Tour de France starts with highs, lows in opening week
BORDEAUX, France (VN) — Monday’s first rest day comes beyond the first week of the Tour de France, but not quite as the midway point. More than the first week, it’s the first part of a three-chapter Tour. And it does provide a natural point of reflection.
An exciting nine days of racing confirmed a few things we might have known, and provided hints of a few things to come. The peloton pedals into the Pyrénées on Tuesday, with three hard climbing stages that should reveal even more about who will win this Tour. The road to the yellow jersey, however, was paved in the first week.
Here are the highs and lows of week 1, starting with the good stuff:
This race was hyped as a “Tour for the ages,” with an unprecedented number of favorites lining up with real options for victory, set against a route full of surprises, traps, and challenges. The route and the peloton have both lived up to their end of the bargain, at least up to now. Each stage has thrown something new at the peloton, which, in turn, has responded with panache, attacking the cobblestones, fighting through the wind, and confronting a string of classics-style stages with fervor. Book-ended by time trials, the imaginative route confirmed that the first week of the Tour needs to be anything but boring.
‘Fab Four’ still standing
There was apprehension in Utrecht that at one least one of the top favorites wouldn’t make it out of week 1. Last year saw Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) both crash out in the first half of the Tour. Despite some time losses, with stage 2 splintering the peloton in the crosswinds, all four of the “Fab Four” arrive to the foot of the Pyrénées with little more than a few bumps and scrapes. Let the real race begin.
Van Garderen confirms
Ever since he was a junior, many tipped Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) for greatness. Despite two top-5 finishes over the past three Tours, van Garderen did not make this year’s top favorites’ list among most fans and media. That changed during a superb first week, as van Garderen revealed new depth and maturity to arrive to the first rest day poised in perfect position. Backed by a powerful BMC Racing team, van Garderen survived the harrowing first week largely unscathed, just 12 seconds behind Froome. He is now in pole position for a run at the podium in Paris.
2015 opened a new chapter in Tour history. MTN-Qhubeka became the first African-registered team in the Tour’s century-plus history to form part of the peloton. The team brought five African riders, including Eritreans Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merheri Kudus, the first black Africans in Tour history. Teklehaimanot dazzled in the first week, riding into two breakaways to carry the King of the Mountains polka-dot jersey into the Pyrénées. Africa already has its first Tour winner with Kenyan Froome, but many believe the continent is cycling’s final frontier. Various projects across the continent are developing talent, and many believe Africans could come to dominate the Tour in its second century.
Any Tour has its lows, and this Tour is certainly no exception. Drama both on and off the bike provided plenty to chew on:
Boom or bust
There hasn’t been a full-on drugs scandal at the Tour in years, and that’s a good thing. Gone are the days of doping raids, midnight police searches, and riders jumping out hotel windows to avoid anti-doping controls. The lack of scandal is a testament to just how far the sport has come. It wasn’t so long ago that the Tour lurched from one scandal to another. The greatest hits include Operacíon Puerto in 2006, the forced exit of the maillot jaune with Michael Rasmussen in 2007, and Ricardo Riccò and the CERA cases in 2008.
These days, there are little more than hubbubs to keep the cynics happy. The 2015 Tour started off with one such foible; the convoluted tale of Lars Boom, his low cortisol levels, and the inconsistency between the UCI and the MPCC (Movement Pour Cyclisme Credible), a volunteer group whose rules Astana voluntarily snubbed when it decided to start its well-paid Dutch rider. MPCC duly put Astana on notice, Boom started because he did not break UCI or WADA rules, and other than a bit of finger-wagging and hand-wringing, the race was soon underway.
Paolini’s cocaine positive
A more serious case was the AAF (adverse analytical finding) of popular Italian veteran Luca Paolini (Katusha), who popped a positive for cocaine in a test after stage 4. Many couldn’t get their heads around that one. Was Paolini carving up rails during the middle of cycling’s hardest race? Talk about old-school. Other than some ambiguous apologies on Twitter, Paolini left the Tour in a haze of embarrassment for himself, his team, and the Tour in general.
It seemed the yellow jersey packed some bad juju during this year’s Tour, with Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) and Tony Martin (Etixx-Quick-Step) crashing out in quick succession. Cancellara injured his back in a high-speed pileup in stage 3 that saw the Tour come to an unprecedented halt as race organizers temporarily stopped the race to allow medical staff to deal with the injured. Four days later, Martin got his wheel tangled up on the run to Le Havre, causing a pileup that snapped his clavicle and also brought down GC favorites Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and van Garderen. It’s the first time in Tour history two yellow jerseys crashed out in the same edition.
French fete est finie
Last year saw a French revival, with two French riders on the podium and two stage victories. That spurred hopes of legitimate hopes for France’s first Tour win since Bernard Hinault last won in 1985, but those soon fizzled by the end of the first week. Sprint ace Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) crashed out, last year’s third-place finisher Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) lost more than eight minutes, and no one rolled into the Pyrénées within realistic reach of Chris Froome (Sky). Alexis Vuillermoz (Ag2r La Mondiale) won at the Mur de Bretagne for the first French stage victory, but it appears that the French revival has fizzled out like a bottle of champagne left open overnight. Coming out of the first week torn and tattered, it appears the home team is back to stage-hunting mode and gaining TV time for sponsors by packing the breakaways.