We waited months for racing to come back, and then when treated to the biggest bike race in the world, we complain that it’s too boring. We don’t deserve nice things.
Of course, people weren’t wrong. Stage five of the 2020 Tour de France was like one of those Norwegian slow TV programmes where viewers watch a seven-hour train journey, or reindeer migration in real-time.
Flat stages often lack the oomph of a mountain-top finish, at least until the sprint trains jostle for position in the closing kilometres before the rush for the line, but yesterday took the genre into a new realm.
No breakaway managed to establish itself, baffling riders and coaches as the smaller teams didn’t take advantage of the free TV time for their sponsors.
“It was really surprising for me, I haven’t been in the WorldTour for that long but since I got here this is the first day ever that no-one was even interested in the break,” Jumbo-Visma’s stage winner Wout van Aert said.
With the parcours offering a pretty much downhill ride to the line from Gap to Privas, riding 180km into a headwind is not the most enviable of tasks, but Van Aert says the speed wasn’t so high that you’d “have to kill yourself” in an escape.
“It was quite weird because the bunch took the speed of the leaders, so even if you got in the breakaway you wouldn’t have had to kill yourself really, but you get the free attention,” Van Aert explained.
“I can’t remember a stage with no breakaway at all,” said Mitchelton-Scott sports director Matt White. “We said from the start it’s not going to be a normal Tour de France, it’s been a very aggressive first week, but usually it’s the invited teams and local teams interested in putting someone up the road.”
“The Tour is three weeks long and if you go in the breakaway on a day like today you’re going to waste energy,” Adam Yates added. “I think everyone’s riding quite smart and trying to save energy.”
Yoann Offredo, a man with a penchant for breakaways, is working as a pundit for French television after his Circus – Wanty Gobert team weren’t given a wildcard for this year’s race. He was apoplectic that none of the smaller French teams sacrificed even one rider for the day’s break, like on day three when Total Direct Energie’s Jerome Cousin spent many kilometres out front on his own “in respect for the Tour de France.”
But do riders enjoy these sorts of days, or do they get as bored as people watching at home on the TV?
“It’s pretty boring for us as well,” Deceuninck – Quick-Step’s Kasper Asgreen told Cycling Weekly. “But in the end, it’s an extra rest day for us so we’re not going to ride really hard if no-one wants to go.”
Sunweb’s Nicholas Roche says he enjoyed spending hours chatting in the bunch and cruising at 45km/h, but that race organisers have maybe focused too much on making mountain stages more exciting and neglected the flatter offerings.
“Race organisers have spent so much energy in making mountain stages crazier that they picked the wrong battles in my opinion,” Roche tweeted on the morning before stage six. “No rider in the Tour has the energy to throw away in a suicidal 190km headwind stage with the sprinter’s teams controlling you at a two-minute gap all day.
“What about adding more green jersey points on flat stages at intermediate points? Some kind of bonus points? Or even bringing in a breakaway classification?”
Is the issue that more and more of the Tour is being televised these days, so the ‘boring’ sections are now noticed? It’s true that the structure of bike races in general don’t necessarily lend themselves to the wall-to-wall action demanded by programming schedules.
Should we just be grateful this year to have a Tour de France at all and keep our mouths shut? Many questions, few obvious answers. Let’s just enjoy the remaining 16 stages, regardless of what happens.