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Crash-Filled Opening Day at Tour Reflects a Peloton Without a True Patron

Words by Jeremy Whittle; Images by Chris Auld

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Today’s crash-marred opening stage of the Tour de France needed some cool heads, as the peloton looked for a patron, to take a lead and calm things down. Not for the first time, it struggled to find one. 

By: Jeremy Whittle 

Just when you need a cool head on wise shoulders, a little bit of unity among the peloton in challenging circumstances, you get Astana’s Omar Fraile. At least that seemed to be what most of the Tour de France peloton was thinking in the rain-drenched hills behind Nice this afternoon.

As roads became rivers, riders fell like ninepins. Just as it seemed that common sense would at last prevail when ex-policeman Tony Martin, team captain to Primoz Roglic, urged everyone to slow down on the glacial and greasy roads of the Alpes-Maritimes, Fraile attacked on the descent of the Aspremont climb.

So much for solidarity. Astana may often be cycling’s whipping boys, but Fraile would never have done that to peloton patrons like Eddy Merckx, or Bernard Hinault, or in all probability, to Lance Armstrong. He might not even have done it to Fabian Cancellara, who led a go-slow in similarly chaotic conditions in the Ardennes during the 2010 Tour.

At the finish in Nice, after the 2020 Tour’s chaotic opening stage, Luke Rowe, Egan Bernal’s team captain was blunt as he scanned the bloodied limbs and ripped jerseys. “Astana made themselves look pretty stupid,” Rowe said scathingly.

That sledging comment was also because Fraile’s defiance backfired and only succeeded in sending his own team leader Miguel Angel Lopez, skittering across the winding road into a wince-inducing collision with a road sign. It took a ‘calm down!’ gesture from Roglic to bring Fraile and Astana to heel. That, and a barrage of abuse from his peers, when the peloton drew back alongside Fraile a few moments later.

Hinault, Merckx, Armstrong—none of them would have accepted such impetuosity. But then there are no longer any genuine patrons in the peloton.

These days, unity it seems, is hard to come by, yet it’s true that, in this year of all years, after a season restart marked by genuine safety concerns, as well as the challenges of competing in a pandemic, the professional elite do need to speak and act with one voice, whether it’s achieving changes in health and safety, or seeking to get dangerous descents neutralized.

It’s ironic that Rowe and Martin, who were both embarrassingly thrown off last year’s Tour for fighting, today emerged as the peloton’s guiding lights, the professional elite’s voices of reason. But then, forgetting those fisticuffs, both riders are fiercely respected for their resilience and experience.

Rowe again: “We’ve got this riders organization, or group, and there are a couple of guys from each team in there and we spoke last night about how we’d approach the Tour and look after each other and do the right thing when needed. You want to race and put on the best show, but you could see how many crashes there were.”

Rowe then congratulated the majority of the peloton, with one notable exception, for their common sense. “I have to say ‘chapeau’ to the whole peloton—minus Astana—who hit it down one climb, and as a result, their leader was left on his back.”

Yet the change in scheduling, from early July to late August, means that this year’s Tour will probably encounter more volatile weather as it goes on, and runs into late September. Nobody is saying that races should be neutralized because it rains, but the riders might need to make some more tough calls as autumn moves into the Pyrenees and Alps.

But the advent of the UCI’s extreme weather protocol, the increased pressures from a crammed calendar, the uncertainty of their future careers, have all heightened the pressures on the peloton. They know they’re racing on a knife edge, but to crash out of the post lockdown Tour, on day one, when you have waited months to take your chance, because of oil or diesel washed across the road, is a bitter pill to swallow.

Risk is part of racing and it’s one of the reasons why road racing exerts such a hold on the imagination. Without risk, without danger, without suffering, this sport would lose much of its popular appeal and much of its mythology—not that many of those nursing cuts and bruises in the hotels around Nice tonight will care much about that.

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