Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky will breathe a sigh of relief as they enter the second week of the Tour with their yellow jersey ambitions unscathed
Words by Lionel Birnie in Metz
Friday July 6, 2012
A year ago, on the Tour’s first Friday there was a crash on a straight stretch of road near Buzançais, around 40 kilometres from the finish of the stage in Châteauroux. Bradley Wiggins went down and stayed down, his race over. A handful of other riders who fancied their chances of doing well overall lost time too. The list of casualties was pored over and the losses assessed and the character of the race subtly shifted.
The Tour’s first Friday. Another long, straight stretch of road. Another crash. Wiggins avoided this one but for several riders it was disastrous.
Frank Schleck, Janez Brajkovic, Pierre Rolland and Jelle Vanendert all lost 2-09; Vuelta a Espana champion Juan Jose Cobo was 2-21 back, Robert Gesink a further minute down and Ryder Hesjedal, the Giro d’Italia champion, was in the last group, 13-24 adrift.
Wiggins, Cadel Evans, Vincenzo Nibali, Samuel Sanchez, Jurgen Van den Broeck and Denis Menchov avoided trouble and will breathe a sigh of relief.
Luck plays a huge role on days like this. Wiggins and his team-mate Christian Knees moved forward through the peloton only five minutes or so before the crash. Servais Knaven, one of Sky’s team directors, said that the move was deliberate because the stage was entering its most nervous phase. Wiggins would also have remembered the circumstances that led to the crash on the road to Châteauroux. Afterwards he admitted that he had not been close enough to the front of the bunch, where the risks, though not eliminated, are reduced.
Team Sky’s Dave Brailsford couldn’t avoid the coincidence that the most destructive crash of the race happened on the same day as his own team’s Tour hopes hit the tarmac 12 months ago. “As logical as we want to be, as analytical as we are, you can’t help but be relieved that we’ve got that one out of the way. I don’t want to tempt fate but we’ve got a little bit further than we did last year.
“It just goes to show you can get three-quarters of the way through a race with people trundling along, just getting through the stage and in a split-second all hell breaks loose and everything changes.
“When you see Hesjedal, Schleck, Gesink, Mollema and Scarponi all in the groups behind you realise that spending that bit more energy to be at the front is worthwhile.”
The overall picture has begun to settle and on Saturday it will sharpen again. Wiggins can move his finger down the overall classification and stop at the three-minute mark. Anyone further back than that faces an uphill battle to get back into contention.
But reducing the number of rivals and distancing the likes of Gesink and Hesjedal does not necessarily simplify the race for Wiggins and Evans. It could make things less predictable. After all, some of those who lost time today have no option but to animate the race in order to salvage something.
To adapt an old saying, you need your rivals close but perhaps you need your biggest threats even closer, where you can keep an eye on them.
Brailsford added: “Some of the climbing guys will think they have nothing to lose. When these things happen it changes the dimension of the race in several different ways. For us, we have to be on the front foot. You can’t sit back and passively win the Tour de France, you have to be aggressive.”
As the debate about the crash and what constitutes an acceptable level of risk stretches into the evening, it is impossible to avoid the fact that the screech of brakes, the screams of warning, crunch of carbon fibre and sound of the ambulance’s sirens adds an unwelcome drama. Crashes are part of the Tour. The riders accept that. Today’s course was not inherently dangerous – the crash happened on a straight piece of road – but the response to it was a reminder that for many the narrow escape is a time to pedal like hell and not look back.
The problem for the Tour is that once again, it is a serious crash that has shaped the general classification and created the talking point rather than a heroic turn of the pedals.
The first week is an obstacle course to be negotiated but at times it has all the subtlety of asking the riders to pedal through machine gun fire and take their chances.