The inventor and first director of the Tour de France, Henri Desgrange, conceived of the race as an ultimate test of the stamina and will of the individual cyclist. They early years included massive stages of 400 kilometers, requiring the riders to start at 2:30 a.m. and occasionally go overnight before reaching the finish line. He tinkered with the rules constantly in ways that discouraged cooperation among riders (even on the same team) and required that racers carry all their equipment, fix their own flats, finish with the same bike they started with, and perform all repairs without assistance. In 1913 Eugene Christophe broke his fork descending a mountain road (little more than a dirt path). He had to carry his bike to the next village, find the local blacksmith, perform his own repair at the forge (three hours), and then race on. He was fined ten minutes for allowing a boy from the town to assist him by pumping the bellows at the forge. Another racer of the 1920s, having his bike ruined in a crash, borrowed a lady spectator’s bike (cushy seat, fat tires, etc.) and raced on to do well in the stage, even with his broken bike strapped to his back to comply with the rules.
Needless to say the Tour has changed a lot. On Saturday’s Prologue, a short Individual Time Trial, it rained, preventing the classic “race of truth” from being that. The Individual Time Trial was not introduced to the Tour until 1934, though as many as sixteen stages in a single tour had been Team Time Trials in the 1920s. When the sport newspaper that rivaled Desgrange’s L’Auto introduced a world championship ITT event, however, Desgrange was not slow to incorporate it in his race. The first was 90 km, but using a short ITT as a Prologue event allows a single race leader to be clearly identified after one day of racing. But the riders of 2010, knowing that three challenging weeks lay ahead, did not go quite all-out in the rain, lest a greasy bend in the road take them out of the race with an injury. The time results were thus no true measure of fitness or form; no rider “sent a message” with a stellar result. Still, Lance Armstrong finished fourth, a fine achievement. The challengers for overall Tour victory all placed reasonably well.
Sunday was a sunny day, and the stage was pretty flat. Not surprisingly a sprinter won. But again there was less than full “truth.” Too many fast sprinters crowding the front of the race with their support riders (called “lead-out” men because they lead the way for their team’s star sprinter to ride in their slipstream until the last couple of hundred meters’ dash to the line) caused crashes and “chaos” (cyclingnews.com) in the pack, and allowed Alessandro Petacchi to win the sprint. Several of the main contenders were “nicked” in the crashes, but none dropped out of the race. Desgrange hated bunch sprints. He preferred to see individual riders straggle in one after the other, exhausted and to within an inch of being broken men. He’d loathe the routine mass sprints that go on at the end of nearly every flat stage of today’s Tour.
First week crashes are par for the Tour, but this year looks singularly dangerous and a bit frightening, as almost all the star riders have had brushes with injury, even as they try to stay out of the way on the sprints. Monday’s bumpy ride in sun and showers brought mass crashes on a slick downhill 30 km from the finish. Most of the stars were involved; every one of them had some kind of cut, bump, or bruise, and Lance finished with major technicolor road rash. The riders, led by the race leader (“Yellow Jersey”), neutralized the race by not contesting the last 30 km, riding slowly to the line, and mostly finishing in a single bunch. This tactic allowed a breakaway rider who was ahead of the mass mayhem to win the stage.
Is the tactic of not racing in protest of danger justified? Do riders who commit to the Tour, knowing what the stage routes are, have the right to decide not to race? Isn’t this contest supposed to be about strength of body and will, and the boldness of taking chances? One sprinter, Thor Hushovd, was furious over the “agreement” not to race. If he was so furious, why didn’t he race anyhow?
On the one hand, I think the ultimate basis of the Tour, namely racing one’s bicycle, dictates that bicycles be raced. On the other hand, it is not in anybody’s best interests if several favorites crash out of the Tour because of terrible racing conditions. Perhaps the Tour director and others need to reassess the degree of bodily risk they are building into the parcours (race route).
Tomorrow the Tour races on some of the routes usually reserved for the Spring Classics, using some cobbled farm roads in Belgium that are usually part of the Paris-Roubaix race route for 13 km of a 207 km stage. Several years back Lance gained valuable time on his chief Spanish rival, Iban Mayo, on similar cobbles. Will he do the same with Contador tomorrow? Or if there’s more rain will there be more mayhem, more injury, another rider neutralization?
Dang! If it’s not a drug controversy it’s something else!
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.