Looking over the editions of the Tour de France which I have followed has shown me that stage 4 is the most dull stage of each Tour, though yesterday was very much the exception to the rule. Hardly anything has happened on a stage 4, which have either been flat sprinters stages or some form of time trial. No significant crashes or abandons, no drugs violations, they are the type of snooze fests which leave you having to listen to Carlton Kirby witter on about different types of sheet metal for hours.
2011’s stage from Lorient to Mur-de-Bretagne was thankfully slightly different though as it was in one of the editions in which the organisers tried to spice things up in the first week. Stage 1 had already seen an exciting hilly finish won by Philippe Gilbert and he was hoping to be in contention on a similar end climb up ‘The Wall of Brittany’.
He would though be up against a strong GC field trying to steal time over their rivals. Contador, Evans, the Schlecks, Wiggins and Jurgen Van Den Broeck were all at the race and all in with a shout of winning.
The day played out in much the same way as a sprint stage would only the dash was up a hill. Contador and Evans were the two fasted at the finale. The Spaniard thought he had it and performed a semi celebration but the photo finish showed that ‘cuddles’ had won.
Just a routine stage, only 8 seconds separated the top 40 riders in the end but the significant thing was it showed that Evans was ready to win the Tour. He had two 2nd place finishes in 2007 and 2008 where he gained a reputation as a bit of a wheel sucker. After then he started riding more aggressively, trying to animate the race rather than follow others, and became more in control of his own destiny. He won the World Championships in 2009 and whilst in the rainbow jersey added La Fleche Wallonne to his palmares then won the epic ‘White Road’ stage at the Giro. This stage, his first road stage at the Tour, was the final piece of the jigsaw which revealed him to be someone ready to win the Tour de France.
Today the Tour de France starts with what can only be described as a sprint stage. The route from Mont-Saint-Michel to Utah Beach is similar to many first days of the race. But as well as sprint stages kicking off the Tour in recent years there have also been time trials and short hilly finishes meaning the first yellow jersey of each edition of the race has been worn by different types of riders ranging from Marcel Kittel to Alejandro Valverde.
Remember the good old days though? A time when the Tour used to follow a set formula for the first few days. Start with a prologue then a couple or three days for the sprinters. “I like what I know and I know what I like” was the order of the day. Except some people of the “variety is the spice of life” persuasion didn’t like it and found the format too boring and predictable meaning we’ll probably have a stage 1 finish atop the Galibier before long.
I loved these stages. The usually technical prologue could often catch out some big names and the sprints were hotly contested between many riders. They were different to the sprints of today. Lead out trains were smaller, the front of the peleton wasn’t an arrow head, I have memories of a mad gallop to the line, riders strung right across the road, wide boulevards. Ah the memories.
In 2006 Thor Hushovd had won the prologue, as expected, so was in yellow as the peleton raced into Strasbourg on stage 1 proper. Being one of the top sprinters of the time he was expected to be in contention for the stage alongside the likes of Erik Zabel, Daniele Bennati and Robbie McEwan, who Paul Sherwen kept reminding us had the nickname ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’. The end of this sprint seems fairly routine. You can see Hushovd next to the barriers and he hardly gets going, probably too boxed in and he rolls over the line in 9th as Jimmy Casper wins. The French are delighted with the victory and everyone breaths a sigh of relief as the sprint ends without a crash.
Bizarrely though the camera is soon on the big Norwegian and he is lying on the road with his yellow jersey covered in blood. After he is led away in the ambulance it becomes clear from video replays that as he was racing towards the line he brushes against one of those stupid cardboard hand things giving him a massive cut. Embarrassingly for the organisers these green hands were handed out by one of there sponsors PMU. To add insult to injury, as well as losing a lot of blood, Hushovd lot the yellow jersey as George Hincapie gained some bonus seconds in some of the intermediate sprints.Thankfully in the end the injury wasn’t too serious and Hushovd was able to continue in the race.
One of the other bizzare things of the day is Bernard Eisel finishing in 8th place riding for……FDJ.