Sunday, July 4, 2010

crazy stages in Tour de France

The Tour started yesterday in Rotterdam, the start of 4 crazy days of bike racing.

First, the prologue. This is amazingly the third consecutive Grand Tour (after the tours of Spain and Italy) to start in Holland, and for each, it's rained. A rainy prologue makes for changing conditions, and in this case riders like Christian Vandavelde, Dave Zabriskie, and Bradley Wiggins gambled with an early start time, hoping the weather would worsen for during the traditional start time for the favorites, prime-time at the end of the day. But while early-starter Tony Martin was able to squeak through with good conditions, these others were faced with rain and wet roads, while Armstrong, Contador, and Cancellara enjoyed some of the best conditions of the day starting in the final slots.

Stage 1 is going as I write this. In the Dutch stages in the previous two grand tours, there's been carnage in the streets, as riders were faced with a seeming endless series of traffic circles. Today's stage makes a relative bee-line out of the country, though, ending in Brussels. But despite leaving Holland behind, the riders still face a nasty finish, with two sharp lefts. From MayMyRide:


Stage 1 finish, from MapMyRide


Stage two is a mini Liege-Bastogne-Liege, a Belgian classic characterized by a seemingly endless series of short climbs. Cool: I like seeing some climbs to early on to break up the tired formula of a first week of flat stages.

But the real kicker is stage three. A good description of the stage is VeloNews. This day is described as a "mini Paris-Roubaix". But you simply can't put Paris-Roubaix in the Tour de France: the dynamic of a stage race and a one-day race are too different. In a one-day race, placing is all that matters, and time is irrelevant. With each team, there's typically one guy going for a top place, maybe two, three only in the case of a top Belgian team, the rest of the riders in supporting roles. Guys will give it everything to help, then if they get caught behind crashes, they call it a day and ride it in, or often check out at the next feedzone.

the cobbles (VeloNews)Riders training on the cobbles (VeloNews)

But in a stage race, it's way different. Sure, there's still a bunch of guys looking for placings. But then there's a whole other bunch of guys for whom time is everything, plus guys supporting these "general classification" riders. They all need to be in the front going into the cobbled sectors. But there's simply not room at the front for them all, so you end up with a game of musical chairs where the losers end up battered and broken on the side of the road, or at best eliminated from contention all too early from a race which is a large component of their professional success.

Stage racing has two rules which are designed to promote rider safety and increase the fairness of the results. One is that if a group arrives together at a finish, all riders in the group are given the same time, even if it takes a number of seconds for the group to pass. This prevents guys from having to sprint from the middle or the back of the pack, which could obviously be dangerous, with riders passing each other at full speed with nowhere to go if anything goes amiss. Instead, the leaders sprint, and the remainder predictably and unhurredly follow each other across the line.

The other rule is that a rider who crashes, or is caught behind a crash, in the final 3 km of a stage ending on flat roads is given the time of the group he was with when he crashed. This is designed to reduce the pressure for riders to be near the front of the pack. If the rule were not in effect, then all of the contenders for the overall best time would need to stay up near the front with the sprinters going for the stage placings to avoid the possibility of a crash holding them up on narrow roads. With the rule, while the chance remains that being further back will result in getting injured in a crash developing ahead, the risks of time loss are are at least reduced.

Neither of these rules applies as the field recklessly hurtles toward the critical start of each cobbled sector, however. Riders will be doing anything, taking crazy risks, to get up to the front. Carnage.

I hope a miracle happens and all the riders are able to get through this stage intact. In a profession where the career is so short, where your ability to continue is continuously reevaluated based on your current year's performance, a serious injury which takes you out of the most important race of the year can have profound influence on your ability to continue. It's terrible when riders lose a season or a career due to a stupid crash which simply isn't their fault. And this stage is designed to create such injuries.

Survive the day, however, and it's an impressive route for the Tour this year. I just hope the best riders are still there to see it.

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