There are so many big races on the cycling calendar each year - so many important races, with long histories, with huge turnouts, and fans who never rest. That’s all well and good - and those races are great - but nothing compares to the Tour. Nothing. It takes everything about all the other races have and multiplies it by two: the fans, the police, the emotion, the spectacle.
Everywhere, along nearly every stretch of road from start to finish, at the team hotels - fans - they come from everywhere, and they all want a little taste of the Grand Boucle.
Compared to last year’s mega-hot Grand Depart in the Netherlands, 2016’s first few days in Normandy were mild. There was some rain, but never terrible. There was some wind, but never terrible.
Last year, Peter Stetina’s career nearly ended with a horrific crash at the Tour of the Basque Country in April. Fifteen months on, and the native of Colorado is back at the Tour, and he looks better than ever. His eyes are firmly set on the mountains, but like all the upwardly mobile climber types, he has to make it through the opening crucible before he can get the chance to go UP.
“The first day was mayhem. It’s one of the worst days of the year - it’s really exciting, but there is no room to move. It’s wall to wall - it’s like a block. The peloton moves as a massive block through the road, around France. It’s scary.”
For a rider like Mark Cavendish, there’s pretty much nothing he hasn’t achieved. Well, two, really: the Maillot Jaune at the Tour de France and a medal at the Olympics (preferably of the gold variety). On the first day of the Tour, Cavendish took the win by a wide margin - and put himself into the yellow jersey for the first time in his career.
Moments after crossing the line, the hugs begin. The winner grabs every teammate he can, then directors, friends, soigneurs. Everyone gets the jubilant hug, and if they miss it the first time around, the winner will get you later.
For the winner, the finish line is a madhouse. For everyone else, it’s a madhouse. After Cavendish’s second stage win, the writhing mass of media partially collapsed when the organization body guards tried to make a path for Cavendish to head back to the podium. Multiple riders and photographers hit the ground in a tense moment.
Around the winner’s hurricane, everyone else grabs a drink and heads to the bus. Most warm down on trainers outside the bus, some take questions while spinning - most sit there quietly on the turbo for a few minutes then head inside the the safe haven of the bus.
It’s also a time where the riders assess wounds accrued during the fraught finales. Brent Bookwalter (secret Strava user, Albert Pine) winced after reaching toward his injured shoulder, but shrugged it off with a smile: “I won‘t be winning any crossfit competitions anytime soon, but other than that - I’m hanging in there.”
Some days, it can be hours before the team arrives to the hotel. That’s when the second work day begins for team staff. Mechanics immediately set to work on the day’s machines, and soigneurs loosen their hands up for a long evening working out the day’s fatigue from the muscles of tired riders.
The post-win hugs pour out at the finish - to pretty much everyone in sight - but not everyone gets their hug, so when Cavendish returned to the hotel hours after the finish, the hugs just kept coming. Immediately after getting out of the car, he bear hugged each of the mechanics, a few soigneurs who weren’t at the finish, then the Norwegian champion, Edvald Boasson Hagen, before finally heading for the elevator and a couple of minutes of quiet.
Some lament the fact that the riders spend so much time on their new-fangled super buses, but considering what awaits them outside the bus each day, it’s hardly surprising that they take their sweet time getting ready each morning. It’s a place to take where the riders and directors can take that long deep breath and prepare for the wild day ahead.
The best sprinters and their teams take on more than the intense obligation of an amazing final 200 meters. The rest of the team (as well as the leader’s squad) has to step up to support that giant effort at the end with hours and hours of riding at the front each day ahead of an expected sprint.
After the frenetic opening two days, the peloton eased up.
The chatter coming from the field as they ambled through the town of Vitré in the middle of what was likely the longest piano session in a Grand Tour in recent memory was amazing. It sounded like a Monday recovery ride to the coffee shop.
Speeds have ratcheted up, up, up over the last few years, and easy days seem to have become a thing of the past - until Saturday. Stage 3 was one of those throwback days to the golden glow of yesteryear when sometimes, every once in a while, the field enjoyed a nice day on the bike…and what amounted to a six hour easy ride.
Peter Stetina was anything but upset for a cease fire from the madness of the opening two days:
“It has been years since I’ve done a stage where you could even talk to another team. You’re usually lined up and fighting from the gun. The tactics fell together just right on Saturday. When you have a long transitional day, and there are no mountain points to be had, and no wind, and if everyone can smell a field sprint before the flag even drops, then it was one of the rare times when it kind of fell in our favor to have a rest day.”
We‘ve grown accustomed to seeing the field lined out and flying from Km 0 in what seems like every race this year, so it came as quite the surprise to see a lone rider crest the first rise of the day with already a minute in hand and gobbling up more time with each passing pedal stroke. The field moseyed by a long yawn later and took the first of many pee breaks of the day - only a couple of kilometers into the stage.
The countryside has been beautiful so far - roads that make you want to jump out of the car, pull out your bike, and ride off over a hill on a half-lane-wide road. The towns are every bit the equal, though.
After Marcel Kittel’s long sought-after victory - his first at the Tour since 2014 - his teammate and long-time Strava user, Iljo Keisse said: “Yesterday our train didn’t work. That was very annoying, because Marcel said he had diamond legs. Today, we had to work things perfectly, so he could show his diamond legs to the world and win the stage.”
As the riders wind down and begin their recovery for the next day, the mechanics spring into action. Bikes need cleaning and tuning. If a rider grabbed a jersey that day, the bike needs something special - something yellow, something green. The cars need washing - even the bus needs washing - every single day!
Join the Tour Club on Strava in the meantime.