Maybe All Grand Tours Should Start in the Netherlands

May 10 2010

So for those of you scoring at home, that’s two consecutive Grand Tour starts in the Netherlands, and two consecutive Grand Tours marked by huge crowds, active racing, and scenes of epic carnage in the early going.

If the pattern continues, this year’s TdF depart in Rotterdam might just be that rapturous moment in which casual cycling fans finally dissociate “flat” from “boring” in their appreciation of the sport—unless, of course, Lance Armstrong crashes or misses a split. Then they’ll howl about how it’s not fair.

Regardless of the collective opinion of the sunburnt masses, I think a little chaos in the early going is a very good thing for Grand Tour racing, and for the sport in general. Too often—thanks especially to some over-zealous marketers of training plans and aero equipment—cycling competitions are cast as simple mathematical equations: watts/kg @ threshold, coefficient of drag x velocity^2, etc.

But off the trainer, in real-world wind tunnels, cycling’s as much about Spider Sense as anything else. Finding your way onto the right wheel; anticipating nervous moments and getting a good position before the battle starts; knowing which splits will take care of themselves and which you should bury yourself closing—these are the elements that get Grand Tour champions through the first week.

Some are tempted to credit these skills to the director and the radio; these people need to spend more time racing. The time scale of swerves and wheel touches is a fraction of the cognitive lag involved in any verbal communication, let alone one taking place over the radio. While directors can yell at their riders to move up, no amount of haranguing can impart the balance and know-how to make progress in a shoulder-to-shoulder peloton.

Cadel Evans pretty much hit the nail on the head with yesterday’s post-race tweet, though he was significantly less philosophical to see the Jersey leave his shoulders in the same fashion. While it may send the vehement anti-dopers into an emo funk, it should come as a surprise to no one that a canny veteran like Vino’ would end up in pink after another chaotic day.

Even if you hate the action and can’t stand the outcome, first-week chaos should at least be viewed as an investment in the quality of future stages. When the favorites are all clustered at the front of the GC, no one takes chances.

You think the podium places would have plodded up Ventoux if Contador had lost four minutes instead of 40 seconds in the early going at last Year’s TdF? For that matter, would Stefano Garzelli have put on such a show chasing KOM points at last year’s Giro if his squad hadn’t essentially lost the race for him in the opening day’s TTT?

Obviously, the current level of action isn’t sustainable, and probably not very fun for the riders—hopefully, the team time trial later this week take the nervousness out of pack. I think there’s a sweet spot for Grand Tours where the time gaps among the favorites are established enough that a touch of wheels won’t prove decisive, but where a big effort by a few teams could still alter the GC race.

With a little luck the TTT results will hit that sweet spot, and we’ll stay there until the final time trial in Verona.

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