The day the elastic snapped at the Tour de France

The peloton is on its hand and knees and yet its riders struggle on

Victor Campenaerts on the attack at 2023 Tour de France
Victor Campenaerts on the attack at 2023 Tour de France
(Image credit: ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT / Getty)

The volume of most rock bands is around 110 decibels; the sound of gunfire is 140 decibels and the Saturn V rocket was measured at 204 decibels - they all pale in comparison to the thwack of elastic snapping that reverberated throughout the French Jura mountains on Friday.

This Tour de France has been hard. They’re all hard, but this has also been raced with a wanton abandon that doesn’t come as standard and has taken its toll on the entire peloton. It couldn’t last forever.

The most visceral sign was Simon Clarke (Israel-Premier Tech) who, having made an escape from the day’s big break and powering towards a possible stage win, pulled up. His right hand reached down to his right hamstring the tell-tale sign that cramp had gripped his tired muscles. After 18 days of racing the Jura handed him one climb too many.

It wasn’t long before his breakaway compatriot Victor Campenaerts (Lotto-Dstny) was caught and also nearly came to a standstill, wrung out entirely. A street sweeper on the road from Moirans-en-Montagne to Poligny would have gotten clogged with pro-cyclists.

“I was on the limit for quite a long time,” said the Belgian. “Then 30 fresh riders joined us and it was quite clear that not one of the riders in the original break would go for the victory, so I decided to go and Simon Clarke joined me. In the end it turned out to be nothing.”

With those two swept up it was a group of Kasper Asgreen (Soudal - Quick-Step), Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious) and Ben O’Connor (AG2R Citroën) that eventually went clear. All riders with legs fractionally less weary than the chasers, who outnumbered them about 10 to one.

Even Mohorič, who went on to win the stage in a sprint, included himself when he said the bunch was “on its hands and knees”.  

One of his pursuers, Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers), was asked by ITV's Daniel Friebe about the lethargy in the group. “The co-operation in that group looked ok, there were a couple of people missing turns a couple who looked tired,” Friebe said, before Pidcock interjected: “Yeah me!”

He added: “People in my group were complaining it wasn’t possible [to catch them] or something I think it was about about motorbikes. Everyone seems to be complaining about motorbikes these days. I mean fair play these three guys are pretty strong so it’s going to take some doing to bring them back.”

Such a move might have been possible earlier in the race but this Tour has been driven hard from the get-go. The first three stages in the Basque Country were ridden so furiously that the peloton effectively gave themselves half a day off on stage four’s sprint in Nogaro.

Come the end of stage 19 every rider who came across the line had a haunted look in their sunken eyes. Every one of the more than 3,000 kilometers they’ve raced darkening the bags under their eyes, dulling the sparkle above.

You see similar looks mixed with mud and sweat in the hardest of the spring classics but the cumulative effect of the Tour feels like it comes from somewhere deeper like the darkness emanates from their bones. They had been stretched to breaking point and had little to show for it.

“I feel like the flat stages have become slower than ever because the other stages are so hard,” said Tom Southam, sports director at EF Education-EasyPost “The medium stages, like when [Ion] Izagirre won, have become so difficult that it's actually proper climbers in the front group. These are intermediate stages but proper climbers are getting in there. There's a lot of things out there that make you scratch your head.”

And yet those broken bodies, aching legs will, as regular as a well oiled drive train, get up tomorrow and to do it all again. The snap of a pedal clipping in is only a few decibels but all crescendos must start somewhere.

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