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We’ve waited long enough for this year’s Tour de France, so maybe we can wait a few more days for some genuine fireworks. It’s fair enough, of course, to argue that we should be pleased, in this year of all years, simply to have a Tour de France at all. Don’t forget all the predictions of doom and disaster if the Tour didn’t take place, the warnings of economic collapse within the sport if its biggest shop window was shuttered up for the season.
But, for the moment, it’s a false dawn. A race that promised so much, with an innovative route, plenty at stake, presaged by some thrilling racing in the build-up, is well, becoming a bit of a bore. Stage five, from Gap to Privas, saw not one single attack and was in fact little more than a glorified sportive. The hottest action of the day came after the stage, when Adam Yates found out he’d got the race lead as his bus headed off to the hotel and then had to leg it back to the podium.
Today, stage six saw a breakaway move but nothing from the big names until Julian Alaphilippe sprinted through the final bend at Mont Aigoual to pinch a single second. We can thank Neilson Powless for dropping some bombs and making things interesting on way up the Col de la Lusette, but the big boys barely made a move. It was hardly nail-biting stuff.
Yates, yellow jersey by default after Alaphilippe’s feeding error, was, with two Pyrenean stages coming this weekend, one of those happy to keep his powder dry. “The final climb wasn’t super steep, so it takes a lot of effort just to get a few seconds,” Yates said. “Everyone was just saving energy and keeping it for a later day.”
It is tough being a modern pro and Grand Tours, of course, are particularly fatiguing. This year’s race, with the added tensions around the Tour, the lack of racing beforehand, the hours cooped up in the team bus on long transfers — some teams were facing a three hour drive after the finish on Mont Aigoual and will face another five hours on the road after the finish on Sunday in Laruns — is no exception.
The sport is brutal, brimming with risk and uncertainty and the prospect of being readily disposed of by your sponsor if you have even one bad season. You’re only as good as your last race, goes the old adage. But the climbs and the headwinds and the rain and the transfers and the bad hotels have, in some form or another, always been there. And, crucially, it is supposed to be entertainment.
With record TV audiences tuning into this year’s race, particularly in France, and so little televised sport to choose from this year, cycling and its stars have a real opportunity to grab the attention of a much wider audience. Stages 5 and 6 will have failed on that count, at least. Neither stage, televised live for their entirety, provided a gripping spectacle.
Or, as some believe, are we expecting too much?
La Course en Tête’s own Peter Cossins tweeted today that “Three mountain stages have yielded just one attack by a GC leader, Guillaume Martin’s at Orcieres Merlette.” To some, that may be a contentious opinion. It’s definitely one not shared by Thibaut Pinot’s sports director, Philippe Mauduit.
“When 100 riders crash on the first day, that leaves its mark,” Mauduit said. “When the peloton takes a breather (as in stage 5), you need to know to respect it.”
“That — (a stage without a breakaway) — was what, the first time in 20 years!” Mauduit said. “And frankly, that was fine.”
“It’s a good thing that the riders take back some power. When they watch the TV highlights at night and hear what certain commentators say, it makes them laugh, actually. They know what they go through on a daily basis. I find it all a bit sad. If those who criticize them got their ass on a bike and rode in the peloton, they’d soon see that it isn’t so easy.”
Yet compared to last summer’s Tour, when Alaphilippe and Pinot ran riot and sprang surprises for much of the race, this year has so far been a more sedate offering. Right now, we are still waiting. But there is still much to come and it may heat up soon, especially as the peloton reaches the Pyrenees on Saturday.
So stick with it. Let’s just get from Millau to Lavaur first….