Tour de Past, Stage 12. 1995, Jalabert Wins on Bastille day.

I sometimes wonder how many hours or even days I have spent over the years staring at the TV watching the parts of bicycle races where nothing is happening. The break has formed, the peloton is cruising along and the only thing happening is the riders are going from A to B. Thankfully there is usually some beautiful scenery to look at and my mind can be occupied by thoughts of having an idyllic life on the continent. It’s the same escapism I get into when going for a ride on my own. There is one day at the Tour every year though that gets my full attention from the start of the broadcast to the end, and that falls on the 14th of July.

The atmosphere on the roadside during Bastille Day is absolutely fantastic. It seems that the whole of France watches the race during la Fête nationale and the high spirits make the race a joy to watch back home. However, when there is the chance of a French victory things reach fever pitch.

The first time I witnessed this happen was in 1995. There hadn’t been a French Bastille day win for six years, the longest such gap since the Second World War but the hosts were having a decent Tour. Jacky Durand and Laurent Jalabert had both worn the Yellow Jersey in the first week and going into stage 12 Jalabert was now in Green and Richard Virenque was leading the mountains classification.

Of those two in-form French riders it was Jalabert who most suited the terrain, rolling hills through the Massif Central with a steep 8 km climb at the finish to an airfield in Mendé. He didn’t wait long to make his move and attacked after 20 km, meaning he and the other five escapees would have to survive over 200 km if they were to win the stage.

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Rest Day Recap.

The Tour de France’s second rest day is an occasion for the top contenders to try and regain some energy before their final assault of the race. This year they face three tough mountain stages as well as a difficult Alpine time trial before the final day procession in Paris so the interlude will be well received but for those watching the race will also be looking forward to recharge their batteries.

Grand Tour fatigue is something that many cycling fans suffer from. It takes a lot of time and energy to follow three week races and sometimes your interest in them can start to wane. I believe the Vuelta is affected by this fatigue as some can’t handle experiencing three Grand Tours in a season but this year I started getting symptoms of the malaise early. I am lucky enough to watch all of the stages live but with not much happening during the flat stages and little GC action in the mountains my interest has been slowly (very slowly) worn down. At times I was even happy to see a Voekler face to break the boredom. There have been many great stories in the race but overall it has been a disappointment so far.

Many people point their hands at Team Sky for the making the race dull by controlling things in a robotic manner. But what are they meant to do? They picked a strong team to support Chris Froome in his Tour challenge and they’re succeeding in a disciplined manner. In fact Froome has been one of the more colourful protagonists of the race in the way he’s looked for opportunities to gain time when his rivals aren’t expecting him to and of course there were the bizzare images of him running up Mont Ventoux. So because of Froomes antics he has the yellow jersey and Sky have to defend it. I wonder if the same people who criticise the team for being dull would also call them out for disrespecting the yellow jersey had they not been defending it. It is other teams who should be blamed for the state of the race.

Cofidis. It wasn’t till stage 12 when Daniel Navarro finished 3rd on Mont Ventoux that they did anything. Ok, they were missing their top rider Bouhanni but they needed to do more to justify the privilege of a wild card. They needed to get in more breaks at the start of the race. Many of the breaks in the first week were pitiful with only a couple of riders in them. They were always doomed to failure. Most breaks are but the more riders in them the better the chance of succeeding and attacks within the break are something which can animate things but there was none of these things to make the race interesting. Instead all that was on offer for the fans was hours of nothing and no prospect of anything till the end of stage sprint.

Movistar and Astana haven’t been much help either. Trying to challenge Sky for the race win they have used some bizzare tactics. First of all their team selection. They haven’t had anyone in the Luke Rowe or Geraint Thomas mold to power their leaders back to Chris Froome when he has forced a gap between them. In the mountains they keep on sending a couple of men up in the break, presumably for Aru and Quintana to bridge up to but in the mountains the breaks have been given so much time that these satellite riders are nearly finishing the stage as Aru and Quintana are only starting the final climb. The riders in the break could drop back but it seems that Movistar and Astana’s GC men have never intended on bridging up to them anyway. All the ‘tactic’ has resulted in is Aru and Quintana being a little isolated on the final climbs while Froome still has four or five men with him. Vincenzo Nibali hasn’t been much help for Aru either. Supposedly a Super Domestique he has clearly just riden for himself in the search of a stage win. When mentioning Nibali I have to consider Valverde too though he has been the polar opposite. The Spaniard has been a great team player for Quintana even though, judging by Nairo’s form, he might be the better rider.

The challenge against Froome by the top riders has also been disappointing. Quintana doesn’t seem to have much in the mountains, Contador crashed out early, Aru is missing something and it’s a surprise he hasn’t lost more than 5 odd minutes to the leader. Thibault Pinot has been the most disappointing rider. The Tour needs a credible French hope as the excitement that generates on the roadside can work its way onto the TV but within a few days it was obvious that Pinot had something wrong with him. Out of GC contention early on he seemed to be interested in the mountains jersey before dropping out of the race all together. Bardet has flattered to deceive, Tejay Van Garderen has been invisible and it is his team mate Richie Porte who out of the pre race favourites has been the closest challenger to Froome. He lost around 2 minutes on stage 2 due to a puncture but still seemed in the race after matching Froome in the mountains before, inevitably, losing another 2 in the Time Trial.

It hasn’t all been doom and gloom though. In the GC race Bauke Mollema and Adam Yates have shown good promise. Yates has done incredibly and even if he slips down the standings in the last week he is due much praise. Mollema has always promised a good Grand Tour and I’m hoping he maintans his form to put up a good fight with Froome in the Alps. Of the four mountain stages so far, three have been won from breakaways. I see this as slightly disappointing because it suggests a weak GC competition. The breaks were all also afforded buckets of time so there wasn’t even the excitement of “will they or won’t they succeed”. But I have to admit my feelings are biased due to my fantasy team which is loaded with overall riders rather than polkadot specialists. In fact the wins by De Gendt, Dumoulin and Pantano have made me smile. They were highly deserved by the three riders made popular not just by their panache but by their overall pleasant character.

Another popular winner has been Mark Cavendish. Written off for a while he is now the top sprinter at the Tour and as Kittel and Greipel are there too he could be considered the best sprinter in the world again. Four stage wins so far is an incredible achievement and the fact he is always quick to mention the charity Qhubeka and all the good work they do during his winners interviews makes the Cavendish story a good one.

Three other riders have also brought some joy to the race. Peter Sagan who could brighten up any race, apart from perhaps the Tour of Qatar, has been magnificent, at one point owning the Rainbow, Green and Yellow jerseys and Greg Van Avermaet put up a great performance in the leaders jersey especially on stage 7 when during a medium mountain stage he actually put time on his rivals. Steve Cummings again proved his worth with a great victory in that same stage 7 and made a mockery if Pete Kennaugh’s Olympic selection.

So today I rest up and enjoy life before plunging into the final week of the Tour de France not wanting to expect too much in case I get let down but at the same time knowing I’ll watch it all no matter how terrible it is as there’s always the chance you’ll see something quite special.

Tour de Past, Stage 4. 2011, Cadel Lays Down His Marker.

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.

 

 

 

Tour de Past, Stage 2. 2010, Cancellara the patron.

First published 3rd July 2016.

 

This year is Fabian Cancellaras last as a pro rider meaning that the position of Patron of the peloton will become available. It is difficult to see who will take over. Chris Froome is too nicey nicey, Quintana comes across as too quiet and none of the riders seem to like Vincenzo Nibali. Maybe there is no need for a Patron anymore. A collective approach may work better these days when trying to address the problems which the riders face. A handful of riders have already shown they’re prepared to speak out on the issues such as rider safety, and have done so very eloquently. Perhaps when Bernard Hinault ended his podium stage act the need for a Patron disappeared with Monsieur Patron himself.

Fabian Cancellara has won 7 stages at the Tour de France but I remember him most for two things. The amazing amount of work he did when driving the peloton along the lower slopes of mountains in service of his CSC team and his antics as Patron during stage 2 for the 2010 tour.

That day the Tour was still to actually reach France as the stage was to finish in Spa, Belgium. With most of the stage gone the breakaway was beginning to fragment leaving Sylvain Chavanel in the lead. At the same time the chasing peloton were descending the Stockeu, 35km to go, in wet and slippery conditions. Suddenly there were a series of crashes. Most of the top riders were involved. The Green Jersey Pettachi, Wiggins, Evans, Contador, Armstrong . Cancellara avoided all the trouble and was still chasing the break at the head of the peloton when he suddenly sat up, hearing on his radio that the Schleck brothers had been involved as well as the other big names. Next, in a brief summary of the rest of the stage, he seemed to command the whole of the peloton to slow down and after discussions with the race director the stage was effectively neutralised and the bunch rolled home with no more action.

I remember being livid at the time. The stage profile had promised some exciting racing but I got a procession. It seemed obvious to me that Cancellara was just using his muscle to allow his team mate Andy Schleck, who was one of the worst effected by the crash, gain enough time to recover and catch up with his rivals. And as a few riders such as Thor Hushovd seemed keen to carry on racing I was annoyed that the rest allowed Spartacus to get away with the slowing down of proceedings.

I was caught up in the moment though. On reflection it was a terrible crash and there was another descent to come off the final climb of the day, the Col du Rosier. Rider safety has to be paramount. Also the slowing down didn’t just benefit Andy Schleck. Bradley Wiggins, one of Schlecks perceived rivals, also would have lost time. But most of all Cancellara actually lost his yellow jersey as Sylvain Chavanel, the sole remnant of the days breakaway, was allowed to continue on and gained enough time to take the overall lead.

In some kind of weird irony, during the next stage as Cancellara turned up the pace at the head of the peloton another crash happened and his team co-leader Frank Schleck went down, breaking his collar bone. The stage which featured cobbled sections had Cancellara finish 6th and he regained the yellow jersey.

July 2017 edit

The lack of a patron and what that means was evident in this years Giro d’Italia. After a crash in the first week which took out a few GC contenders those unaffected by the incident carried on regardless. I thought that was fair enough but what would have happened if Cancellara was there and his teammate went down?

Later on in the race when Tom Dumolin had his ‘situation’ his rivals seemed unsure of what to do. They soft pedalled for a while before resuming their pace and then later started racing. If one of them was ‘patron enough’ to stop the group I believe Dumolin’s situation would have been dire. He was badly exposed (in terms of teammate present) at the bottom of the climb but as it was his rivals wasted precious attacking kilometers trying to decide what to do.

 

Tour de Past, Stage 1. 2006, Thor Hushovd gets a paper cut.

 

First published July 2016.

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.