides the opportunity for everybody to de-stress, take a “nature break,” stock up on anything needed and settle in for the day.

The leader’s team takes the front, eventually aided by either teams of the sprinters, or climbers, depending on the stage, and then begins the gradual process of easing the gap out and reeling it back. Depending on the size of the break and the terrain ahead one calculates how much time is needed to bring the break back and then sets to work. As the finish approaches the rest of the bunch gets jumpy and real racing starts back in earnest. So is the pattern of nearly every day…

A break establishes order, gets press, is cruelly reeled back in a calculated manner, and then the big names play. Rare it is when a break succeeds — either a day like Monday when there’s too much indecision in the bunch, or later in the race when time gaps become huge. Obviously other factors come into play from time to time, but in the majority of races that’s the pattern … now to be surely disproved with a dramatic opposite example in the days to come!!

Tomorrow we hit the first hills and the leaders of the tour will come out to play. A big day for sure …

Cheers!
Will