SAINT LO, France (VN) — It’s perhaps ironic that the hardest part of the hardest bike race in the world is also what almost the entire peloton looks forward to.
Logic would suggest that the peloton hates suffering on the sunbaked flanks of Mont Ventoux or slogging up hors categorie monster Col du Tourmalet — au contraire! While it’s true that the pain factor goes up when the peloton hits the Tour’s mountains, the stress factor goes down. Way down.
“I don’t like climbing the big mountains, but I prefer it to the first week of the Tour,” said Trek – Segafredo domestique Markel Irizar. “The tension of the first week is terrible. Everyone is waiting to get to the mountains. It’s like the air being let out of the balloon. The stress eases because everyone spreads out.”
Welcome to hidden face of Tour de France. Those “boring” stages past the sunflower fields and through the quaint villages? Despised. Nothing happens in the first week? Yeah, right.
Those who might say sprint stages don’t get interesting until the final kilometer aren’t seeing the real picture of the Tour. Between Saturday’s opening stage and the Pyrénées next week, the peloton will be tied into a collective knot. They will pick their way across through landmines that can destroy a year’s preparation, training, and sacrifice in a clip of a wheel.
“The Tour can be won or lost in the first stage,” said two-time champion Chris Froome (Sky), who crashed out in 2014. “I look a minute and a half on Quintana last year, and that’s pretty close to the margin I won by.”
The opening stages of any Tour de France are stressful beyond what anyone sitting at home can imagine. The stress ratchets up in degrees like the tightening of a bolt. Sprinters trying to elbow GC contenders out of the way for a mass gallop. GC contenders desperate to stay at the front to avoid a split in the peloton. Kids piling onto the roadway as the peloton barrels down at 50kph only to have their parents pluck them out of harms way in an instant. Round-abouts, traffic furniture, crosswinds, and too many Lycra-clad skinny guys trying to squeeze across a road that is only oh-so-wide.
“Oh, thanks for reminding me of that,” said Trek – Segafredo’s Frank Schleck. “It is very stressful, and you can lose everything in one bad crash. You hope that doesn’t happen, and you hope you can keep rubber to the ground. It’s just a question of luck.”
Week one of any Tour de France is laden with traps. Week one of the 2016 Tour de France, though abbreviated because the mountains come early in stage 7, will be intense. Why? The stakes are beyond measure.
Two stages across the windswept Contentin peninsula of Normandy to open the 2016 Tour de France could well decide the race barely out of the gates. Time losses on the flats are nearly impossible to recover in the mountains. Last year, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) got caught out in the crosswinds in stage 2, losing 1:28 on the day. Flash forward three weeks later, he was 1:12 behind Froome in Paris. The Colombian is hoping to avoid a repeat of that scenario this weekend.
“I lost the Tour last year in the first week,” Quintana said. “I believe if we can avoid the setbacks we saw last year, we will be even with Sky and the others going into the mountains. That will be very important.”
Teams do what they can to avoid disaster. Everyone tries to ride at the front, or at the back (the only safe places in the peloton). Of course, if they’re off the back when the bunch split, it can be impossible to chase back. Team Sky is bringing a “star team” that includes classics strongmen Ian Stannard, Geraint Thomas, and Luke Rowe. Why? For the sole purpose of chaperoning Froome safely to the mountains.
“The first few stages are some of the most intense, more so mentally and emotionally, because we’ve put so much into being ready for the Tour,” said BMC’s Brent Bookwalter. “What we do in the first week, in terms of stress and tactics of going through the villages and battling the crosswinds, is way worse. Once you get into the mountains, the legs and fitness count a lot more.”
Teams bring classics-style teams to “bulldoze” their way to the mountains — just as BMC Racing did in 2011 for Cadel Evans — all in a desperate chase to avoid disaster. Cannondale – Drapac, for example, is building its entire Tour team around Pierre Rolland, with the idea that if they can bring the French climber to the base of the mountains on par with the favorites, he could be a podium contender.
“We’ve brought a lot of big, mean Dutch guys to keep him safe, and put him on par with the others for the mountains,” said Cannondale – Drapac manager Jonathan Vaughters. “Then it’s up to him to be with the strongest.”
At least this year, the Tour route doesn’t include cobbles. In 2014 and 2015, the peloton had to tackle the rough pavé. And this year’s “rough patch” is not even a week long, with some punchy, steep finales along the way to break up the tension. Still, nothing compares to the fear provoked by the crosswinds. On Saturday and Sunday, forecasters are calling for a mini-hurricane blowing off the Manche Channel, with westerly winds up to 50kph. That’s enough to give team managers heartburn all the way to the Pyrénées.
“No way will all the GC favorites arrive to the Pyrénées on the same time,” Irizar said. “The first week is so stressful, and everyone will fight for the front, trying to keep their GC leaders in good position. There will be crashes, and leaders will get caught out. It’s even worse because there are no time trials before the mountains.”
As the Tour saying goes, you don’t win the Tour in the first week, but you can certainly lose it.