Ageless TV commentator Phil Liggett called the action in today’s flat stage of the Tour “uncomplicated.” That’s a decent way for an MBE to express ‘boring.” One of the victims of the overall upgrade of rider skill levels and bike technology over the last fifty years is diversity and variety in the pattern of Tour stages run over regions without hills. Everybody’s so nearly the same that they almost all stay together for the whole distance. One idea to create more varied activity is to locate these stages in regions that are likely to have windy conditions and/or foul weather, like the northern and northwestern coastal country of France. Another is to do what they did for stages two and three this year, run the stages on the cobbles and abrupt short hills of Belgium and hope for bad weather.
But if, like today, you’re going through Champagne country to Reims and the sun’s out (think about it–they planted vineyards there because it has reliable, temperate weather most of the time) you’re not likely to deviate from the standard profile. That profile includes a fast tempo, a small breakaway by riders who are not a threat to win any of the multiple awards available in the Tour, a “catch” by the peloton between ten and five km of the finish, and a mass sprint featuring all the leading contenders for the Green Jersey (awarded to the rider who wins the most sprint points on the road and at sprint finishes).
Today the catch may have been at a little under five km, which didn’t give the contending sprinters’ teams quite an ideal amount of time to set up their teams for the last 1/2 km or so. The final sprint’s starting point depends on the riders’ skills (some do better with short sprints, some with longer), the terrain (if there’s a hill or upward false flat it will favor certain riders), and the nervousness of individual riders. Some sprinters are endowed with “lead-out trains” (that’s “lead” as in “leadership,” not “get the lead out”), while others have to find a wheel to hang on whoever’s it is because their team doesn’t have strong lead-out men. Robbie McEwen (one of my personal faves) has been making a good living for years by doing the latter.
So today in the last 500 m there was a false flat and then just a bit of a bump at the end. Mark Cavendish, who won six sprint stages in last year’s Tour, seemed to be perfectly set up to win again, with two strong lead-out men hammering in front of him as they went under the “red kite,” the overhead marker for the final km. But about 200 m out Alessandro Petacchi, the world’s best sprinter about five years ago, attacked from behind and was by Cavendish like a rocket. Cavendish, seeing he could not have victory, sat up (stopped pedaling all-out) and finished 8th or 9th. Not too classy. Big Thor Hushovd, who’d whined about not being able to get points in Stage 2, couldn’t push his way uphill into the top three either. McEwen covered Petacchi’s attack but couldn’t gain on him. So on that particular terrain, on this day, the best-suited rider won. Maybe the last kilometers of the Stages 5 and 6 will offer different kinds of run-ins and different terrain. Because we’re in for two more stages much like today’s before mountains over the weekend. Just watch–the shape of the race will be almost identical to today’s as described in paragraph two above. One hundred fifty km of predictability, one last km of sheer excitement.
Postscript: I forgot to mention yesterday how Alexandre Vinokourov showed his usual selfish, clueless self on Day Four. He was leading the first chase group, playing the role of support rider for the race favorite, Alberto Contador, who was also in the group. With a km left Contador flatted. Vino (gotta love the nickname) charged ahead, pulling a couple of the race overall contenders with him, while Contador lost 20 seconds to them. What he should have been doing, of course, was noticing that Contador was lagging behind, and riding so as to discourage any of the others from gaining much time on Contador. If I were a contender for overall victory, the last guy I’d want on my team is Vino. Talented, but totally out for himself.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.