The Tour de France hits its second week with the perfect storm of circumstances; beautiful weather, a mountain top finish, and Bastille Day.
Vive la France! It’s a day wherein a country of millions of people celebrate the time they stormed a castle/prison to rescue Leonardo DiCaprio from the basement right or something. Who cares? It’s the biggest party in cycling (save, perhaps, most Belgian cyclocross races) on the biggest stage in sport. It has its own dress code (short shorts, shirt option and discouraged), a pretty big venue (today, roadside along 17km of the final climb, Pierre-St. Martin), and drink (any kind of alcohol).
But the race itself has the best tradition. On Bastille Day, one or more French riders attack. The more hopeless, the more forlorn, the better; in fact, today’s breakaway has already started, with only Perrick Fedrigo off the front just meters after kilometer zero. No more hopeless an effort exists, but hey, it’s Bastille Day. For a Frenchman to win on Bastille Day is the ultimate culmination in cultural identity, and it is something Americans can’t truly duplicate. It would be like John Elway winning the Super Bowl on the Fourth of July, or Derek Jeter winning the World Series no in October, but on Independence Day.
Today’s stage up Pierre St. Martin should give us some idea of the true GC picture, but with three straight days in the mountains, it’s the first page of the Pyrenees, which is only a chapter followed by the Alps in the final week. The climb itself is long and averages 7%, but word on the proverbial street is that the frequent ramps and relative flats suit the likes of Nairo Quintana or Alberto Contador more than they lend themselves to a Team Sky train to the summit.
Froome’s yellow jersey is closest to the clutches of the American Teejay van Garderen. TvG has been on the lips of everyone this past rest day, after his BMC team won Sunday’s team time trial by a single second over Sky. The big questions are still to be asked, however, and it’s day like this, in the high mountains and with other GC riders being predictably aggressive to make up time, he’ll have to ride strong and smart.
Nobody is under more pressure, and more immune to it, Nairo Qunitana needs time. While the apparent struggles of Vicenzo Nibali have been well documented and perhaps blown out of proportion, Quintana has been treading water on the same time deficit since Stage Two, until a strong ride by his Movistar team saw him move to 1’59” down to Froome. He doesn’t need to make up two minutes today or even in the three stages in the west of France, which include the Tourmalet tomorrow, but he needs to leave with something to point to, and preferably a deficit under 60 seconds before the Alps.
Nibali sits 2’22” back and will be looking to find some rhythm, if not some time, on today’s summit. A tumultuous season and an uncomfortable start to the Tour, with teammate Lars Boom’s low cortisol levels, kept the low-key Nibali in the press. Instead of riding under the radar, Astana seemed to be the talk of the first few days, even after sub-par rides by their leader in the Prologue and a gritty but inconclusive trip over the cobbles. Surely it would have been a shock to Nibali himself if you told him on Stage One that he would be behind the likes of Rigoberto Uran, Teejay van Garderen, and Alejandro Valverde, as well as the other “Big Four” riders.
The big pick for today’s stage is the rider who has been under the radar. Even with all the talk of the Giro-Tour double, Alberto Contador has ridden an almost perfect first week, crashed slightly less than others, and has conserved energy as well as can be done. He’s marked everything up until now, and while the stage doesn’t tip into Spain, he’ll have Spanish support in this mountains for three days. He may even have a built-in ally in Quintana, who can match Contador’s dynamic climbing in a way Chris Froome struggles to adapt to. If the yellow jersey is out of support early, watch for Contador to set off the first shot in the mountains.
In any case, enjoy Bastille Day and celebrate with a croissant. Look up existentialism and talk about it with a friend. Take an extra long lunch. Today is France’s big day, with it’s big race. It’s so big we all deserve a piece.