The Tour de France Is Off to a Slippery, Hesitant Start

Joe Lindsey
·6 mins read
Photo credit: Tim de Waele - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim de Waele - Getty Images

From Bicycling

Every day at the Tour de France, there is a commissaire’s report that lists the mundane but important realities of the race: who was fined, for how much, and for what infraction; and, crucially, which riders crashed, and what their injuries are.

In Saturday’s slip-and-slide of an opening stage, nearly 30 of the 176 total riders crashed—including both Philippe Gilbert and John Degenkolb of Lotto-Soudal, neither of whom started Stage 2. That meant Tour racers had a one-in-six chance of crashing on Saturday alone. What’s even more significant is that most of those falls were not the result of a single big crash like you sometimes see in the final kilometers—although there was one of those.

Instead, riders crashed in ones or twos, done in by the combination of small, tricky roads and rain—reportedly the first significant precipitation on the Cote d’Azur in some time—which left the roads slick. A possible aggravating factor on some sections of the course: the ill-advised decision to include a sponsor float that sprays soap bubbles in the pre-race publicity caravan.

In Sunday’s Stage 2, riders thankfully raced under bright, clear skies, but the crashes continued in a stage with the fourth-most climbing (4,000 meters) of the entire 2020 Tour. Two examples: Jumbo-Visma’s Tom Dumoulin got chopped by an Ineos Grenadiers rider on a climb, and EF Pro Cycling’s dark horse Dani Martinez slid out on a tight corner on the penultimate descent. Dumoulin remounted quickly and lost no time. Martinez, after a furious chase to re-catch the peloton, was then dropped on the final climb and finished 3:38 down.

It’s a bruised and banged-up peloton that will leave Nice, France, on Monday morning, but they won’t get much respite. In this weird, wild Tour de France, the predictable (Julian Alaphilippe’s Stage 2 win) only underscores that so much is unpredictable (Lotto-Soudal, down to just six riders, is dead-last in the teams competition).

Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images
Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images

Start with this seemingly impossible thought: because of the coronavirus pandemic, no one knows how long the 2020 Tour de France will be. Sure, it’s slated for the usual 21 stages, but teams realize that it could be halted at any moment.

Official race protocol states that any team with two or more positive tests in a seven-day period will be removed from the race. Initially that was restricted to just riders, not staff. But after receiving pressure from the French government, because several early stages take place in “red zones” with elevated transmission rates, that was shifted to include riders and staff. Organizers haven’t identified a specific threshold that would stop the race, but if an outbreak does take hold in the pack it may be impossible to contain.

With that knowledge in the back of everyone’s mind, look for teams and riders to seize opportunities where they can, instead of strategically waiting to make moves.

There was a clue in the Stage 2 breakaway. Typically, first-week breaks are filled with riders from second-division wild-card teams hoping to get some TV time for the sponsor, score a brief stay in the green or polka-dot jersey, and maybe a lucky break for a chance at a stage win. But this year, Stage 2 featured some peloton heavies: seven-time green jersey winner Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Danish national champion Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-Quick Step), and multi-time Tour of California stage winner Toms Skujinš (Trek-Segafredo).

Sure, Sagan was likely after the intermediate sprint points, and Asgreen was a tactical play to make sure Alaphilippe (who eventually won) and the Deceuninck – Quick-Step team didn’t have to set pace in the peloton. But still, the move was seven riders, all from WorldTour teams. They’re not waiting for those later opportunities when the pack is tired, because it’s uncertain whether those late opportunities will be there.

Then, note that the first block of racing (Stages 1-9) is atypically difficult, at least for the Tour. The first summit finish is in Stage 4 on Tuesday; there’s another in Stage 6, and then two weekend stages in the Pyrenees. That will sort the field quickly, especially for any riders who are still struggling with crash injuries from the opening weekend. There’s not a straightforward likely sprint until Wednesday at least, meaning a seesaw battle between breakaway hopefuls, general classification (GC) aspirants, and those who just want to survive.

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Finally, many predicted the Tour would likely be a battle between two heavyweight teams: Jumbo and Ineos. That may still come to pass, but early on, Jumbo does not seem to be on its A game. Crashes for riders like George Bennett (two falls on Saturday) and Tony Martin may have hurt. Whatever the case, they aren’t yet showing themselves to be the dominant team we expected.

Ineos’s strength is also being questioned; the team’s original plan to bring Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, or both to the Tour fizzled out, with both riders off their usual form before the Tour. Climber Pavel Sivakov is nursing more or less head-to-toe crash injuries and rode home Sunday in the grupetto, almost half an hour down. Andrey Amador, riding in that same group, also seemed to struggle in the second stage, still nursing the effects of his Stage 1 tumble.

With all that uncertainty, expect the nervous racing to continue. Riders may settle some in Stage 3 as the race gets out of the tight and twisty roads around Nice, but don’t expect to see more truces like the one riders made on the trickiest descent of Stage 1 on Saturday. The Tour has always been where riders make a name and a career for themselves—and that’s even more important this year, with teams facing financial difficulties.

One of the most pivotal moments of last year’s Tour might serve as a guide. In Stage 19, Ineos’s Egan Bernal made a bold, long-range attack on the penultimate climb, the Col d’Iseran. Off the front, alone, it was anyone’s guess whether the move was tactical genius and would hold to the finish in Tignes, or if Bernal would fade and be caught. As it turns out, we never learned the answer to that question: an intense hailstorm caused massive flooding in the valley between the Iseran and Tignes. On the fly, organizers neutralized the stage and declared no winner, taking stage and GC times on the road, and awarding Bernal the race leader’s yellow jersey, which he would hold on the next day’s summit and to Paris.

Maybe the 2020 Tour is exactly like that, every day. If you don’t know how long the race will be, what do you do? We’re about to find out how 22 teams answer that question.

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