There was this brief moment while I was compiling the stages to watch article for the first week of the 2019 Tour de France. It was when I realised that I’d flagged a lot of stages before that all-important first rest day – six in fact. Was I letting my anticipation cloud my judgement? I filed my content and allowed the doubts to fade into the ether.
“Looks like we’re watching all the stages…” was one of the responses on social media to that story. “I only start watching in the second week,” reacted another. I hope that the guy who posted that second comment reconsidered.
Maybe it was the nonplussed reaction from just about everyone from the media, the peloton and anyone who managed to stay awake during last year’s awful Stage 7 that was the final straw for race organisers, the ASO. The 230-odd kilometres of flat roads and another bunch sprint really put the boot in with the race vying for the attention of viewers alongside the FIFA World Cup and Wimbledon.
There had been others over the last decade, just as the ‘on-demand’ era of television viewership kicked into gear. The fact is, the public demands more action more often, and when an endurance event like the Tour de France is at the mercy of an athlete’s physical and mental limitations, a delicate balance is required.
Just three stages in, I’m prepared to suggest that we’re a long way from the malaise of recent Tours – and we’ve got both the ASO and the peloton to thank for it.
In Mike Teunissen’s remarkable victory in Brussels on Saturday, we saw the beauty of a team sport – too often forgotten in the rush of cycling results. In the Dutchman’s win, we saw that a sprint finish doesn’t need to be a foregone conclusion in an era where Peter Sagan has dominated the points classification and that the spirit of racing can be duly rewarded.
That historic start to the Tour by Jumbo-Visma, with Teunissen the first Dutch rider in three decades to wear the yellow jersey, continued on Sunday night with the big engines from the outfit just too good for the favourites, Team Ineos.
The stage was short, delivering precisely the right amount of intrigue, creating enough interest in the results despite being only day two. In an effort where success is viewed in light of the varying fortunes of the GC rivals, some of the contenders suffered slightly concerning setbacks while the promise of the so-called wide-open Tour continued to gain traction.
As EF Education First’s Simon Clarke said: “If you take Jumbo-Visma out of the equation, there are five teams in the space of eight seconds. That is going to be a negligible time difference when we get to Paris.” That’s one way to look at it.
For others, like Romain Bardet, his uphill battle to stick with the heavy hitters this year came into focus uncomfortably early, finishing 1min 19sec off the pace.
That brings us to Stage 3. Mitchelton Scott DS Matt White (half) jokingly stated before racing got underway that Julian Alaphilippe had designed the parcours.
The Frenchman’s display was nothing short of the panache that we’ve come to expect, but the stage was not just about the thrilling finale. With renowned escape artist Tim Wellens in the break and then deciding to go it alone and leave it all out on the road, it was like a bonus feature on a limited series – adding that little more intrigue and spice to what was already a well-rounded production.
The intensity of the chase to close the gap to Alaphilippe resulted in the first fracture within Team Ineos, with Egan Bernal now five seconds ahead of defending champion Geraint Thomas. Does that gap occur if Alaphilippe jumps clear of the bunch on the last climb and not 16kms from the finish – unlikely.
The best leaders in the three-week-long narrative emerge on the road, and that’s the story that mid-way through the first week, is starting to unfold. We’re not waiting for the sprinters to get their entrée out of the way before we head to the Alps and the Pyrenees. Instead, we’re being delivered something closer to a dégustation. No filler. Just bite-sized morsels to be revealed and appreciated as the Tour de France should be.