The Tour is more than just climbing and time-trialling

Alberto Contador was undoubtedly the biggest loser yesterday. The reigning Tour de France champion now finds himself 1’14” behind most of the other overall favourites as he got caught behind a crash which occurred with 9km to go. Only one stage has been raced and the Spaniard is forced to play catchup through no fault of his own.

But is he blameless? Could what happened yesterday have been prevented?

Stephen Roche once declared that to win the Tour you need four skills: climbing, time-trialling, tactical astuteness and an understanding of peloton diplomacy. Roche could tick all four boxes, but there are other skills required which Roche does not mention, perhaps because he takes them for granted – bike handling, descending and positioning.

It is this final competence which left Contador wanting yesterday, as it did in 2009 on Stage Three to La Grande-Motte when he got caught behind in a split caused by crosswinds.

Contador should have ensured that he was in the front section of the peloton. There are always crashes on the first stage of the Tour de France because everybody is nervous and excited. Without the benefit of a rigidly organsied prologue to calm the nerves of apprehensive riders, yesterday’s stage was even more tension-filled. Don’t forget there are 27 riders in this peloton who have never ridden the Tour before, nine of whom have never ridden any Grand Tour before.

So why wasn’t Contador with the rest of the G.C. favourites at the ‘front end of the main field’*? Did he not learn his lessons from 2009?

Contador is not the only member of his team who may be suffering a Giro d’Italia hangover. There are five SaxoBank riders on the nine-man Tour team who completed one of the hardest Grand Tour routes in recent memory. Could it be that they were conserving energy for the more obvious challenges ahead in this year’s Tour? That they didn’t foresee any problems on yesterday’s stage run-in, so they just didn’t bother putting in the effort required to maneuver Contador up from 90 riders back, to 40 riders back?

Regardless, it’s hard to feel sorry for Contador. Nearly every year, there is an overall contender who loses time.

The obvious example (because the Passage du Gois was also on the stage route) is Alex Zulle and Ivan Gotti in 1999 who lost 6’03”. They were also caught behind a crash while riders like Lance Armstrong, Abraham Olano and Pavel Tonkov escaped up the road. Again the positioning must be questioned.

Defending champion Pedro Delgado missed his start time for the 1989 Tour de France prologue and ended up losing three minutes to Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon. Delgado ended the race in third place, 3’34” behind LeMond.

Frank Schleck crashed out on the cobbles in last year's Tour (via

Stephen Roche made an arse of himself in 1991 when he missed the start of his team time trial. He rode around the course alone but was eliminated because he missed the time cut.

More recently there’s Frank Schleck who crashed on the pavé and broke his collarbone last year. Schleck has never ridden a cobbled classic. The same happened to Iban Mayo in 2004, the last time that cobbles were included in the Tour route before 2010. The Spaniard crashed and lost nearly four minutes to Armstrong; he never recovered. Mayo had also never ridden a cobbled classic.

All of these riders must shoulder blame for their misfortunes, including Contador. He is an incredible climber and an excellent time-triallist, the two major ingredients of Tour success. But crashes are also a part of the Tour de France. So why shouldn’t the likes of the Schlecks, Bradley Wiggins, Ivan Basso and Nicolas Roche benefit from astute positioning on the day?

The reigning champion and his team can’t afford to spend much time conserving energy anymore as they begin the task of playing catchup to chief rival, Andy Schleck. The two riders were so well matched last year, both in the mountains and the time trials, 1’14” might already be too much to ask of a fatigued Alberto Contador.


*If you’re watching this year’s Tour on ITV4, you might have noticed that ‘front end of the main field’ is Paul Sherwen’s absolute favourite thing to say. He says it nearly every time he opens his mouth to utter a sentence. You will not thank me for pointing this out. It is incredibly annoying.

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  1. Stephen Salmon - July 3, 2011 @ 11:12 am

    Spot on! That’s cycling!! although i didnt agree with the suspension of the 3k rule on uphill stretches…suspended cause the officials thought the hill wasn’t steep enough?? The rule is the rule end of…

  2. Irish Peloton - July 3, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

    Well in fairness, it was stipulated in the Tour de France rules beforehand

    Understandable considering the frantic nature of the opening stage of the Tour.

  3. Jim Jones - July 3, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

    The comment about Schleck is silly. He was riding well, near the front, when an HTC rider (Martin?) crashed right in front of him. He had nowhere to go. All he lacked was luck. Fränk Schleck might descend like a bus, but he was blameless on the cobbles last year.

  4. Irish Peloton - July 3, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

    But why was he following Martin? Why wasn’t he following his brother who was following the master, Cancellara? Could he not keep up? Did he not have the skills over the cobbles to maneuver himself into following the wheel that he wanted? It still baffles me that more G.C. riders didn’t partake in a cobbled race or two that Spring to practice a bit. Prepare and prevent, don’t repair and repent.

    If he had prepared as best he could I’d have more sympathy, but as far as I can see, he didn’t.

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