To the uninitiated, watching a three-week long cycling Grand Tour (the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France, or the Vuelta a España) would seem akin to watching paint dry. Even Test cricket manages to reach a conclusion, albeit sometimes a draw, in five days.
For my non-cycling readers, here are some of the attractions of a Grand Tour to a cycling fan.
Firstly, consider the scale of the undertaking. This year’s Tour de France covers 3,540km / 2,200mi, spread over 21 stages. There are fifty three categorized climbs packed into the route. Eight rise 1,000 meters / 3,280 feet or more each. Three tower to more than 2,000 meters / 6,560 feet each. Those eleven climbs will require the riders to ascend a total of 19,164 meters / 62,874 feet. That is the equivalent of riding a bicycle to the top of Mount Everest. Twice.
Secondly, consider the physiological stresses the riders must face to complete a Grand Tour. These men are amongst the fittest endurance athletes on the planet. The stage with the most climbing in this year’s Tour de France, Stage 18, has 2,642 meters / 8,668 feet of elevation. Perhaps cruelly, the longest stage of this year’s Tour de France is Stage 19, covering 222.5km / 138mi. The winning rider has to average about 40kph / 25mph over each of the stages, and do that day after day after day. There are only two rest days during this year’s Tour, after Stage 9 and after Stage 15.
Thirdly, the psychological challenges are immense. Each stage is incredibly stressful. The riders have to fight their way against rain, temperatures reaching 30 degrees Celsius and strong cross winds, whilst tricky surfaces including cobbles, street furniture and winding roads demanded their full attention. The risk of crashing is ever present. The finishing kilometers of each stage, which can last for four-to-six hours, are particularly taxing. Riders must overcome severe mental and physical fatigue in order to maintain speeds of more than 60kph / 37mph for the last 5 to 10km / 3 to 6mi of racing, reaching speeds of 75kph / 47mph at the finish line.
I don’t mean to imply that the entire duration of a Grand Tour makes for riveting television. The riders may be suffering, but often all the viewer sees is an unchanging peloton for kilometer after kilometer. Which forces the television commentators to give us geography and history lessons to liven things up.
There’s also the land art.
And the occasional high wire cyclist to keep viewers entertained.
Every so often though, the race bursts to life. And you get to see what truly attracts fans to the Grand Tours. Stage 9 of this year’s Tour de France, from Nantua to Chambery, had it all.
First there was the jagged stage profile. Nasty, to say the least. You might not win the Tour on this stage, but you could certainly lost it here.
The stage profile set the scene for an incident-filled day. The wet roads ensured that there were crashes. Lots of them. Only 4km / 2.5mi into the stage, Manuele Mori and Robert Gesink hit the deck, and both had to abandon the race. Unfortunately, this was an omen of much worse to come. Crash followed crash on the fast and wet descents. Geraint Thomas, in second place in the General Classification standings, crashed on the descent of the Col de la Binche. His race was over. The same fate befell one of the pre-race favourites, Richie Porte, who had a horrific crash on the descent of the Mont du Chat.
Then there was alleged skullduggery. On the ascent of the Mont du Chat, Chris Froome had a mechanical issue. As he raised his right arm to signal for his team car, Fabio Aru, on his wheel, surged ahead, literally under Froome’s armpit. This was a violation of the unwritten rule not to attack the race leader during a mechanical.
Nairo Quintana and Porte kept the pace down, and Aru’s ill-timed attack came to naught as three Sky teammates helped bring Froome back up to the group. Aru proclaimed his innocence, saying he was unaware that Froome had a mechanical. The polemics about Aru’s actions will rumble on for some time.
The three hors-categorie climbs on this stage probably put paid to the title aspirations of Nairo Quintana, who lost 1 minute 15 seconds to race leader Chris Froome. Also out of the title frame is Alberto Contador, who finish 4 minutes 19 seconds behind Froome. They now trail Froome in the General Classification by 2 minutes 13 seconds, and 5 minutes 15 seconds respectively.
Dan Martin was another pre-race who will rue this stage. Porte took Martin down with him when he crashed. Martin remounted and pedalled on, only to fall again a bit later on. Incredibly Martin finished the stage in the Quintana group, but is now 1 minute 44 seconds behind Froome in the General Classification
This stage, arguably the hardest of the entire race, accounted for twelve riders leaving the tour. Five due to crashes, and seven who did not make the time cut.
The cherry on the cake was the incredibly exciting finish. Warren Barguil led over the summit of the Mont du Chat. Romain Bardet caught and passed Barguil at the bottom of the descent, with just under 12km / 7.5mi to the finish.
Froome, Jakob Fuglsang, Aru, and Rigoberto Urán were in the chase group. Uran’s derailleur was damaged, and he was stuck in a big gear. The television commentators blamed it on debris kicked up by Porte as he crashed, with Urán right behind him. To me the video seems to show Dan Martin’s heel striking Urán’s derailleur as Martin tumbled over the unfortunate Porte.
Whatever the case, Urán muscled that big gear and stayed in the chase group. With only 2.1km / 1.3mi to go, the group of five, now including Barguil, caught Bardet. After 180km / 119mi and 4,600 meters / 15,092 feet of climbing, the stage came down to a bunch sprint.
Fuglsang started the sprint. First Bardet, then Urán passed him, but Barguil pulled up alongside Uran at the last second, and thought he had won. Even the race officials gave it to Barguil, and he was led to the winner’s enclosure. Prematurely, as it turned out. It was a photo finish, and Uran, damaged derailleur and all, had held on for the win.
Stage 9 had everything that makes watching stage racing so addictive. Bring on Stage 10.