And then, just to remind us that the Tour can wrest unpredictability from the jaws of predictability, Julian Alaphilippe was penalized 20 seconds after the stage and lost the yellow jersey.
Perhaps the most revealing moment of the race is when Benoît Cosnefroy took the points in the fourth category climb of the Col de Serre Colon, which did not come either at the start or at the end of the stage, but somewhere in the middle. The King of the Mountains ranking has been criticized in recent years for not offering much in terms of competition. Here is an undisputed sprint in a largely undisputed competition in a stage which has remained undisputed until the outskirts of Privas.
Post-stage penalties aside, it was a boring day. It wasn’t the boring first stage of the Tour de France, and it probably won’t even be the last this year. But it was the first stop for many years without a breakaway. It was unusual, but in the end it didn’t make the slightest difference in the race, which would have ended in a sprint in all possible realistic scenarios. Indeed, the last time a flat stage of the race was won by a break when the peloton tried to chase them was when Thomas Voeckler took the fifth stage in 2009.
The warning signs have been there for a few years. Yoann Offredo shook his head in disbelief as he attacked on a stage in 2018 and didn’t see anyone following him. Just two days ago, Jérôme Cousin was spending most of the day working alone in front of the peloton.
Escapes are so unlikely to be successful in this kind of stage that we call them “suicide breaks”. And a combination of factors has made them less and less likely to be successful. First, there are too many sprinter teams and too well trained to pass up the chance of a stage victory in the most important race in the world. They won’t let more than four riders get on the road on a flat stage, five on the outside, and their lead rarely exceeds three and a half minutes. Second, the teams are more ambitious than they were before, as the sport has grown.
There were a number of teams without a great sprinter or a great GC runner, and those teams used to populate the breaks. Now even Arkéa-Samsic, who spent his first Tours starting in 2014 making sure he had a man on the road almost every day, is sitting in a protective bubble around Nairo Quintana, who could still win the yellow jersey.
Thirdly, the Tour becomes more and more difficult, with fewer flat stages and more mountain and mid-mountain stages. This year in particular, with runners having significantly fewer runs in their legs, they need to do a cost-benefit analysis of entering a break and realize that the physical cost in terms of tired legs with two and a half weeks of stages for the most part very difficult. ahead is more than the benefit, whether in terms of the unlikely scenario of actually winning or exposure for the sponsors. Who wants to tire their runners out for an hour or two of TV time when you can post a viral tweet and get a lot more attention that way?
Some GC teams have almost completely given up on putting runners on break. In 2019, Ineos did not send any rider on the road before the 18th stage – Dylan van Baarle. And that was to provide bottom-up support to their leaders in the GC battle. (This is nothing new – they did the exact same thing in 2016 – no one in the break until step 18.)
The question is: does it matter? The break on flat days is doomed anyway, and the only real question is: who will win the sprint? Beyond giving TV commentators something to say, there is no racing suspense. On mountain days the breaks are much larger, sometimes let go and sometimes not, and on difficult transition days, of which there are a number in 2020, the same is true. The “race within a race” always happens on these days.
If ASO really wanted more breaks on the flat stages, there are levers he can press to encourage him – more bonus seconds, more bonus sprints, a restructured points competition, smaller teams, for example. . Maybe they will experiment with ideas like this if there are more days like step 5.
At the same time, as cycling enthusiasts, we know that the Tour is more than just a race. Part of the joy of the television experience is the slow unfolding of a scene against the backdrop of superb sets or impressive castles. And photos of a runner or a small group of runners heading to the finish a few minutes before the peloton are part of the iconography of the race, as well as a portrayal of hope and optimism against everything. waiting.
And anyway, the Tour doesn’t need breaks to get interesting. As we were digesting one of the slowest days in the history of the race, Alaphilippe lost the yellow jersey. Even on a day when nothing is happening, the Tour still manages to be thrilling.
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