Off the Back: Five Thoughts on the Tour de France So Far
Like a lager overflowing its stein at a Munich biergarten, Germany’s athletic prowess has spilled over the soccer pitch and onto the roads of the Tour de France, where Lotto-Belisol’s Andre (the Gorilla) Greipel beat his fellow sprinters by a bike length to take today’s sixth stage. The Gorilla, who can fairly be described as a life-support system for a pair of ridiculously hypertrophied quadriceps, had been overshadowed in this Tour by his countryman, Marcel Kittel, the Giant-Shimano rider who won three of the first four stages. But in the hectic, boiling final kilometer on today’s run-in to Reims, Kittel apparently punctured, opening the door for his fellow German, to whom we say: Prosit!
Five thoughts on the Tour so far:
1. More rain, more crashes, more attrition. While the conditions may not have been as miserable as Wednesday’s epic and cobbled instant classic—during which defending champion Chris Froome of Team Sky crashed twice, then abandoned—the casualties were costly. Alberto Contador, who could end up being the biggest beneficiary of Froome’s departure, lost teammate Jesus Fernandez, who would’ve been a key wingman for the Spaniard in the high mountains. Likewise, Sky’s Xabier Zandio snapped a clavicle in a mass crash 79 kilometers from the finish, and couldn’t go on. That means Richie Porte, the talented Aussie all-around rider promoted to leadership of the squad following the loss of Froome, is down to six teammates, with 15 stages to go.
2. The race is still searching for a new equilibrium after the muddy, bloody upheaval of Stage 5, destined to go down as one of the more controversial, and iconic, in recent Tour history. The inclusion of nine cobbled secteurs–reduced to seven before the stage began— promised to inject a large dose of anarchy, and that was before lashing rain and winds turned each cobbled section into a high-speed Slip ’N Slide. Attacking the cobbles with panache befitting the race leader, the surprising Vincenzo Nibali, the Italian riding for Astana, kept the yellow jersey. Below him, the leaderboard was jumbled.
Young American Andrew Talanksy, Garmin-Sharp’s leader, leapfrogged from 22nd to 9th place, and now sits just over two minutes behind Nibali. Contador, riding conservatively and with an eye toward the Tour’s five upcoming mountaintop finishes, lost a shocking 2 ½ minutes to Nibali—precious time that will be difficult to claw back from the Italian.
Three places and six seconds behind Talansky is fellow American and BMC leader Tejay van Garderen. Though both riders took significant time out of Contador, their moods diverged after the stage. The BMC rider vented his frustration to NBC at the Tour’s decision to add cobblestones to the race: “You guys got your drama, but that takes the race down a notch when you got your top favorite out. In theory, it could make the race less exciting toward the end. I think ASO needs to rethink having days like this in the race.”
Talansky, for his part, sounded borderline euphoric, talking to Andrew Hood of VeloNews: “I’m very pleased. If you look at the list of guys that are up there, a lot of those guys are going to be gone when we get to the mountains, and aren’t going to factor in the overall GC. So we’re sitting pretty well.”
“It was an epic day to be a part of. It was a day I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
3. Nibali can do no wrong—other than this awk-sauce moment with a podium woman following his victory in Stage 2. The 29-year-old Astana leader had a slow start to the season, but seems to have found his top form at exactly the right time. When the rider known as The Shark launched his late attack in Stage 2, none of the other heads of state could answer. While other riders complained about the slippery cobbles in Stage 5, Nibali had reconned those sections before the Tour, then made his homework pay off. He’s a strong rider with a strong team around him.
4. Whither Britannia? After his race-ending crash in Stage 1, Mark Cavendish required surgery on his right shoulder. Right around the time Cav came to in the hospital, following the operation, Froome crashed out as well. And so this Tour, which started with a strong British flavor—race director Christian Prudhomme described the Grand Depart from Yorkshire as the “grandest” in the event’s history—is down to just a pair of U.K. riders: the Welshman Geraint Thomas, and Orica GreenEdge’s 21-year-old Simon Yates.
5. Crashes are inevitable (and, for NBC producers seeking highlights to tease the broadcast, invaluable) in this first, nervous week of the Tour. While there may be no more pileups than usual, the reaction to them seems to be more cutthroat, according to Trek Factory Racing’s Jens Voit, who is the Tour’s oldest rider, at 42, in addition to being one of its most perceptive.
First-week carnage comes with the territory in this race, Voit told NBC’s Steve Schlanger following Stage 5:
“Everybody’s fresh, ready to take any risk. But it also feels like the sport’s getting a little more rough.” Riders are less inclined, Voit believes, to worry about “taking care of each other. Today we had a big crash, 25 riders on the ground or blocked behind them. And teams just decide to profit from it.”
“There was the green jersey on the ground”—points classification leader Peter Sagan. “And I remember days when [race elders would say] ‘No, that’s a distinctive jersey on the ground, we slow down and wait.’” No mas. Today, teams pressed on, trying to take advantage of Sagan’s misfortune. “I think the sport is getting more rough,” repeated Voit, who also expects pyrotechnics in the upcoming mountains:
“Now that some of the climbers lost time on the flat stages, they need to make the race hard and spectacular. I’m gonna suffer—sorry for my words—I’m gonna suffer like a pig in the climbs. But for the spectators, I think we have some pretty cool racing ahead of us.”