Tour favorites head to France relieved
CALVI, Corsica (AP) — A funny thing about the Tour de France is that it can give its competitors the most fabulous terrain to ride over, but it cannot force them to race.
Instead of being the very tricky day full of traps and surprises that Tour teams feared and organizers hoped for, Stage Three of the 100th edition proved to be a bit of a dud: 10 out of 10 visually, with some of the most stunning coastal scenery ever visited by the 110-year-old race, but barely 2 out of 10 for drama.
In fact, as pretty as Corsica — France’s “island of beauty” — was, riders were just as happy to whiz past it.
“Twisty roads like that along the coast, stunning scenery, and I’m sure it made for great shots from the helicopter,” said race favorite Chris Froome. “But that’s not what we were interested in.”
So be it. In a three-week test of endurance, it’s simply physically impossible for every stage to be a classic and provide great excitement. There are days, like on Monday, when the peloton decides the priority is to get from A to B safely, get back to the hotel, massage, eat and sleep. To have success at the Tour, you first have to survive it.
“The race is always what the riders make of it,” the Tour director, Christian Prudhomme, said philosophically.
Jan Bakelants was happy. The Belgian rider started the day in the yellow jersey that he won with a clever and gutsy spurt of riding on Sunday, and he will wear it again for at least another day, during the team time trial on Stage Four on Tuesday. The teams will race against the clock, heading off one after the other in aerodynamic helmets, on a pancake-flat, 25-kilomete course in Nice, past the coastal town’s airport and along its famous beachside avenue, the Promenade des Anglais.
With that very technical and quick ordeal awaiting them, and because coastal headwinds slowed the riders, none of the 21 other teams could be bothered to really try hard to take the lead on Monday from Bakelants.
His RadioShack teammates did a grand job of protecting him. They rode much of the stage at the front of the pack, not letting breakaway riders get too far ahead and discouraging other teams from any thoughts of making a concerted assault. Their management of the stage helped make for dull racing — but it kept Bakelants in yellow.
“We never panicked,” he said. “We managed the gaps.”
But Tuesday will more than likely be his last day in the leader’s precious jersey. There are 71 riders just 1 second behind him in the standings. One of them on a team that time trials better than RadioShack will be in yellow next.
“We have good riders but haven’t really trained for the team time trial,” said Bakelants. “It will be tough to keep the jersey, but I’ve already had it two days and that’s special ... It’s extraordinary to have worn it.”
At the end of the stage, in the final 15 kilometers, the racing picked up. Several riders tried and failed to get away from the chasing pack. It came down to a sprint in the last 500 meters. Simon Gerrans, an Australian, threw his front wheel over the line just before Peter Sagan, a Slovakian.
On paper, Stage Three looked daunting: 145.5 kilometers of narrow roads as sinewy as a blood vessel, with very little flat. On television, the coves, the white beaches and cliffs plunging into turquoise seas looked incredible. The riders strung out like a necklace of colored pearls as they sped along the coastline on a succession of bends so twisty that, among those who rode the route by car, they made queasy mush of iron stomachs.
That is why Corsica paid the Tour to come here: To make it look good. The island gave 3 million euros to the Tour’s owners for the right to host the first three stages of the 100th edition, and paid another 2 million euros in other expenses, said Paul Giacobbi, who heads the regional government. That bought “hours and hours and hours” of worldwide television coverage and “one billion spectators,” he said.
The logistics were complicated. The Tour was transporting itself on seven ships back across the Mediterranean to the French mainland overnight on Monday so it could continue less than 24 hours later on Stage Four, in Nice. After Monday’s trek from the port of Ajaccio, two planes whisked the riders quickly away from the finish in Calvi, so they would sleep in hotels on the French coast that same night.
This was the Tour’s first visit to Corsica. Both came away happy. Prudhomme, the race director, said viewing figures in France for the Corsican leg of the race are the highest they’ve been in a decade.
“That is because of the 100th edition and the beauty of Corsica,” he said.
Not that Froome and the other contenders for overall victory much cared. They were happy simply to be heading back in one piece to the French mainland — where the Tour will be decided on stages in the Pyrenees and Alps far more decisive than anything Corsica could offer.
“I’m quite relieved to be heading off Corsica now,” said Froome. “Hopefully, the race will settle down a little bit.”