While the hype builds around the riders, the final preparations are made and ceremonies take place, they, like the armchair fans, are simply waiting for the off. We’re all waiting for the contest to begin, for the unknowns to make themselves known, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, and the great drama of the race to take shape. There is in these slack final days a peculiar tension that nothing but the passing of time can dissipate – a kind of time trial in and of itself.
What do we know of the opening week of this year’s Tour? To begin, a flat, technical time trial around Utrecht, which may be Fabian Cancellara’s last chance ever to wear yellow, followed by a flat stage through the Low Countries that is likely to be marked by crosswinds. Then the Tour’s first-ever finish on the Flèche-Wallonne race’s famous Mur de Huy climb. And then cobbles, lots of them, before what should be three quiet, flat stages with the chaos of a sprint at each day’s end.
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Every team will have prepared as best they can: the time-trial course will have been minutely scrutinised by those who specialise in the discipline; and the Mur, while being fiendishly difficult to race on, is a known quantity – many of the riders will have experienced it before. And as Instagram and social media have shown this last week, many teams have also reconnoitred the pavés of Stage 4. Yet for all that, the first week of this Tour is one of back-to-back stages resembling Spring Classics, which have all the unpredictability that implies.The British politican Harold McMillan was once asked what a prime minister feared most: “Events, dear boy, events,” he is supposed to have replied. And that goes for bike racing too.
We only need to look back at recent opening weeks to see high-flying hopes brought crashing down. On the last two Tour visits to the cobbles they caused the elimination of Fränk Schleck (in 2010, when he broke his collarbone) and, last year, Chris Froome, who crashed twice in foul conditions with an already-broken wrist and had to withdraw.
It doesn’t take cobbles for dreams to be dashed. In last year’s Giro an otherwise unremarkable prologue team time trial turned disastrous for Garmin-Sharp, when Dan Martin slipped on a wet drain cover and half his team were floored. Or think back to last year’s Tour: the Yorkshire hills, which might have caught the unwary out, were safely negotiated, but Mark Cavendish’s crash was unforeseeable. And to complete a recent quartet of British first-week misery, Bradley Wiggins, 2011, Stage 7: on an innocuous stretch of road as the peloton were soft-pedalling towards Chateauroux, an incomprehensible pile-up cost the Team Sky leader his chances at the Tour for that year.
For any rider these are nightmare scenarios. But in the limbo before the Tour they hang there in the collective unconscious. Only when the race starts can they be exorcised. In the tense first days of racing all that accumulated knowledge and training will be put to use. Courage will be tested, nightmares faced down and the sort-out will begin. The sun will shine, rain fall, and the forking paths of possibilities will resolve themselves as the peloton moves, one pedal stroke at a time, closer to Paris.
Last year, Cancellara was interviewed on the start line of the muddy, squall-soaked cobbled stage during which Froome abandoned: “We go, we race: warriors always race,” he said, surveying the probable carnage ahead. “It’s going to be a mess, a roulette, a race.”
Today, the roulette wheel is spinning again and we have all placed our chips. Tomorrow, the ball will be put into play, and in three weeks time someone will win the jackpot.
Les jeux sont faits. Let’s race.
– Max Leonard is the author of ‘Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France’ and Rapha’s City Cycling Guides.
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Consider these brave men. Sinewy greyhounds honed for purpose, most look as fragile as the carbon fibre bikes they ride. Yet their toughness is unquestioned. Each day will bring a new test in torturous effort and the courage required to face it, over 21 étapes fraught with the dangers of crashes, punctures or, worse, not having the legs. Cruel fate, that.
Stand on the roadsides in France this July and their eyes will tell you everything. You can read their courage in their glazed looks as they pass by at 45kph. Go up into the mountains, and look them in the eyes on a climb, and that story is told more vividly still. It’s one that your television can’t fully convey; the mounting exhaustion as the kilometres accumulate and the riders fight a battle to keep going or give up. In these thousand-yard stares you’ll see the power of man being expended, pedal stroke by pedal stroke, onto the road beneath. ‘He left it all on the road,’ they say. All of it, every single ounce of coiled purpose.
Even when the riders know they are at their limits, they’ll push for more. A risky descent, an attack from afar or a gamble in the sprint. We may never fully understand what drives them but we can applaud their spirit and panache.
To wish them ‘good luck’ in the language of the host nation – bon courage – you aren’t conferring luck, but courage. After all, luck is the result of the courage within you. At the Grand Départ, 198 cyclists will look deep within themselves as they stand on the start line. Each man will have his own hopes and dreams for what is to come. Some of them will be experienced giants of the road – not that it ever gets any easier – and a talented few will try to stand atop the podium. Most will simply try to survive until Paris. So we say to them all: ‘Courage, cyclistes!’ You will need it.
Rapha is celebrating the courage of the cyclists of the Tour de France with essays and photography published throughout the three weeks of the race. Show your appreciation for the bravery and daring of these men using the hashtag #CourageCyclistes.
Saturday 4th July | Utrecht – Utrecht | 13.8km (ITT)
Going nowhere, fast. An individual time trial around Utrecht starts the 102nd edition of the Tour. It’s the race’s first visit here, and the sixth Grand Départ from a Dutch city.
Sunday 5th July | Utrecht – Zélande | 166km
Expect a scramble for the front 50 places as the bunch hurtles towards Neeltje Jans – an artificial island constructed to protect the Netherlands from North Sea flooding. With high winds predicted, it will take more than a man made dam to hold back the peloton.
Monday 6th July | Antwerp – Huy | 159.5km
A mini-Ardennes Classic in Belgium, today finishes on the Mur de Huy, the infamous climb that hosts the finish of Flèche Wallonne. The ‘Wall’ has decided the outcome of that Belgian Classic since 1983, and should have an impact on the first week’s GC.
Tuesday 7th July | Seraing – Cambrai | 223.5km
Bad memories for some today, as cobbled sectors borrowed from the Paris-Roubaix route feature heavily. Jacques Goddet, a former editor of L’Équipe, affectionately referred to the cobbles as “the last great madness of cycling.” Mad, stressful, and potentially wet too.
Wednesday 8th July | Arras – Amiens | 189.5km
The first full day in France, and the first real opportunity for the sprinters. Recovering any lost time from yesterday’s stage will be a priority, so teams will look to get their fast men to the front as the GC riders’ rattled bones recover.
Thursday 9th July | Abbeville – Le Havre | 191.5km
The Normandy coastline. Whilst beautiful, it’s also unpredictable – changeable weather and notoriously windy roads could split the bunch but expect the sprinters to have their chance today.
Three weeks’ racing lie stretched out before you. The premier event in the professional calendar and a race that, by its very design, takes more than some have to give. The individual time-trial serves as this year’s introduction. Contre la montre: ‘against the watch’. A nerve-rattling experience, even at lesser races, at the start of the Tour it represents a significant challenge to mental strength. As you’re poised on the start ramp, the nerves start to knock. Clip in, visor down, try and control the increasingly rapid breathing.
Actions often speak louder than words. When Chris Boardman turned professional after breaking the Hour record, in 1993, Luc Leblanc, then French national road race champion, was less than complimentary. “If Boardman can beat it,” the Frenchman announced, “then half the professional peloton could do it.” By a twist of fate, Boardman rolled up to the start ramp of the 1994 Tour de France prologue scheduled to set off just one minute behind Leblanc. It was Boardman’s first appearance in a Grand Tour but he executed his routine perfectly. ‘The Professor’ rode the fastest prologue stage in Tour history, passing Leblanc in the process – the only rider to pass his minuteman that day. They don’t call it ‘the race of truth’ for nothing.
The siren sounds. Your time has come, and you roll down the ramp. The eyes of the world are watching; your cadence, your position on the bike, and the presence of pain on your face. There’s no bunch to hide in, and no team to support you. Your performance is down to you alone, and you fight to silence the knock.
“Ten kilometres to go. A string of three up the right-hand side of the road. Half the team. Small but compact. Small, but hopefully effective. Tight corner to the right. Dare not brake too early, dare not lose position. Accelerate as slow as I can out, saving the legs behind. Look back. Constantly assessing. Australians lined up in front. Snatch a look down, 55kph. Not a time to touch wheels. Look up. Roundabout looms. Man with flag and whistle going at it. The flapping means we can take both sides. We stay in the right-hand gutter, surfing the wheels. Waiting. Biding time. Adrenaline building. Exit the roundabout, wind buffets from the right. A gap opens, the bunch scuttling for shelter. Squeezing left. Clear air and an opportunity to hit the front, but we wait. Patience. Check over my shoulder. Still there. I drift right slightly, creating a gap for my team-mates. Saving their legs. Their fast legs. We hope. I hope. Elbow comes at my hip. I keep my wheel just outside the one in front. An escape route if needed. A few riders up, there is a swerve. Grab a load of brake. Only for a second, if that, but speed is lost. The other side of the bunch flies past. I stamp on the pedals. Pull on the bars. Momentarily frantic. I look down through my frame, red shoes behind. Good. We lose a few wheels, but remain together. Strength in unity. I accelerate full bore now. My hands tight on the drops. It’s a narrow lane and I push up the right. A mixture of shoves and shouts to get my way. To get the gaps three wide.
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“If you want to feel what it’s like to be a bike racer, strip down to your underwear, drive your car at 40mph, and leap out the window into a pile of jagged metal.”– Jonathan Vaughters
The American Vaughters, who raced during the peak of the Tour’s ‘fastest’ era, may be exaggerating somewhat but bike racing can be more physically ‘expensive’ than most other sports out there. Never mind tired legs, riders travel in excess of 40mph, often just inches apart, jockeying for the premium position in the bunch whilst wearing very little in the way of protective clothing. And thus crashes are both inevitable and extremely costly.
At the Tour, the tension created by potential crashes verges on comic – but it’s not in the slightest bit funny. Virtually everyone hits the deck in the first week and if they don’t, they’re thinking about it. With the stakes higher than at any point in the season, each and every one of near-200 riders is trying either to stay safely upright in the pack, be at the front for the bunch sprint, or simply get on TV and make his mum (and the sponsors) proud.
This year in particular, the first few stages present terrain more usually found at the Spring Classics in the Netherlands, Belgium and northern France. And with the sprinter and GC teams all trying to be in the same part of the road, competition for elbow room is likely to create friction. With Stage 3 finishing on the narrow, steep Mur de Huy, there will be plenty of twists and turns before the climb starts. It is followed by Stage 4, and a partly-cobbled parcours. And anything can happen on the cobbles. If you want to win the Tour, don’t chute!
* Chute – crash.
Introducing Rapha’s latest innovation in bad-weather racewear.
For yellow jersey contenders like Team Sky’s Chris Froome, staying near the front of the peloton is all that matters during the Tour’s nervous first week. Well-positioned and hopefully far from the inevitable crashes. The problem for Froome is that everybody else wants to be there too, and so the bunch are constantly jostling for position, with shoulder charges and deliberate blocking tactics par for the course.
The first week of this year’s Tour goes through the unpredictable weather of Belgium and Normandy. In all likelihood, the domestiques will have to spend their days riding back and forth from team cars, collecting or depositing their leader’s bulky wet-weather jackets, before fighting their way back to the front once more.
This year, however, Rapha has provided Team Sky’s cyclists with an item of clothing that eliminates the need for those trips back to the car. The Rapha Pro Team Shadow Jersey uses a pioneering fabric that protects the riders from foul weather and yet which is comfortable enough to be worn like a jersey. It protects from the wind, the rain and the cold and is an innovative response to the demands of WorldTour cyclists racing at the highest level of the sport.
In changeable conditions, the team’s riders can now wear just one garment all day, remaining shielded from the elements throughout. It is a whole new approach to bad-weather clothing in the sport and the jersey has been raced in by Team Sky since the start of the season to great effect.
With conventional rain jackets, even the most acclaimed options are made of a fabric with a laminate. The construction invariably includes a waterproof membrane and is taped at the seams. No rain comes in but no perspiration can escape either, so the rider gets hot and sweaty very quickly. The Rapha Pro Team Shadow Jersey in contrast, is far more breathable than all other wet-weather options, yet maintains impressive ‘hydrophobic’ qualities to keep the rain off too. It is both very comfortable and highly protective.
The key is in the fabric: extremely stretchy and densely woven, with a DWR (durable water repellent) finish applied to both the yarn and the finished fabric. Rainwater rolls off, yet the woven fabric and lack of a laminate lets body heat out. Add to this a brushed inner face and the jacket can be worn comfortably over a base layer, or even directly against the skin.
It is an original and innovative solution to an age-old problem, meaning that Team Sky’s riders will have one less thing to worry about during the Tour’s first week. They can, quite literally, stay in the shadows until the mountains.
The Rapha Pro Team Shadow range will be released later this year.
The bicycle chain is the bike race in miniature: handling the tension is about striking the perfect line between relaxed and tight. Too loose, and it could bounce off. Too tight, and there is a risk of snapping. Perfect tension, on the bike and in the race.
Stretch the elastic
A phrase describing a rider who can’t keep up and, having fallen behind the group, manages to work his way back only to be dropped again. It often applies to sprinters left behind on a climb, rejoining the group on the descent, then managing to conserve enough energy to win at the end of the stage. Great Britain’s Mark Cavendish often does it to perfection. It’s far from easy, however, and many riders simply snap.
“You can suffer as much as you want, if you do the wrong thing, at the wrong time, you will never win the race. Do the right thing, at the right moment; that’s the art of cycling”
– Paul Kochli, La Vie Claire Directeur Sportif during the ’86 Tour