Wednesday, July 7, 2010

reflections on Tour stages 3 and 4

Last post, I feared the carnage and chaos which awaited stage 3 of the this year's Tour de France.

The consensus among riders has been that the cobbled paths of Paris-Roubaix had no place in the Tour, it being inappropriate to introduce so much randomness and risk-taking into a single stage. On the other hand, the organizers position was riding on cobbles was an important part of the tradition of road racing, and the Tour was a test of the best all-around road racer, not simply the one with the best tried-and-true combination of climbing and time trialing which all too often seems to reduce the Tour to a predictable script.

I've been in the former camp. I empathize with riders who invest their entire season on a good performance here, only to be stuck behind a crash in which they had no part. The pressure to stay ahead of these unavoidable crashes creates a dangerous game of musical chairs, creating still more crashes on the kilometers leading up to the cobbled pavé.

It turned out better than I expected, although this is hardly consolation to Frank Schleck, who's had extremely good form coming into the Tour and was a favorite for the yellow jersey. Frank crashed on the cobbles, fracturing his collarbone, and is out. Former winner Carlos Sastre got caught behind a crash and lost time he could ill-afford to give up. And seven-time winner Lance Armstrong proved luck isn't always on his side by flatting, losing more than a minute to defending champion Alberto Contador. But there were no mass-pileups, only controlled as opposed to unfettered insanity.

Two big reasons for this. One was the dry weather: the cobbles in the rain are absolutely treacherous. The other was what appeared to be responsible behavior by the riders. Going into the cobbles riders weren't taking the suicidal risks to reach the front you sometimes see in the one-day classics. It was as if riders knew their place and allowed the "general classification men" their room.

And while Frank crashed, it was in a relatively small incident, and you could argue his lack of skill riding on the cobbles played a role. Frank has never raced the classic one-day races on similar roads, unlike Lance Armstrong for example, and if such a lack of skill was exposed, than that's racing. And while Lance punctured, perhaps he took a risk in using deep-dish carbon rims, which are considered more puncture-prone than shallower, more flexible aluminum rims. Or perhaps Armstrong failed to use liquid latex in his tires, which could have sealed a leak before too much loss of tire pressure. I don't know. But while surely bad luck is involved in most mishaps, so is preparation for the bad luck.

CyclingNews photoLance Armstrong's wheels not what you'd typically expect to see for a visit to the Hell of the North (CyclingNews)

Despite all of this I was against the stage's inclusion in the Tour. Rain in Belgium and France in July is common, so they were lucky to have had the conditions be so favorable.

But we speak with our actions more than our words, and my actions were to stay glued to the computer for 110 km of racing watching live video, getting exposed to numerous Sidi Cycling commercials and even a Swedish commercial for a shotgun (!!!). I hardly feel motivated to go out and purchase a firearm, but delivering views of ads is delivering value to advertisers, and value = money, and money drives the Tour.

In contrast, today's stage was a far more conventional "sprinter's" stage in France. Instead of 110 km, I watched this one for only 5-and-change.

And what did I see in these 5+ kilometers? I frightening series of roundabouts, riders increasingly splitting their way around these circular obstacles, somehow navigating the bends and constrictions without carnage. I simply don't know how they do it. They come into these things taking up the full width of the road, which then splits, narrows, and turns, and they string themselves out mid-turn, narrow at the last moment to avoid traffic-calming protrusions, and rejoin on the opposite end. Absolutely incredible bike-handling coherence. So even these "conventional" stages expose riders to risks, risks which most people would consider insane.

So I doubt the promoters of the Tour regret their decision. It certainly generated enormous attention for the race at a time it is competing against the soccer World Cup for attention. Yet another flat-stage-plus-field-sprint wouldn't have come close.

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