What a funny first week it’s turning out to be in this, the 102nd Tour de France. We’ve seen unexpected gaps, unpredicted time trials speeds, and now, on stage three, the controversy that was the unprecedented decision by race referees to neutralize the race for twenty minutes.
The neutralization followed what were reported to have been two pile-ups in the peloton, occurring in quick succession on an untechnical descent. I say ‘reported’, as only one was televised — it appeared to be a fairly routine touching of wheels, but with an ensuing series of serious tumbles. Cancellara shot dramatically over his handle bars, and suffered an injury which ruined the rest of his day — he later lost around five minutes on the race leaders, and was massaging his right thigh and lower back constantly. Three riders pulled out of the race in quick succession. Simon Gerrans dropped out due to injuries, which must be devastating — his 2015 has been fraught with similar incidents, and, to be overly personal for a moment, I wish him all the best.
Next on the list of casualties was Tom Dumoulin. This was especially gutting as he was only a handful of seconds behind Cancellara on the General Classification at the start of the stage, and the severe gradients at the end of stage three — up the Mur de Huy, a notoriously steep hill famous from the Ardennes classics — would have suited Dumoulin’s punchy finish. Doubtful that he’d have landed on the stage podium, but doubtless he could have taken time off Cancellara, even if the Swiss man had not taken a fall.
Last on the list of immediate drop outs (other riders pulled out later) was William Bonnet, which brings me on to the main thrust of today’s post. The young FDJ domestique was clearly in serve pain and seemed to come off worst of all in the crash (the severity of his injuries, and similarly suffering riders, may well have led the race refs to neutralize the race against convention). The cameras smelt blood and, rather tasteless, circled Bonnet like sharks. The rider writhed in discomfort, and so did the viewer at home as we were repeatedly shown footage that we didn’t want to see.
This all recalled the unpleasant scenes in this year’s Giro, when Pozzovivo fell horribly from his bike, and suffered the sorts of injuries that made one wonder if he was going to survive. The Eurosport commentators were forced to apologize to viewers for the distasteful vulture’s eye view from the helicopters that kept flashing up as the race carried on (Eurosport don’t control the images the show, they merely comment on them). What did the official photographers hope to convey? And up to the date report on the pooling blood around poor Pozzovivo’s head?
The images of Bonnet (and the images of images being taken of Bonnet) distastefully reminded me that there are a few dark streaks running through cycling. One is that, whether audiences do or do not strangely relish the odd crash, the television crews certainly think they do. When was the last time you saw a trailer for a tour or a cycling event that didn’t include a shocking crash, an injured cyclist hobbling in his cleats, or a bike sliding out on some slippery descent? Maybe the sport would benefit from fewer of these images, maybe not. For me, it might be part of the sport, but it’s not part I care to see.
…and on to the finish. The race resumed with 50km to go, the first categorized climb of the tour skipped thanks to neutralization. This led to a slow few kilometres, before a frenetic and fierce series of short climbs. Riders were shelled from the peloton in the run in to the Huy, and the injured Cancellara was losing ground by the minute, but all the key contenders (save for Dumoulin) were present. This included both general classification riders as well as punchier finishers like Dan Martin, the ever-present Peter Sagan, and Alejandro Valverde, a favourite for the stage. I was expected Geraint Thomas to have a good dig on the short ascent of the Mur (according to my brother, he had recently intimated that he might have a go). But I began to wonder what Sky’s plan was as Thomas drove on the front of the peloton in the last 10km — no way to conserve energy for the final climb.
Ultimately, Valverde was well placed but lacked the kick to get him to the line first. Dan Martin looked great, but seemed to come too late, from too far back. Instead, it became a stage for riders who might not have the sprint, but could go early — the pace was maxed out from the bottom of the climb. Rodriguez went early but didn’t fade — he took the stage in a wonderful display of his return to form, and we can expect plenty more from him on the uphills in the second and third weeks. But we also got to see Sky play their card on the final climb; not Thomas, but team leader Froome. In a devastating display of power he held Rodriguez’s wheel and rode in second, securing a place on the podium today, but also taking a very early yellow jersey. Nibali pulled off a similar trick last year and was the jersey wearer come Paris — dare we dream of another Froome victory? He certainly looked to be in shape. Lastly, my hope for podium Tejay Van Gardenen did a splendid job, riding in in sixth, and placing himself in third overall, only thirteen seconds off Froome’s top spot. If he can keep the pace in the big climbs, he’s looking like a very strong possibility for a high placing in Paris.