The roads are lined with fans from start to finish. So much so that it can be difficult to find a place for a nature break without an audience, actually. Their enthusiasm to see us fly by after hours of anticipation is shocking — and loud. It makes me feel like I truly am racing in the greatest race in the sport.
But then there's the stress. It's hard to pinpoint the reason for it, actually. Perhaps it's as simple as the circular logic of creating stress by expecting stress. Regardless, the peloton is on a hair trigger. It's not that it's more stressful than another race at its peak, but that it begins so early in the race. One over-eager pull by a rider on the front, an injection of pace, and alarm bells start going off. Everyone knows that the stress will pull everyone towards the front, blocking the road, so everyone tries to get there first, which is why the "final" of a sprint stage starts at the feed zone (at the latest).
Those amazing fans that line the road are another source of stress. Whether they're taking a selfie, standing too far into the road, or running alongside, we're afraid of crashing into them. Their cheers, combined with the roaring wind in one ear and our directors in the other, adds up to ringing ears long after the stage has finished.
And don't forget the crashes. Our desire to be at the front is often at odds with the principle of physics that two objects cannot occupy the same space, and the road is only so big. I had a front-row seat to Demare sprawling across the road, Bernal falling over road furniture, Froome tumbling into the ditch, and Quintana launching skyward after blowing his wheels out on a median — and that was all just the first stage. I’ve been fortunate to be ahead of or able to dodge all of the crashes thus far, a streak that I'd love to continue. It requires a lot of mental energy, though.
The race, for our team, had been going swimmingly until today. Tom [Dumoulin - ed.] has been on the good side of all the crashes, and we had a great ride in the team time trial. The fastest team time trials are so smooth that they almost feel easy, and that was the case for us. Of course the feeling doesn't last in the second half, but we'd done so well at managing our workload that all of us reached our limit at the same time, which fortunately wasn't until the finish.
We awoke today eager for the chance to go for the stage with Michael Matthews, who had been doing well in the sprint stages which didn't suit him, but that plan went down the toilet along with his breakfast. Things can turn just that quickly, and we were all bummed to see him go home. As callous as it sounds, though, the show must go on, and we had to refocus our efforts around Tom.
We're over the hump on this first week of racing, but there's quite a lot of racing between now and Roubaix, and countless spectators to keep our ears ringing.