This was one of the most action packed stages of the Tour de France in my memory. Pre-race it was described as a mini Paris-Roubaix and had been talked about as the old “Stage where the Tour won’t be won but could be lost”.
It is remembered for the contrasting fortunes of the ‘Big Three’. Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome were considered to be the top GC riders of a generation but this would be the first time that they would be racing against each other in a Grand Tour. Their battles down in the mountains were being eagerly anticipated but it was the flat roads of Northern France which would be decisive.
Froome had come into the race with mixed form, he won the Tour de Romandie but had suffered from illness and injury at various parts of the season. After a great 2013 he was looking vulnerable and it seemed he was not as strong mentally as well as physically. So much had been made in the media about this cobbled stage and Froome’s ability or inability to tackle it. He was constantly asked about it and seemed increasingly nervous in his answers as the day drew closer. His mental state can’t have been helped much when on the previous days stage he had a crash, damaging his hand and ending the day with the left side of his jersey and shorts in tatters. Then, on the morning of the stage, a downpour. It was the last thing Froome would have wanted. It was possible he was past his nervousness and had now accepted the fact that something bad was going to happen. It took only 35km for Froome to go down, but this was only his first crash as he managed to gingerly get back on his bike. After another 45km he was down again. Looking at his face you knew what was coming and although he tried to remount his bike then had a quick discussion with his team doctor and DS it was clear that his Tour was over. It later emerged that he had injured his hand the previous day and crashing on it twice meant he was going to find it nearly impossible to control his bike. The ironic thing of it all was he hadn’t even reached the feared cobbles of the stages as his team car’s door was getting slammed in his face the days breakaway riders had only just reached the first sector of pave, Carrefour de l’Arbre.
Meanwhile Contador and Nibali had so far stayed out of trouble but as the peloton crossed the second section of cobbles Sep Vanmarck, trying to force the selection, turned on the gas. Contador got detached from the front group but Nibali was able to hold on. From then on Contador was left trying to limit his losses as Astana pulled off a performance worthy of winning Paris-Roubaix itself. Jacob Fuglsang started driving things along for Nibali and he was soon joined by teammate Lieuwe Westra who was in the days break. Incredibly the trio plus Belkin rider Lars Boom managed to create a gap between them and the rest. They had managed to outfox the likes of Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan who were the experts on the days terrain. At the end after Lieuwe Westra dropped back having done a mountain of work Boom pulled off an attack which won him the stage. Fuglsang and Nibali were 2nd and 3rd almost a minute ahead of Cancellara and Sagan but more importantly 2 minutes 45 seconds ahead of Contador. Few stages have ever made so much damage to the GC.
It is always sad when a rider crashes out of a race but when it’s a contender getting into the team car you can get a feeling that the race is being spoiled, that it won’t mean as much, that what could have been an epic race is now going to be a second rate show. I would have been more disappointed at Froome abandoning the race had I not thought something was going to happen to him anyway, I must have subconsciously prepared myself for the outcome. But still, the fact that I wouldn’t see the “Big 3” fight it out in the mountains was depressing. However, I knew that the manner of Nibali’s ride would mean Froomes exit would not diminish the importance of of his potential Tour win and the prestige of the race overall.
Much was said before and after the stage about the suitability of having a cobbled stage in the Tour de France. Some said it could reduce the GC fight to a lottery while other had concerns over rider safety. To address the first concern, Nibali benefited over his rivals due to good preparation and a strong team performance not luck. Time was gained in the same way as it is in the mountains. Considering safety, while Froome’s crash and one which took out Valverde and Van Garderen may have been caused by the race for position on the first sector, in the end more riders crashed off the pave than on it. The organisers took out two sections of cobbles in the morning before the stage when they saw how heavy the rain was but they were obviously happy with the way things turned out as they included a cobbled stage in the very next edition of the Tour de France.