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Tour de France 101

It’s been three years since Australia’s first Tour de France triumph, and while it seems like an age, it’s nothing compared to the preceding 97 tours that we didn’t win.  Since 2011 we’ve endured two years of dominance from the Old Dart.  As painful as it might be, it’s not the dominance of Team Sky that has been the problem.  I don’t mind them winning, but it’s the lack of art, or to be more appropriate, the complete absence of je ne sais quoi in their wins.

Keep it up and they’ll equal Armstrong ‘seven years of nothing’ for boredom.  For us, even if Cadel didn’t win in 2011, we all (all cycling fans that is, not just the Skip fans) would agree that it was the best and most interesting tour in modern times.  Cadel only had one day in yellow, the one that counts.  For the previous three weeks the jersey had bounced around the teams like a dropped bidon in the speeding peloton, allowing a select few their day in the sun. 

The 2011 tour brought fascinating racing, with a script that couldn’t be written.  Remember the pre- race favourite, Contador, on the back foot from the start, losing three minutes on stage 1 after being caught behind a fall?  And the comedy of the show, as two Spanish non-teammates tried gamely to help in his regaining of the peloton that day?  The joke being that they were from Euskaltel, a team that tends to choke on team time trial days, viewing them more as active rest days than race days.  Andreas Klöden, Bradley Wiggins, Alexander Vinokourov, Janez Brajkovic, Chris Horner and Jurgen Van Den Broeck all ‘exited stage left’ early, injured.  While Robert Gesink, Samuel Sánchez and Levi Leipheimer all lost considerable amounts of time, condition, and bruised egos due to falls. 

Controversy reigned when Nicki Sørensen was struck by a photo motorbike, and the now famous (mainly due to the incident) Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha being injured after an incident with a television car.

Fabian Cancellara failed in his bid to be union leader that day, and neutralise the day’s racing, citing the course as “dangerous”.  So while he self-righteously tried to slow the peloton and negotiate with the Commissaires, upfront a Frenchman who should never be allowed an inch, dug deep.  Thomas Voeckler chewed on his bar tape, and with the help of his ‘breakies’ levered himself into yellow.  For the second time in his career he gave the French hope for the next 10 or so days.

Note to Fabian:  If you are signing up for a sport that regularly runs its murderous three-week parcours up and down high Pyrenean and Alps passes, where wheel to wheel, handlebar to handlebar, cheek by jowl almost, you and your cohorts hit speeds of 80-90+ kph wearing nothing more for protection than a thin layer of lycra (that barely protects you against sunburn) and the softest roadside padding being kilometres of steel Armco, think carefully about what you call dangerous. 

It’s impossible to recreate the same script as 2011 but at least this year, with the removal of the mid-tour individual time trial where the race was secured the last two years, we’ve got a sporting chance. 

To the Race

An attractive point about the 2014 tour is the ‘cross channel start’ and importantly, the British riders, the roads and the fans.  Britain has a long history in road cycling that has only recently gained prominence in the forefront of British minds and the local press.  The last time Le Tour went porridge-side, for the start in 2007, there weren’t the likes of Cav, Wiggo and Froome in the ranks.  British results in the tour had been thin on the ground since the ’60s. There were good track results, but not on the road.  So now, along with the old died in the wool Tommy Simpson fans, expect there to be a new generation of British ‘tifosi’, ready to line the roads and cheer their boys on.

Tom Simpson was a British tour rider who passed away on Mont Ventoux, after a combination of heat exhaustion, dehydration and (not yet illegal) stimulants.  His famous last words, after collapsing within site of the summit, “Put me back on my bike”, became the name of his biography.  It is important to note here, that if this happened in the modern day, the immediate use of a defibrillator would change the outcome.

In the British start in 2007, it was Australia’s Robbie McEwen who executed a perfect stage comeback.  Crashing spectacularly at the 20km-to-go mark, which would usually be a write-off point for a sprinter, he re-grouped his teammates to pace him back into the fray, pulling off a spectacular stage win into Canterbury.  He re-tells the story succinctly in his biography One Way Road

While many of us, including those in the peloton, know little about the roads in northern England, one thing we all can guess is that narrow, low stone-walled country lanes will feature.  That is what comes to mind when envisaging the Yorkshire countryside, as they’re picturesque and will look great on television.  Unfortunately for some riders they could turn out to be as perilous as the cobbled pave sections that feature in northern France later in the week.  Possibly more perilous, as they are not likely to be as clearly designated, popping up while the peloton is pelting along.

Yorkshire has two sprinters stages, with the third running from Cambridge into London.  Stage two’s profile indicates a few short climbs, nothing of note that should trouble the sprinter’s teams though.  Will Cav dominate all three with the hometown advantage?  It would be a great spectacle, but unlikely these days, due to new young guard of sprinters, led by the likes of Kittel et al.  In fact, it’s about as likely as the French winning all the stages on French soil.

Despite many other successes, the French haven’t produced a local tour winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985.  That’s nearly 30 years ago.  So much for the hometown advantage theory! 

Once back in the land of cheese, the first week is all for the sprinters, as the race heads south east, along with a short side trip into Belgium.  There is one important day over the cobbles of northern France that will surely cut short someone’s hopes of finishing on the Champs Elysses.  It was here during a similar stage back in 2004 that Thor Hushovd lost the yellow jersey after falling victim to the pave, much to his chagrin.  He challenged the organisers over the placement of such a technical stage in the Tour de France.  Robbie McEwen responded with the comment, “well, take the mountains out and I’ll win the bloody race”.  His point being that it’s the same course for everyone, but not designed for all.  NB on that day, the coveted jersey moved from the shoulders of Thor, onto his. 

After putting the narrow roads in Britain and the cobbles behind them, the peloton should be happy to celebrate a long weekend of short climbs in the Alsace.  Three stages, all weighing in around 160km, will tell the story of who’s up to challenge for the General Classification this year.  Five punchy climbs followed by a short hilltop finish on Monday’s Bastille Day could produce some gaps, albeit small ones.

If you are fortunate enough to be visiting France this July, take a little time to explore the Alsace.  For while the world’s biggest bike race is in town, you may also take in the world’s largest car and train museums, which are both located in Mulhouse. 

After double dosing on Alpe d’Huez last year, the alps region receives not much more than a cursory visit in 2014.  After a hilltop finish on Chamrousse, the next day’s stage 12 sees the race pass directly underneath Alpe d’Huez, early, after a Grenoble start.  Even before the television coverage comes up.  This stage’s hilltop finish at Risoul may be new to Le Tour, but it is well known to some.  It was the race finish for last year’s Criterium du Dauphine, where Froome arrived a close second, allowing he and Porte to take the race double.  It’s also where Quintana has triumphed twice in smaller races, in front of Andrew Talansky, in the young guns Tour l’Avenir. Once again this begs the question, why would you be leaving Quintana at home for this year’s race? 

A cursory visit to the Alps it may be, but they are two influential mountain top finishes.  A weak moment here for a GC contender is a real possibility, and will be difficult to recover from. 

A transitional stage across Provence, finishing in Nimes, leads us to the second rest day in Carcassonne.  Expect the sunflowers to feature.  From here, the race springboards deep into the Pyrenees with this year’s longest stage of 237km, finishing in Luchon.  Not a hilltop finish, but the final climb of Port de Bales is steep, narrow and long, while the runoff into Luchon is tight.  Leaders to the front – to stay out of trouble on this one, too.

The next two stages are the most interesting in the tour, due to the short distances.  125k and 145k respectively they’re both crowned with hilltop finishes.  Between them they cover six classified climbs including the Tourmalet, with the final one being Hautacam.  In my mind this is the best type of racing.  Short, punchy, intense, and almost all of it during prime broadcast time.  It’s a win-win-win situation for the riders, fans and race organisers.  And if any one rider gets a win-win here, they’d be looking good for Paris. 

Stage 20 is the only time trial in this year’s tour, and it’s long at 54k. You have to wind the TT clock back to 1953 to find the last time the Tour had just one time trial.  This gives the 2014 Tour the shortest amount of time trial kilometres in many years. Expect rolling terrain, past fields of sunflowers, for the penultimate day of racing.  Will the TT specialists have waited almost three weeks and 3,500k for ‘their’ day in the sun (flowers)? 

Tour de France Wrap Up

The five hilltop finishes will more than likely decide the winner and as four of them are in the final week, we may not know the outcome as early as we have in the past two years.  Hopefully the shorter stages towards the end indicate this is the start of a trend.  The long time trial could be relevant if the weather was brutal, however this is disappointingly unlikely.  Where the race starts in England and crosses the cobbles of northern France are areas where the weather could well play a part.  Any wet and windy days there could put a favourite out, with no apology. 

Tour de France 101 = Not much for the clock racers, plenty for the sprinters, and more for the skinny climbers.  It’s an old recipe, with hope for a new outcome.

If you really wanted to avoid the outcome of the two last years i.e. the race winner in yellow from two weeks out, my vote would be to put the cobbles in on the final day, into Paris.  Roubaix – Paris with a finish on the Champs Elysses, with an evening loop of the Arc de Triomphe?  Spectacular, and a very easy way to produce a new man in yellow on the final day.


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