When jokes about BP and the Gulf oil spill find there way into race reports in the cycling press, it doesn't take much to imagine that it must have been an epic day on the bike. Unfortunately, the spectacle in today's Tour de France came as dozens of riders lost grip and wiped-out on the technical descent of the Stockeu, and less so from the brilliant and enthusiastic breakaway by Quick Step's Sylvain Chavanel that carried him to not just the stage win, but also first place in the race's overall classification - and the fabled Yellow Jersey awarded each day to the Tour's leader!
I'm terribly conflicted by the race protest led by prologue winner Fabian Cancellara. His two Saxo Bank teammates, the Brothers Schleck, were the prime beneficiaries of Spartacus' flirtation with workers' rights - both had come a cropper after the Stockeu and were all but out of the GC race. Thanks to their teammate's lobbying, however, both were able to rejoin the main peloton and in doing so saved their hopes for overall victory.
Yet it wasn't just Fab's teammates who benefited from the temporary truce - Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador were both caught-out by crashes and missed the split. But poor Thor Hushvod and his Cervelo teammates, who survived the descent after working their asses off for the entire stage, were denied the opportunity to contest the sprint for second and fight for all-important Green Jersey points! Why should Thor be penalized and denied the chance to do his job just because two skinny climbers from Luxembourg can't go downhill? And yesterday's stage winner Alessandro Petacchi (who I think is a fantastic rider, even though he served an abbreviated doping ban for having used too much of his prescribed asthma medicine one day) was shown no respect by Cancellara or his GC cronies after falling early on the same descent - but didn't he deserve the peloton's consideration as leader of the points competition?
I said earlier tonight on Twitter that I thought race organizers needed to use more common sense if they wanted positive spectacle during a race like the Tour - and not to see stages finish "under yellow" (to use an F1 phrase), while GC hopefuls like Christian Vande Velde were forced out of the race after crashing in treacherous conditions.
I did not, however, say that today's route was too dangerous for the Tour or that tomorrow's cobbles have no place in a three-week stage race.
Rather, I think that the routes the organizers choose should not be so possibly extreme (in the case of inclement weather, for example) that riders lose the ability to appropriately manage risk. A course that's absolutely fine for a one-day Classic like Liege-Bastogne-Liege might be unsuited for inclusion in the Tour, if there is a radical increase in the likelihood of a rider's being injured and having to abandon the race because of a crash that's likely to occur regardless of his intent, because of factors outside his control - like if it rains a lot, for example.
Sure, sending the riders over the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix tomorrow could create a true spectacle - but what happens if Contador crashes while riding in the front, seemingly out of danger, and shatters his knee and has to abandon the race? Who benefits from that outcome? And why wouldn't the organizers expect that to happen, given that it was the fate that befell Johan Museeuw during the 1998 Hell of the North?
Risk Management - that's the operative idea. But it becomes very difficult to put into practice when the Tour de France is turned upside down and skinny Basque climbers are forced to ride the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix just to get to the mountains in which they normally shine.
Classics riders have the entire Spring season to ply their trade. The Grand Tour contenders leave them alone to get on with it - so why should those same riders be forced into conditions that aren't traditionally part of a three-week tour? I'm all for changing things up and keeping the racing exciting, but don't make it a situation where the rider loses the ability to manage his appetite for risk without forfeiting the chance to contend for the overall.
UPDATE: As the AP notes:
"...Perhaps just a short stretch or two of cobbles would have been sufficient. Instead, on Tuesday’s stage 3, the 193 riders will bump, rattle and roll over seven separate sections, 8 miles in all of cobbles that at times will feel more like riding on the rocky bed of dry river than on a road...But it would be best if the cobbles don’t skew the Tour outcome too much and the top contenders make it through safely. It would not be convincing if Armstrong or others win simply because the paving stones hobbled their rivals."
If the crashes occurred primarily as a result of oil on the road and not the nature of the descent, as I originally thought to be the case, then I can support the notion of waiting to regroup, but wonder why Thor and the other sprinters weren't allowed to contest the finish? It's not like the organizers themselves poured oil on the road...(that would be some effed-up sh*t if they did). Still though, it's important that organizers balance the need to create spectacle with the health and safety of the riders, and that they not ask them to take risks that could have far-reaching negative economic, psychological and physical consequences (beyond the norm) were something to go wrong - as it seemed to today. And if the organizers are being dicks, then more power to the riders for pushing back and refusing to be the greyhound dogs that are driven into the ground for the amusement of the masses. Hell, you think doping happens in a vacuum? No one ever wants to speak of the racer organizers' culpability for doping - yet they're the assassins who plan the routes and schedule the transfers and demand that the riders repeatedly perform super-human feats of strength and endurance - and never will they sacrifice the spectacle for the safety of the athletes.
I doubt that a riders' union would ever work in cycling, which is too global a sport and too flush with raw talent from the socioeconomic badlands to nurture the solidarity necessary for the implementation and growth of a union, so if justified, today's meek protest by the riders was almost as enjoyable a sight as a field-sprint would have been.
UPDATE2: I thought the furor over motodoping was funny. Now it's a f^cking royal pain-in-the-ass. I CANNOT believe that the UCI will take such an incredibly draconian stance towards a non-existent problem (motodoping, which is more a gag than a real threat - sorry for ripping on you before, Canc'.) while at the same time they'll accept hush money to allow Armstrong to continue competing even though he'd failed several doping controls. Check it (courtesy of CyclingNews.com):
"Garmin-Transitions team manager Jonathan Vaughters agreed. "The cobblestones make the race interesting, they add an element to it," he told Cyclingnews. "They're a hurdle you have to overcome in the race, just like the rain or the crosswinds or the mountains."
But recent suspicion concerning hidden motors in bicycles made the International Cycling Union (UCI) add another difficulty in the already torturous stage. In the race finale, teams would normally have posted their assistants with spare bikes at the roadside to provide for quick bike changes if their leaders suffer a mechanical. This is what is usually done in Paris-Roubaix, but to exclude any possibility of electrical treachery, complete bike changes are now possible only from team cars.
"I don't like that decision," Vaughters said. "If someone breaks a bike, and the cars are two kilometres behind... Normally, we would have a person with a bike at every cobblestone sector, just waiting there. But now, the bike has to come off the roof of a team car."
In order to maintain everybody's chances, the race organiser has decided to determine specific zones of technical assistance after the last four cobbled sections, where teams will be allowed to provide spare wheels and other mechanical help.
Still, Vaughters thought that other alternatives existed. "You put a box on the side of the cobbles [for frame scanning - ed.], put a tag on them and then they're ready. I know that logistically, that's very difficult to do. But it would be better than just banning bike changes.
"It's just going to be a crazy day anyway,” he added. “For sure, there'll be a couple of GC contenders that are going to be eliminated from the race. And it is also very likely that riders will be eliminated because of a bike difficulty and being unable to change. And I don't think that is in the interest of fair play, either."