Breathless. The lot of them. Chris Froome in the back of the team car still sat there with his helmet on twenty minutes after he’d abandoned. Lars Boom crossing the line to take one of the greatest Tour stages of all time. Alberto Contador vainly trying to reel in the man they said could not ride cobbles.
And finally that man himself, Vincenzo Nibali, looking back down the finishing straight and watching the clock as it ticked on without the faintest trace of mercy or compassion to over one minute, then two, then two and a half and more until the Spaniard came in.
A good days work for Nibali
Lest we forget too the king of the cobbles, Fabian Cancellara and another man that many had down as the favorite for the ‘Paris-Roubaix’ stage, Peter Sagan, both dropped like imposters by the crushing effort put in by Jacob Fuglsang and the Astana team leader.
Both pre-stage favorites got served today with a combination that left all but Boom, the Belkin master of suffering, on the deck. Epic is a much abused word these days but this is what it was.
“Wow!” exclaimed the commentator at the end, lost for superlatives and adjectives, exhausted by what he, we, had just witnessed. Wow indeed.
The miserable conditions (it is an perfectly apt description and yet simultaneously it does not do justice to what was out there) saw riders all over the road like in days of old, had men going down at almost every corner and decimated the dream of a repeat for one rider and any realistic hopes for the GC for many others. The mayhem caused even Sean Kelly to seem disappointed in what he witnessed but from the chaos emerged something so beautiful , so horribly, terribly beautiful that you could not take your eyes from the action for a second.
It was the Paris-Roubaix we’ve all been waiting for, in short, after all these years of dryness!
Much was made when the race route was revealed about the inclusion of the cobbles with many crying foul, but for those of us who believe that a bike rider must be willing to take whatever is thrown at him or her this was the stage we were anticipating.
Many said that Froome would possibly come a cropper on the old stones but he actually crashed before them. And yet it was the pave that caused his crash, absolutely, and it was to blame for all the others that happened even before the first section reared its head.
Young Gun Talansky took to a field
The fact that this was not a one-day race but a stage in the Tour altered the whole dynamic. The big riders – meaning large in size – were not here the only ones vying for position, as the likes of Contador, Froome, Talansky and Van Garderen knew that they too had to be in the mix, and with them their lieutenants.
That tension forced the speeds up and ensured that, along with wet, mistakes would be made and riders would be going down. Nobody wants to see riders crash but it is a part of bike racing, they know that and they get on with it. That Froome was a casualty will detract from what was looking to be a real battle between himself and Contador this year, but a certain Italian decided that he fancied his name in the ring too.
Can Nibali win this thing? Does it matter? That ride will go down in the annals of Tour history alongside the greats. There was one side shot of him taken from a helicopter and I swear you could see the shadow of Coppi alongside. In fact, watch that stage in black and white and you’ll be transported back in time.
But back to the question, can he win? It’s still very early days but he certainly has more chance after that stage than he had before. His gutsy ride to get in yellow was upped here, and he’ll have confidence coursing through his veins like blood for a good few days to come.
What is very intriguing is the placement of Fuglsang in 2nd. The Danish rider was tipped long ago as a potential Grand Tour winner but suffered from illness and the weight of expectation, but he is coming good now and might be eyeing better than just a top ten here. Certainly now Astana have some great cards in their hand.
2:30 lost for Contador
Contador looked like the ‘Conty’ of old, and I don’t mean pre-2010. At one point with ten kilometers to go he looked over his shoulder and shook his head, reminiscent of the day he bonked in Paris-Nice. Yet here he looked like a man even more alone, without teammates as he has been for so many, many years.
In comparison, Nibali had two with him until Westra dropped off after a formidable effort. I’ve made this point before but it is worth making again after today, that Contador is being mismanaged and has been for some time. It’s a family affair, his management team, but he ends up on teams that are simply not worthy of his results. He might have had Kreuziger with him but even he is patchy, one moment brilliant and the next mediocre, and a real GC favorite needs more than just one man to trust in.
Boom: Muddy but happy
Speaking of GC men, what might Brad Wiggins be thinking right now? Or Brailsford? Wiggins bears a great deal of responsibility for not being at the race but so too does Brailsford, whose intra-team management skills do not come up to scratch. It was he that misled Froome into believing he would be allowed to attack in the 2012 Tour, and he that had to then ditch Wiggins to keep Froome content as he attempted to claim Tour #3 for Team Sky.
What they will do now is uncertain, as is what they actually can do. They will be reeling tonight, as will many others, but none as much as the English team.
Contador, Valverde, Talansky and van Garderen all lost time and Sep Vanmarcke lost his chance to avenge himself after an untimely puncture, but at least they are still in the race.
For Froome though it is adieu. I just wonder if he’s taken that helmet off yet.
Lee Rodgers leads a double life as a pro racer on the UCI race circuit with the Lapierre Asia Cycling Team, competing in the UCI Asia Tour as well as some European events and the likes of the Tour of Qatar and Oman, rubbing shoulders with the best the WorldTour has to offer, whilst keeping up a day job as a cycling journalist. The highlight of his cycling career so far was winning the Singapore National Champs – road race and ITT – as well as claiming the Green Jersey at the 2.1 Tour de Taiwan in 2012, and naturally, writing for PEZ. His writing appears in several magazines and websites and you can catch up with him regularly on his blog, http://crankpunk.com/