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.