Pole position? Ready, set… clip in when you’re ready.
A justifiable hype surrounded the 65km stage from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Saint-Lary-Soulon. So short, so tough. So little time for a rest. Either you’re climbing or descending and while you can go fast downhill it’s not idle time on the bike. The 17th stage was set to truly test physiology and concentration.
Short and sweet is clearly part of cycling’s evolution. It makes sense, ensures exciting racing and is something race director Christian Prudhomme is clearly willing to experiment with. Since his first dalliance with the idea in 2011, when Contador cut sick on the road to Alpe d’Huez, the Tour continued with the theme.
A 101km 13th stage seemed almost absurd when the route for the 2017 Tour was announced. ‘That’s not pro cycling!’ said some. ‘What about the heroics of [insert name of legendary amphetamine muncher/EPO abuser… depending on what era you like to reference]?’
But what a great race it turned out to be. It was 14 July. A Frenchman first. In the polka-dot jersey. In dramatic style. And, on top of it all, everyone on Tour got more of a sleep-in before the racing began. What more could you ask for? Gold, Christian, gold! More of the same please.
The Tour director duly responded: ‘Okay then… but,’ he grinned, ‘get this: 65km!’
What!? How dare you? That’s madness. That’s like a time trial in 1992.
‘Uh huh,’ he laughs, ‘and, get this: three mountain passes – and a mountain top finish… and my little pièce de résistance: we’ll line them up on a grid in order of GC!’
Bon. Cool. On y va! Let’s do this.
And so it would be, on the second day in the Pyrenees this year: the riders would warm up, preparing as if was a time trial, READY to race!
Damn team tactics to hell, this is an innovation we’ve never seen at the Tour before. To hell with that old hag of a concept: the ‘neutral zone’…! Pahhh! I spit in your neutral zone. Vat do vee vant zis for! Let them race. Let them show their jerseys. Let them wait in the sun and line up on a grid.
(Don’t give them umbrellas. And, of course, let the grid girls upload their CV to LinkedIn, for there is no job for them here.)
And that’s how it could be. G at the front, pole position – resplendent in his maillot jaune. Doesn’t he look thrilled to be there? Elbow resting on the handlebars. Head resting on hand. Fingers trying to disguise his yawn. Ho-hum. ‘Can we start this thing already?’
There is Froomey, just behind the race leader – out of the spotlight and legs at the ready. Is this time to attack and take a 60th yellow jersey?
The leading pair pondering what could come? A two-man team time trial…?
“Obviously if some guys in the top 10 go then it will be a really gutsy move,” said G on the eve of this innovation.
Vrrrrmmmm, vrrmmmm… get your motors running. Time to show your guts fellas.
“To go from the start will be risky, for sure,” continued G. “But there are plenty of guys probably willing to take that risk.”
Red light. Amber light… Green light! Go!
Ah, nah. It didn’t quite work like that. This is road cycling. It’s not BMX. It’s not MotoGP.
It’s not actually beneficial to be at the front in cycling, not unless you’re about to cross the finish line. The whole idea of good team tactics is to keep that guy – the one with the coloured prize jersey – out of the wind, not force him into it.
And what do we see after amber turns to green? G gingerly rising from his resting position. He pushes off with one foot, rolls a little. Slowly clicks his other foot into the pedal and onward he rolls a little. Within a few moments, Bardet, to his credit, at least surges like he has watched Valentino Rossi too many times and is caught up in the excitement. But really? Holeshot?! Nah. He eases off and lets the others into the wind.
This is road cycling. It certainly needs innovation. Short stages? Sweet. Yes please!
Neutral zone? Nah, not necessary – get rid of them. We can do without it.
But the grid? It was good for one thing: it put the stars out on display and we could take a look at the expression on their face for a moment. But they still had sunglasses and helmets on and, frankly, they just looked bored.
Great idea? Flat in application.
What you got next Christian? Keep on trying – love your enthusiasm but this one? Nah… no need to bother taping lines on a main street again.