Cycling / Move Over, Sprinters - It’s the Light Climbers’ Turn in Tour De France

After first week of race, winners of early stages become peons for premier riders.

German cyclist Andre Greipel is known among other riders as “Gorilla.” He is well-built, his legs enormous and muscular, and something in his face and his steel jaw really reminds one of the jungle creature. It’s hard not to notice. However, when he needs to close his eyes, the sprinter from the Lotto Belisol team can push on the pedals and leave behind him the best sprinters in the world, as he proved last week at the end of the Tour de France’s Stage Six in Montpelier.

After a week of racing, other abilities are needed from outstanding sprinters like Greipel. Instead of them pursuing victories, the strong men have to use their physical power to transport bottles on inclines and down hills as long as they can. Their job turns into helping the real leaders of the Tour de France − thin, light climbers such as Alberto Contador, Chris Froome and Alejandro Valverde. After grabbing all the glory in the first week, they don’t resist serving as the peon; they do it willingly. Such are the unwritten rules of the greatest cycling race in the world.

But it’s not just the sprinters. The others who will have to adjust quickly to a marginal role will be the random bearers of the yellow jersey during the first week. Daryl Impey, the South African who made history last week when he became the first cyclist from his country to wear the yellow jersey, will return to the dark shadow he was in before the Tour and continue to serve the highest ranked cyclists in his group. Jan Bakelants, the heroic winner of the second stage in Corsica, will be forced to swallow hard and dedicate his legs for the benefit of the uncontested leader of Radio Shack, Andy Schleck. And if we hear more about Simon Gerrans, the Orica-Greenedge sprints who finished first in the third stage, it’s reasonable to assume it will be in the wake of an accident or a time violation.

That’s how it is in the Tour: What was in the first week stays in the first week. Fame isn’t enough to beat the mountains.

The bus that got stuck

However, one incident that occurred during the first week of the tour won’t be forgotten so quickly: the Greenedge bus, which got stuck under the banner overlooking the finish line during the first stage, trying to be rescued while 200 cyclists raced past it at speeds of 60 kilometers per hour. For many years, when they try to remember the winner of the 100th Tour de France, commentators will pull out this surreal scene from their minds and wonder what year that was and then remember that it was the edition with the bus.

Meanwhile, the Australian team paid a fine of $2,100 to the organizers. The bus driver, a former cyclist who was in his first day on the job, apologized to the world for the accident.

And if we’re on the topic of accidents, they weren’t lacking during the first week. The number of injured and bandaged riders was pretty close to the total for years past. Some of the favorites were also among the hurt: Froome took a role at one of the eating stations when he lost his concentration for a moment. Contador crashed on the first day and had his injuries tightly bandaged. Even the heroes of the sixth and seventh stages, Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish, found themselves lying on their backs.

So far 11 riders have retired from the race. Most of them left because of broken or fractured bones, and a few of them due to illness. Among them are leading candidates like the Belgian Jurgen van den Broeck, who finished fourth last year. It’s not for nothing that bunches of cyclists say the French asphalt hurts.

For better or worse, the Tour now leaves the first week behind it. As many expected before the opening of the race, Froome took the lead in the first mountain stage in the Pyrenees. The route, in contrast, was more impressive than expected. About five kilometers before the finish line, and after he and the Sky team led the climb to the Col du Pailheres, the highest peak of the race at 2,001 meters, Froome raised his legs and showed millions of spectators around the world what he knew best last year, when he finished second: He could have been champion of the Tour. In a well-timed attack he shook off the other claimants for the crown, including Contador, and pedaled over the mountain while opening up an impressive gap of 51 seconds over his teammate, Richie Porte. Considering the ability Froome demonstrated Sunday, it’s a gap that can’t be erased. His other rival, Valverde, trails him by a minute and 25 seconds, while Cadel Evans, the 2011 Tour champion, is over four minutes behind.

It is hard to see someone endangering Froome in the Alps or in the time trial down the road, but does that mean that from here on out we should expect a defensive, boring Tour? Considering the attacking style of the leader, we can still expect action. Some observers are already comparing the way the British cyclist charged determinedly away from his competitors in the eighth stage to the merciless style of Lance Armstrong, who made a habit of guaranteeing his victory by the end of the Tour’s first week.

AFP