Wednesday, July 4, 2012

2012 Tour de France: Stage Three

Some days in the Tour everything seems easy. The boulevards for the sprints are expansive. The countryside across which the peloton churns en route to the finish is paved with broad, pleasant roads. The descents are sweeping, the route wide open. The riders can relax, and worry only about their legs and the rest of the field. On other days, today very much included, everything seems just a little too small. The roads are narrow, packing the peloton into each other and increasing the risk of two riders bumping tires and touching off a pileup. The sprints are interrupted by curves, bunching the riders at the least opportune moment, when the speed is highest and the margin for error is smallest. When such a day falls in the first week of the Tour, before the pack has settled into itself, the claustrophobia lends to a skittishness that, perversely, causes the crashes the riders are worried about.

On a narrow lane like those of stage three, any rider in the peloton going down immediately creates a clusterfuck behind him. Those immediately following can’t help but hit him and go down, and a shockwave spreads behind and out through the riders coming upon him. At low speeds, it’s a traffic jam. At high speeds, it can become a meat grinder. Today there were four crashes on the road, and the first dropouts of the Tour were forced. A fractured tibia and collarbone knocked two riders out, and a third broke his hip and, though he finished the stage, seems likely to be done. Some poor anonymous bastard was ejected off of the road and rolled hard into a wire fence. Countless riders went down protected only by their helmets and lycra. It’s not a contact sport, but when it goes wrong it goes wrong hard.

But, of course, the race continues unabated amid crashes. If a true contender goes down in or is held up behind a crash, etiquette dictates the pack wait for him, but otherwise the race is ruthless, and anyone caught in an accident gets to follow it with a frenzied ride to reattach himself to the back of the peloton, hopefully with the aid of others also caught out by the crash.

So on the race went. Things are still early, and the heavyweights are still feeling out this year’s version of the Tour, more concerned with not making a mistake than with trying anything. The peloton caught the breakaway on one of the several climbs near the finishing climb of the race, and then wound up to race to the finish.

On the downhill after the climb, with four kilometers left, Sylvain Chavanel broke from the head of the race to try to go it alone. It wasn’t an impossible move, but it was a desperate one. Chavanel is a French racer, which is currently a romantically doomed lot in cycling. France loves cycling, and would explode if a Frenchman were to win the Tour, but they haven’t produced a champion since the 80s. When Thomas Voeckler held onto the maillot jaune for 10 days last year he became a national hero. Chavanel’s move off the front was ill-advised, but he isn’t a strong enough rider to contest the sprint on the final climb, and today was the day the Tour was back on French soil, so of course he had to make a move. He held them off until the penultimate climb, but then he faded. It was valiant, it was a bold strategic play, but it was never going to work.

And so, instead of a world-beating French victory, we have a phenom. Twenty-two year-old Peter Sagan, who you might remember from his fine double teapot-to-chicken victory celebration in stage one, outkicked the field on the final uphill to win his second stage. If this is all he does in this year’s Tour, he is a young rider with a bright future. If he can win a handful more times this convincingly, he will have forcefully inserted himself into the conversation for who can win the green jersey for best sprinter. Either way, he has the best victory celebrations going right now. As he crossed the line at the end of stage three, he pumped his arms like a runner. (I'm sorry I can't embed videos of these, but ASO seems to treat YouTube much like MLB does.) Most riders appeal to god like home run hitters touching the plate or throw their arms wide; Sagan is just trying to entertain. He termed today’s the Gump, saying that like Forrest Gump ran when he was told to run, he will win when he is told to win. We’ll see if that remains true, but so far his results are unassailable.

Photos via Reuters

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