There’s been a lot of criticism about this year’s Tour de France being “Le Tour Feminine” coming into today’s anticipated “regular” flat stage. Riders have have expressed frustration and even anger over the atypical courses used early on in this year’s race.
[if you’re having trouble viewing this, maybe try right-click/save file as… – if it still doesn’t work, direct you complaints to Eurosport, who filmed the interview, didn’t put it online, and then decided to pull it from YouTube]
While I may be a few thousand miles away from the action, I have a sneaking suspicion that the discontent is somewhat over-reported; it both makes for good headlines, and is informed heavily by the long-term interests of GC-contending teams.
Levi’s comments after Stage 2 about how Tour organizers “want to see us bleeding” by using “courses like this”, while highly-quotable, doesn’t really make sense. The Stockeau comes nearly 100km from the finish of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and is descended annually by large packs of extremely motivated riders (far less incentive to finish in a one-day, after all) almost without incident.
As a squad stacked with strong stage racers, it’s in RadioShack’s best interest to keep everything completely under control until Johan Bruyneel decides it’s time to make the race. And while I don’t doubt the sincerity of Jens’ emotional commitment to his teammates, I think if Andy had had racked up five minutes in Stage 3, instead of merely recouping his prologue losses, SaxoBank might be singing a different tune.
It’s important to remember that the Tour runs on a set of rules; denying a decision by the man in Yellow to neutralize the stage—especially when he and his team are strong enough to make things seriously unpleasant for you over the next twenty days—would be a pretty serious violation of those rules. It’s not that these rules can’t be broken, it’s just that your interests are better served by adhering to them.
Smaller squads are heavily dependent on breakaways for their Tour success, and the success of any given breakaway depends almost entirely on decisions made by the stronger teams setting the pace of the event. As Filippo Simeoni can tell you, speaking out too boldly—even when you’re in the right—can ruin your entire Tour.
While Cervelo, a stronger team than most, certainly wasn’t shy about their opinions of the neutralization, the team made sure not to “be a pain in the ass” and avoided breaking up the agreement, even if it was “too friendly”. And I think this deference to the established rules of the race has already begun to pay dividends.
Consider yesterday’s finish: Fabian Cancellara—who probably could have battled Hushovd for the win—attacked only once after the final selection, and took a not-especially-tactical pull up to the final 200 meters. One could argue he was trying to build Andy Schleck’s gap, but unless Andy was absolutely shattered, he would have almost certainly been s.t. regardless of sprint tactics. Had VanPoppel given the word to break the truce on Monday, I think Tuesday’s finale would have played out very differently.
So while I dislike neutralization and whining as much as the next man, I think that there’s a lot less agreement amongst the riders than is conveyed by the media, and I think that VanPoppel’s comment above that the Tour “is not a Mickey Mouse race”, and that it’s time to get down to business reflects the unspoken professional opinion of a majority of the peloton.