The final Grand Tour of the cycling season begins tonight with the 2020 edition of the Vuelta España.
It’s not often I agree with Paul Sherwen, but when he began talking about the carnage that left riders and dreams strewn over the infamous cobbles during Stage 5 of the Tour de France, I seconded everything he said.
“The way you approach a stage like that is very important,” he said.
He went on to say that some riders were ready to fight and others just weren’t. That may seem a little unfair, as several riders did look hungry and focused but still came a cropper on the wet roads and cobbles.
However, not every crash is just bad luck.
Most in fact, unless it’s a case of being caught up behind others in front who have already gone down, are the result of a loss of focus. We saw it on Thursday several times, where 20 riders or more went around the same corner but only one or two took a tumble.
Look at Lance Armstrong, in what I tentatively will call his heyday, and see how seldom he crashed or even punctured. Juiced up higher than the man from Del Monte he may have been, but you cannot deny that his powers of concentration were phenomenal.
The rider who won the stage that harked back to the great Paris-Roubaix and Tour stages of old, Lars Boom, wasn’t sat there on his saddle obsessed with crashing or so stressed that he lost focus. Yes, he did go around several corners very slowly indeed but that was evidence not of a fearful rider but of a man riding to his limits and not beyond.
If he had gone beyond, he’d have crashed.
Several riders were thrilled that Stage 5 was shortened due to the wet conditions, but others would have been less so. Men like Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan and Lars Boom certainly would not have been, for here was a chance not just to take a stage win but also to take yellow, and to hold it for some time.
Two riders who would have been very happy with the news of the cut of two of the hardest pave sections were Alberto Contador and Chris Froome, and yet the foreshortening did very few favours for the Spaniard and absolutely none for the Kenyan-born Briton.
Cancellara made his views of the possibility of a cut in the route clear on Tuesday, in an exclusive interview with CyclingNews.
“I hope nobody crashes and loses a chance of winning the Tour de France because of what happens on the pave,” he said.
“But it’s racing. Roubaix is Roubaix. We all know what it’s like.
“I’ve already been asked if I’ll ask for the stage to be neutralised if it rains but this is different. I know that it’s not a nice stage for Froome, Contador, Nibali and even our GC riders.
“But my reply is: so why not take out the climbs to make it easier for us? That never happens, so it’s only right we race on the cobbles. It’s a risk for everyone, including me, but we’ve got to live with it and calculate the risks involved.”
Absolutely correct. The Tour traditionally suits a certain kind of a rider, one who is very able in the hills and strong and steady in the time trials. But this isn’t a ‘Tour de Climbers’, it’s the Tour de France. And in France, guess what? There are some cobbles.
Sherwen’s point was apt, clearly Contador and Froome had no intention of making the best of a bad fist. At least Contador finished though, unlike Froome. Froome had a distinct case of ‘the Wiggins’ on Stage 5, going down twice before the cobbles even appeared.
Yet make no mistake, Froome crashed because of the cobbles, whether they were under him or not. Unlike Bradley Wiggins, who rode Paris-Roubaix earlier in the year in anticipation of being included in the Sky team, Froome decided not to, instead training over the cobbles at a later date.
Risky? I’d say so, and that is not with the benefit of hindsight, it’s just obvious. Training over the pave is one thing and you certainly learn that it is hard, but racing over it with more than 180 guys raging to get ahead before the sections arrive is another completely.
And what are we to make of his abandonment? There was talk of him having started the day with a broken wrist, but Froome said, “the X-ray last night didn’t show an obvious fracture.” He did add that he was in pain before the start though.
I’m not going to presume to know the extent of his injury and indeed the pain, or if it was as bad as he says. It would have been a justifiable reason for the look of reluctance he had all day, but, cruel though it may seem to say, the reluctance started when the Tour route was first revealed and the whole thing feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Only one GC rider took the thing by the scruff of the neck – the one whom some sections of the French press had pilloried for what was perceived as a lack of expertise on the cobbles.
Indeed, it is true that Vincenzo Nibali had never raced on the old stones before, but everyone seemed to forget that he is a formidable descender and a great bike handler.
On Stage 5 we saw what happens to the big men (apart from Boom obviously, who rode in on the Astana gravy train) when they’ve had four hard days racing before the pave. Nibali’s Grand Tour pedigree showed through as indeed did his teammate’s, that of Jacob Fugslang.
Great rides by that pair – brilliant, astonishing. Exactly the opposite of Froome’s.