(Originally published on Just Riding Along)
The opening stages of the 2021 Tour de France has not only had spectacular racing, but crashtacular carnage. So much that the crashes have dominated the reporting of the first three stages.
Every time there’s an early-stage crash that takes a favorite out of the race, or even out of contention, there’s coverage of it. Every year, a few favorites suffer this fate. But this year has been special. The crashes have been big, they’ve happened in the closing kilometers as the race is on the boil. And every year, there are calls to do something about it. But with the crashes bigger than usual this year, there’s been more attention, more attrition, more blood, and more complaints.
This year, Groupama-FDJ’s Marc Madiot, possibly the most impassioned of those managing teams, spoke out. “we have to do something or otherwise there will end up being deaths…And I don’t want to have to call up one of my rider’s families to tell them what has happened. This can’t go on.” “We cannot continue like that.”
For racers, the crashes are terrible. It’s their job, and for most, one that has mediocre pay, a short lifespan, and a crash can not only cause short- and long-term pain, but end careers.
For the promoters and fans, the crashes should be terrible. Should be. Danger can certainly be appealing, especially when you can watch it from a safe remove, and bike racing does trade on some of the sport’s risk. And searching YouTube for videos of ‘tour de France 2021 crash’ reveals that a video of the massive stage one pileup that resulted from the notorious “allez Opi Omi” sign was watched more than a million times in the two days since. Strikingly, the more serious, more damaging crash that happened in the final kilometers of the same stage received only 243,000 views in the same time. I guess we have a curious relationship with danger.
The polemics go into how to fix these problems.
There’s a contingent that wants wider, straighter roads. There’s a contingent that wants the prologue to return. There’s a contingent that wants the racers to no longer wear radios so they can’t listen to their directors as the race is on the boil. These are all interesting possibilities. But I fear they miss the biggest problem.
Wider, Straighter Roads–still have problems
The wider, straighter roads solution seems problematic. What wider roads do is allow more people to get to the front, which will typically make the race faster. And the speed will bring problems as there have to be turns somewhere, and those turns will be bottlenecks. And even if the field safely navigates those, the higher speeds mean the consequences of crashing will be higher. Back in the 1990s, I seem to remember that the Tour experimented with highway roads for flat stages. There were still big crashes. And the stages were boring to watch.
Furthermore, this year’s stage one crash 11 kilometers from the finish, the second big crash of the day, was a crash on a straight road that was relatively wide. It appeared to be a slight downhill, which demonstrates how straight wide roads aren’t necessarily the solution.
The Prologue–Separations don’t really matter
I think the prologue solution doesn’t change things. The reason I think it is because prologues don’t actually do all that much sorting. Let’s take 2012, the last time the Tour had a prologue. Fabian Cancellera won in a time of 7:13. He was closely followed by several favorites for the overall. But behind them, there were several sprinters close enough to possibly snatch yellow in the following days. Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin), were 21 seconds behind. Mark Cavendish (Sky) and Andrei Greipel (Lotto), even better sprinters, were 23 seconds behind, Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 24 seconds. Five sprinters were within striking distance of yellow if there were time bonuses on the line. And there were another three teams—Orica-Greenedge, Lampre-ISD, and Katusha—who had sprinters likely to contend in the opening sprint stages (Goss, Petacchi, Freire). Add to those eight teams three or four more big general classification teams—BMC, Sky, Liquigas-Cannondale, and maybe Movistar—who were deep enough to, if they wanted, put most of their riders near the front in the final kilometers of a sprint stage. And Cancellara’s RadioShack-Nissan squad would have an interest in keeping him in yellow. Put it all together and the race could see about ten to 12 teams, with all their riders, trying to force their way to the front in the final kilometers.
If people want an opening stage individual contest to create real separations, a hillclimb time trial that takes more like 30 minutes would create real time gaps. The problem of the sprint teams looking for stage wins and the general classification teams looking to protect their riders still remains. And never seeing a sprinter in yellow, nor having the drama and polemics over bonus seconds, would be a drag.
Race Radios–The info still gets out there
Banning race radios, something Madiot is in favor of, is interesting. On the one hand, it means the team directors aren’t constantly yelling at their riders to go to the front, which has benefits for safety. On the other, it seems like the change will be more neutral. Instead of telling their riders what to expect during the race, there will be more video reconnaissance, more studying of the course map, and the riders might just blindly fight for the front, so it would seem that the ‘benefit’ would be small, if any.
I think the biggest problem is that too many teams want too many of their riders to occupy too little space.
While this might seem to point to wider roads as being a solution, I think, as with race radios, the teams would adjust. Until the road is wide enough for all 23 teams, the roads won’t be wide enough.
The Teams need to get involved
I think the teams themselves will have to change how they race.
While I never watched complete Tour stages, or even the last hour live or on tape until the mid 1990s, there are reports that teams of the general classification riders did not ride en masse at the front in the final kilometers of flat stages. A favorite might have a few teammates around him to pilot and be ready if he crashes or flats, but not every last one of them, ala Sky/Ineos-Grenadiers. If my memory is right, Banesto did not bring their entire team to the front in the final kilometers of flat stages during Miguel Indurain’s run of five Tour victories. It seemed as if the Telekom team, riding for Bjarne Riis and Jan Ullrich (for yellow and Erik Zabel (for green) crushed it at the front in the final kilometers of flat stages in 1996 and 1997. And they were trading blows with the Saeco sprint train of Mario Cipollini. Since both teams were rather successful, more teams got in on the practice.
Nowadays, at the Grand Tours, Ineos-Grenadiers can be relied upon to put all eight of their riders on one side of the road in the final kilometers of sprint stages. And Jumbo-Visma, keen to support their leaders, has been doing it as well for the past few years. UAE-Emirates has emulated these two formations since their Tour victory with Tadej Pogacar in 2020.
At this year’s Tour, you can see the problem. UAE, Jumbo-Visma, Ineos-Grenadiers, as the top overall favorites, are trying to put all their riders at the front. Decuninck-Quick Step is trying the same, to support both Julian Alaphilippe and Mark Cavendish, though they’ve been burning through riders toward the end. Bora-Hansgrohe is putting as many riders up there as possible to support Peter Sagan, Emmanuel Buchmann, and Wilco Kelderman. Alpecin-Fenix is trying the same to protect Mathieu Van Der Poel and Tim Merlier. DSM is trying to do the same for Cees Bol and because they’re stage-hunters. Bahrain-Victorious wanted riders at the front to help Sonny Colbrelli go for the stage win and protect Jack Haig for the overall. Lotto-Soudal is also game for this to support their sprinter Caleb Ewan (out after his stage three crash). Team BikeExchange had reason to do so as well, because their sprinter, Michael Matthews excels at the kinds of finishes in the first two stages, and while Simon Yates said he was at the Tour for stage wins, he does well at punchy finishes and wore yellow last year.
Ten teams trying to put all eight guys at the front in the final kilometers is a problem.
Can Racing Be Too Wide Open?
I wonder if the first two stage finishes this year, steep enough to dislodge the heavier sprinters, but short enough for the lighter sprinters, with punchy climbers and overall contenders able to contend as well magnified the problem. Perhaps too many people had a reason to be near the front. And they would have had the problem, thanks to time bonuses, even if there had been a prologue.
And there were several other riders who seemed like they might have had a shot at a victory in the first two stages. Dan Martin and Mike Woods of Israel Start Up Nation should have been competitive. So, too Miguel Angel Lopez and Alejandro Valverde and Enric Mas of Movistar, Michael Valgren and Magnus Cort of EF Education-Nippo, Greg Van Avaermaet of AG2R-Citroen. Warren Barguil and Nairo Quintana of Arkea-Samsic, Alexey Lutsenko of Astana-Premier Tech.
That’s another six teams in the mix. We’re up to 16 of the 23 teams all having a reason to fight for position at the front.
Teams themselves have to de-escalate a bit. Ineos and their imitators might have to stop massing their teams at the front in the final kilometers of early stages. If they’re taking up the space of 24 riders at the front just to protect their team leaders, that leaves little room for the teams of sprinters to position themselves.
I’m sure their argument will be they need everyone to protect their top riders, as the general classification is what they chose to focus on. They did come for that reason. But is it in everyone’s interest for every single team member to be at the front?
I think there are plenty of times when racers agree not to escalate. There are “nature breaks” that are respected by everyone. Nearly everyone respects feed zones. It starts to get greyer when a crash befalls a major team leader. If it’s early in the stage, or if the field isn’t going hard, a truce is called. But if there’s an attack in progress, or it’s in the final kilometers, they’re not slowing down; though, to be fair, the ethics of these attacks are often discussed for days after.
Yes, it will be a grey area. And the problem is the biggest budget teams need to be the ones to deescalate first. Groupama-FDJ hasn’t put many people at the front, probably because they can’t, but they have been judicious and seemingly skilled at having one or two domestiques guiding either David Gaudu or Arnaud Demare near the front thusfar. Neither can EF Education, nor Cofidis, though both have been finding ways to be competitive. But all teams seem to adjust their strategy to what their team has the strength to do.
But I don’t know how teams can de-escalate. It’s a prisoner’s dilemma.