I suppose we should start with Mathieu van der Poel’s hero act, since it’s been the best part of an ugly Tour de France. MvdP has been one of the best riders in the world in every discipline for half a decade now, and his Tour debut proved well worth the wait. On Stage 2, the Dutchman seized the yellow jersey with an incredible ride, following up his solo attack to win the intermediate time bonus sprint on the first circuit of the Mûr-de-Bretagne with an even more incisive solo attack to take the stage win with a big enough gap to get himself into yellow. It was brave, uncompromising racing, the sort you see more in one-day races than Grand Tours. MvdP is also cycling legend Raymond Poulidor’s grandson, and with his pair of attacks on the Mûr, he earned the prize that eluded his grandfather for his entire career. Poulidor, who died in November 2019, is famous for being the greatest rider in Tour history never to have won the whole thing or even taken the yellow jersey, and his grandson was overcome by emotion when he dedicated the win to Poulidor.
On his first day in yellow, MvdP rode hard for his teammate, and helped set up Tim Merlier for a sprint win by going so hard through the last two kilometers that almost every other sprinter was out of position (even Merlier was stunned by the effort.) Unfortunately, Merlier’s win and MvdP’s heroics aren’t the story, as basically everything else that’s happened in the Tour has been decidedly grim. SignLadyGate has turned into an international manhunt, after all. The first and third stages of the Tour have both been unusually brutal and ugly, and the infamous crash caused by Sign Lady was arguably not even the Tour’s worst. Twenty-one riders were injured on the first day of the race (that number doesn’t include those with road rash or other “minor” injuries) between the Sign Lady crash and a second one at even higher speed, and some of those injuries have been quite severe. Cyril Lemoine suffered four broken ribs and a collapsed lung, Ignatas Konovalovas suffered such severe head trauma that he lost consciousness, and Marc Soler somehow finished Stage 1 with two broken elbows.
Today, another late crash ended Australian contender Jack Haig’s Tour, and several other big-time General Classification contenders have lost serious chunks of time. Primoz Roglic is 1:21 behind the leaders after being brought down by Sonny Colbrelli, defending champ Tadej Pogačar is out 26 seconds, and many top contenders are nursing similar gaps, all because they happened to be part of crashes at the cruelest times. Any later, and they’d be given the time of the bunch sprint finish. Any earlier, and they’d have plenty of road to chase back on.
Just a few kilometers after the crash that ended Haig’s Tour, Caleb Ewan and Peter Sagan spun out and slammed into the tarmac just as they began to sprint. It seems Ewan glanced off Merlier’s wheel after getting lightly shouldered by Sagan, and now the brightest young sprinter in the peloton is out of the race with a broken collarbone. The best other pure sprinter in the race, Arnaud Démare, wasn’t there to contend with Sagan and Ewan because he was caught up in the earlier crash.
Naturally, the sustained level of chaos has riders pretty damn fed up with organizers. Though Ewan’s crash was his own fault for nudging into Merlier’s back wheel, the structure of the finish itself raised more than a few eyebrows before today’s stage even started. The twisting roads on the way into Pontivy gave way to a downhill finish, and both the tortuousness and topography set the stage for what happened. A Tour de France sprint is not just won at the line, it necessarily requires a long setup process of taking and aggressively defending forward positions in the peloton. When this sort of competitive jockeying is also taking place on twisty roads, the consequences can be drastic. As Tim Declercq said, “Everyone wants to be in the first 20 riders but there’s only space for 20 riders.” Same goes with downhill finishes. The extra bit of speed changes the positioning calculus in critical ways, as the Ewan crash shows. Peloton leaders even anticipated this exact scenario, asking cycling’s governing body to take GC times eight kilometers out. The UCI said no, even though they’ve been very serious about enforcing a bunch of little bullshit decorum rules, which pissed everyone off even more.
FDJ boss Marc Madiot took it a step further, saying, “I’m a father of a family, and many fathers watch the Tour, so do mothers and their children, and right now I could understand if those parents didn’t want their children to be professional cyclists. 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. It’s not bike racing.”
The Tour de France is always decided not just by skill, but also luck. You can’t win over 6,000-plus kilometers of racing without a few things breaking your way, and it’d be impossible to host a race with 184 riders competing for life-changing results and prizes without expecting a few crashes. The stakes and danger of bike racing are inextricably linked, and even if the UCI held every race on roads twice as wide, we’d still see crashes, even horrible ones. The problem is leaving riders and teams to keep themselves out of harm when the setting is inherently dangerous. If Tour organizers moved back the time safety line from three kilometers to, say, eight or 10, then GC riders and their teams could happily fuck off and let the sprinters duke it out without having to fight for the same positions just so they can avoid inevitable crashes. I understand the arguments against enhanced GC protection, since it’s a bike race and not a fitness contest and you should have to do more on flat stages than just sit there insulated by seven teammate. But someone like Primož Roglič shouldn’t have his Tour hopes maimed like this for no good reason. The riders are right to be furious, their safety is worth more than whatever sort of exciting racing organizers hope to produce.