Today will be the day when the Tour de France is shaken into action. Literally. After a week of long, flat, group rides through Brittany and Normandy, today’s stage heads from Arras to Roubaix. To all non-cyclists Roubaix is an unremarkable, grotty post-industrial town near Lille. To the cognoscenti it is a place of pilgrimage – its old-fashioned concrete velodrome hosting the finish of the Paris-Roubaix every April, welcoming the survivors of the pavé…. cobbles, but not the regular, smooth sort you see in urban shopping centres; these are big, rough lumps of rock, the size of loaves of bread. The roads are little more than farm tracks – left to crumble since the days of Napoleon, or in some cases, deliberately un-maintained to reach that state. It’s degrading.
A day when the race might not be won, but could be lost
Today’s stage takes in nearly 22km of the pavé, spread over 15 secteurs. If it’s dry, the riders will be caked in dust. If it’s wet the likelihood of crashes increases tenfold. Either way it is not a nice place to be on a bike – TV super slow-motion shows the slipping tyres, the jumping chains and the juddering muscles of the riders’ arms, even with extra, padded handlebar tape. It won’t bother riders like Peter Sagan and Greg van Avermaet (what odds for the finish being fought out between les maillots vert et jaune?), but for the slightly-built climbers like Quintana, the day will be more about limiting time losses. There will be crashes, punctures and mechanical issues. Team cars will be delayed behind the fractured groups. In short, there will be an unavoidable element of luck, a perfect example of a day when the Tour may not be won, but it could well be lost. The Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate sprint will be at the end of secteur 8 – Mons-en-Pévèle – a regular feature of the Paris-Roubaix. It’s 45km from the finish; the break may still be clear, or we could see Sagan, Van Avermaet, Fuglsang and Nibali notching their first points in the competition.
The cure for Pelotonitis?
I apologise to the hordes of fans who must be wondering what has happened in the fight for the non-existent Chateau D’Ax jersey in the past 3 days – I can only say that I have been too busy to blog. Perhaps it would have been easier to take 3 weeks’ holiday and hire a camper van. Admittedly, “busy” has included going out on my bike, but doing so after watching the Tour on TV is never a good move; held up in traffic in Cambridge I used an old lady in a hatchback as my imaginary team-car to draft me back to the peloton, but her passenger looked somewhat bemused when I pulled alongside and requested a bidon. It was a classic case of acute pelotonitis, Doctors Predict Pelotonitis Epidemic but I found the cure when watching the excellent “Time Trial” at the cinema a couple of days later. I recommend this brilliant film to anyone, tifosi or not. It’s a fly-on-the-wall documentary following David Millar’s last season as a pro and the footage of him struggling with his mac and gloves on a rain-lashed Milano-San Remo is enough to put anyone off going for a bike ride, let alone yearning for a life in the peloton (see review at http://www.eyeforfilm.co.uk )
Gothic Cathedrals, Doomed Breakaways and Direct Energie
And so to the updates of the last 3 stages. On Thursday’s stage 6 I was all set to award the points at the 100km to go mark, as the leading group of 5 rolled along past anonymous fields of wheat in the middle of western Brittany. But the cameras suddenly switched back to the peloton where Quick Step had attacked in the crosswinds, hoping to break the race into echelons and putting Quintana and Roglic under pressure, until they fought back and the pace slowed. When attentions switched back to the break I paused the TV and gave the points to the riders in the order they were in – no-one ever said this was scientific. Fortuneo’s Laurent Pichon led Fabien Grellier (more points for Direct Energie) and Dion Smith (Wanty- Groupe Goubert). Grellier admirably rode on alone until caught on the 1st ascent of the Mur de Bretagne.
Friday’s sprint, in the little town of Mamers (near Le Mans) was the first not to feature participation by Direct Energie. Yoann Offredo (Wanty), who’d picked up 2 pts on stage 1, moved into 2nd place as he rode on in a solo break, as admirable as it was doomed. For reasons unknown the head of the peloton became briefly swamped with GC hopes, so it was Richie Porte (BMC) and Robert Gesink (Trek) who picked up the minor points. Offredo was recaptured long before the race rolled into Chartres but it was good to see him enjoying himself – he was attacked by a lunatic with a knife and a baseball bat while training last year.
Normal service resumed yesterday on the stage to Amiens, whose cathedral is perhaps equally as impressive as Chartres. A two man break had gone clear and, with 100km to go, Wanty’s Marco Minnaard was ahead of Fabien Grellier, while, several minutes later, the peloton was led through by Lotto NL’s diminutive climbing domestique Antwan Toelhoek, who looks so young that he has only just learned to ride without stabilisers.
ARMCHAIRTIFOSI.COM INTERMEDIATE SPRINTS STANDINGS (after 8 stages)
1st-SYLVAIN CHAVANEL(FR)(DIRECT ENERGIE) 6pts; 2nd-YOANN OFFREDO(FR) (WANTY- GROUPE GOUBERT) 5 pts; eq. 3rd- JEROME COUSIN(FR) and FABIEN GRELLIER(FR) (both DIrect Energie) 4 pts
TEAMS- DIRECT ENERGIE 14 pts; 2nd-Wanty-Groupe Goubert 11 pts; 3rd- Fortuneo-Samsic 6 pts