The Tour de France organisers need to take action to prevent the race stagnating

Words by Lionel Birnie in Saint-Quentin

Fabian Cancellara won’t complain but the fact that the yellow jersey has remained on one man’s shoulders since the prologue, and probably won’t change hands until the race reaches La Planche des Belles Filles on Saturday, has robbed the race of some of its early drama.

None of the jerseys look like changing hands until the weekend. The first week of the Tour de France used to be like a game of pass the parcel with all the jerseys up for grabs until the first range of mountains were reached and a pattern was established.

The absence of time bonuses, which were scrapped in 2008, and the failure of any breakaways to survive to the finish of a flat stage in the early part of a Tour since Thomas Voeckler won in Perpignan three years ago, has led things to become formulaic.

Cancellara’s lead is only seven seconds but it has come under serious threat only once, when Sylvain Chavanel, lying third overall, broke away in the closing kilometres of Tuesday’s stage to Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Otherwise it has been a smooth ride for the Swiss rider, and not for the first time.

In 2007, Cancellara won the prologue in London, sprung a surprise attack at Compiègne a few days later to win in yellow and kept the jersey for the whole of the first week. Two years later he won the time trial in Monaco that kicked off the race and defended the jersey for six days. In 2010, Cancellara took another prologue victory but lost the jersey to Chavanel for a day when the Saxo Bank team decided to neutralise the race after crashes on the wet, slipped Côte de Stockeu. However, Cancellara regained the yellow jersey on the cobbles the following day and held it to the end of the first week.

Christian Prudhomme might not admit it, but the fact the opening week of the Tour has stagnated like this, in terms of the leaders’ jerseys at least, will be a concern.

Prudhomme ditched time bonuses because he felt the leader of the Tour should be the rider who has covered the course in the lowest cumulative time. However, if time bonuses were available at the intermediate sprint and on the finish line, there would be an incentive for a host of riders to take a chance.

And that is what the Tour needs. Its oxygen is uncertainty. It needs an ever-changing cast of characters on the stage, certainly in the early days, rather than the same faces.

It is an idealistic view, of course, but the Tour has always been a rolling soap opera. There are the recognisable stars, the established regulars and its new stars, of which Peter Sagan has been the outstanding debut act.

But the race also needs the nip-and-tuck element of competition. It seems that some of the stories that bubble just below the surface of the main narrative are missing. The main players are hidden away, for now, and that is perfectly understandable. They will wait for the climbs and Monday’s time trial.

When you look at the other jerseys, they are just as secure with their current owners. Tejay Van Garderen looks a good bet to defend the white jersey deep into the race and could even hold it all the way to Paris.

Michael Mørkøv went on the attack on Sunday and ended the day in the polka-dot jersey. With only a single point available for the fourth-category hills it means Mørkøv is guaranteed to lead the king of the mountains competition until Saturday.

And Peter Sagan has worn the green jersey since Monday, first as a caretaker for Cancellara and then by right. The Slovak has built a reasonable lead and despite being slowed by the crash on the run-in to St Quentin, should continue in the lead for a few more days yet.

Much of the drama so far has arisen from the crashes. Yes, the spills are spectacular and they are an inevitable part of the Tour, but there’s something uncomfortable about the Tour’s narrative being crafted in that way. It’s a bit like watching a trapeze artist and hoping they fall.

Prudhomme may be opposed to time bonuses but it could be time for a rethink. The tweak to the points competition, with the single ‘super’ intermediate sprint, is not to blame for Sagan’s domination so far. But the decision to reduce the points for the 3rd and 4th category hills has backfired. There was at least the chance of a race for the polka-dot jersey early in the race but Mørkøv’s decision to chase the points on the first three road stages has paid off handsomely.

The beauty of the Tour is that it is a constantly-changing spectacle. The races within a race often add an extra dimension to an ordinary day. In some aspects, that is missing so far this year.

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  • Cyclope

    This has been discussed on other forums too. Stage races in other categories such as Juniors, U23 or Women are very interesting, breakaways making it, major shake ups in the GC even on flat stages. Why? Easy: Only 6 riders per team and more teams in exchange. In the male pro racing, presently, a 9 rider team can seal any race and bring back any breakaway. Take away the radios and race with 6 per team and 3 more teams and you will have an open race again like in the old days.

  • William Maidment

    Most if not all of the problems and issues would be solved if there were no radios. Period. There would always be the uncertainty from the rider’s point as to what was happening up the road. Also I think a big factor in the fact that there are so many crashes is due to the radio. Riders do not have to concentrate so much as there is always the director sportif to tell them when and how to act, so naturally they sort of tune out waiting for the radio buzz or actually chatting instead of riding. It worked fine until the Armstrong era, and that’s when uncertainty became untenable.

  • JS

    BR, I couldn’t agree more. I think it’s a great idea.

  • BR

    It actually bugs me more that the last decisive stage is always a time trial. It means that time trial specialists in GC contention always know what they have to beat to win the race. I’d like to see a situation where the last decisive stage was in the mountains – to turn the tables, as it were – at least every other year.

  • Chad

    are you kidding me? has been anything but boring, yesterday’s LATE catch of the break, who knew if they were going to get it done?

    the white jersey being seperated by 1 second and it’s ” a good bet”

    it’s a grand tour, in for the long haul there’s still 2 WEEKS of racing left.

  • Keith Oates

    I think the format we have now is OK. As said above the team and FC have done well to keep him in yellow. It’s a shame there are so many crashes though.

  • Peter Alma

    The tour has been great so far and I disagree with your comments. The problem has arisen because of the large fields, narrow roads, street furniture and, as usual, the stupid barriers used to keep back the crowds. The race would be improved by reducing the numbers of riders, either the number of teams or, more interestingly, the number of riders per team. There is too much importance given to subsidary awards (green and polka dot jerseys) and not enough focus on the yellow.

    Best wishes


  • Andy

    Really? Do you have that much of a short attention span?
    Fabian still has the Yellow because he fought very hard for it on stages 1 and 3, in those brutal final climbs to the line.
    After stage 1, Cav was 2mins30 behind yellow, Greipel 4:04 behind, you would need a farcical amount of bonus points to get them in yellow. The closest genuine sprinter was Petacchi at 1:21.
    I think the opening week has been tremendous, a couple of hard men stages, a few sprints and one breakaway nearly succeeding. All the intermediate sprints have been contested by those chasing green. How much more do you want for your viewing pleasure?

  • Jeffrey S.

    Want some cheese to go with that whine? 🙂

    Sure Cancellera has had the yellow jersey for a week, don’t like it? Then why doesn’t somebody f*cking take it from him. FC is a classics specialist and a hell of a good rider who certainly deserves some time in the sun. Chavanel came close to taking it but couldn’t because of great riding by FC and his team. It’s the tour, sit back and enjoy the show. Time for the classics riders, time for the sprinters, and soon, time for the GC.

    If anything I’d like to see fewer crashes. Seeing pics of Cav and Phil G. with their kids puts it into perspective for me. Keep these young dads off the tarmac.

    Enjoy the racing!

  • Bag puss

    I think you should chill out. It’s a 3 week race, first week for the sprinters, things get interesting this weekend. We are not all slack jawed morons who need to be fed candy every day

  • Philip

    I cannot disagree at all, with only one jersey changing hands at all this week, something’s not right. It’s a shame that Greipel hasn’t gone for the intermediate sprints, he could have challenged Sagan if he had, but you can’t blame the riders, they ride how they want to ride.

    The changes to the polka dot jersey really haven’t worked, and it’s likely to get even more embarrising for the organisers in the real mountains. What would certainly help is to give more points for the climbs at the finish, Sagan won two stages because of his performance up the hills, it seems odd to give him the same points there as for somebody in the break before the real race has begun.

  • DosGatos

    I agree the Tour has become a scripted farce. The formula favors the inevitable “non-races” ending in bunch sprints for more than half of the Tour.
    There should be less flat stages; equal points no matter what the course profile; and smaller teams and a smaller overall field. It is ridiculous to compare Cavendishes so called “achievements” with Darrigade’s. In Darrigade’s days there were far less bunch-sprint finishes, Darrigade went in breakaways, and was rarely carried to the last two meters by a big team.

  • Oranj

    A welcome commentary. I also miss the mix of time bonuses (intermediate and final) and the lack of points for 3rd and 4th cat climbs. One point for a climb? What’s that all about?