The golden rules for keeping out of trouble
Stay near the front. Drink. Eat. Wash new shorts before wearing. Put on suntan cream. Be at the front at the feed zone. Keep fighting for position. Slide back when the sprint starts. No talking at the back with your friends. No ice cream. No freezing cold drinks at the finish. Move up on a wheel. Stay out of the wind. Watch the favourites. No Coca Cola, chocolate, crisps or fried food. Stay off your legs. Don't drink too many coffees. Don't don't don't don't don't....
That's just some of the advice that is offered to you when you stick a Tour de France number on your jersey every morning and none of that sounds like any fun. And yet it is the best bike race you'll ever do.
However, there's one vital thing missing from the advice list that you're meant to have playing on a constant loop in your mind. Don't fall off. No one dares to tell you that in those very words but you know that's what the directeur sportif means when he says in the daily pre-stage meeting “Stay near the front and pay attention.”
He might as well say “good luck” but somehow that sounds less professional so he sticks to the time honoured phrases and we pretend it'll all be OK.
Even the organisers pretend. When the road book says there'll be dangerous corners, road furniture and pinch points what they really mean is DON'T FALL OFF.
Of course when you say to any of your friends “Oh, I just missed that crash yesterday” or “I haven't fallen off yet” you are pushing your luck to the limit.
But what happens when you do fall off? Well, that depends on your bounce-ability or lack of it. Just ask Mark Cavendish. Crashing is one of those things you are very likely to do at the Tour, once is about average, any more than that and you can complain.
The worst thing you can do is fall off on the first day and hurt yourself just enough not to abandon but still be in a bad way. The Tour isn't the place to be carrying an injury because the energy your body uses repairing itself is no longer available for recovery. I've seen it myself during the 91 Tour with Z.
One of our most trusted riders Atle Kvalsvoll fell heavily on the opening stage. Then a couple of days later I fell off (my fault by the way, as I touched the wheel in front) and ended up riding with a neck support.
The following days for both of us were about basic survival at the back of the peloton with the other guys on the team fetching water for us, getting food out of our pockets because we couldn't work our arms properly ... it was pretty desperate stuff. We would hang at the back, dodging the crashes and the panic braking. It became a game of surviving until we would be dropped near enough to the finish, not to be eliminated. Once out the back there isn't the nervous tension to deal with but it does your head in because physically you’re hurting yet not going fast. And you're out in the sun longer so the road rash you've picked up is literally cooking.
Then there were the consequences that caught up with us later as we were both out of contract at the end of the year and on sticky ground come negotiation time. Atle, I believe, ended up seeing a significant pay cut and I was shown the door. Professional cycling is a cruel world.
If you can keep upright all the other things on the advice list are a bonus. If you're riding for GC then you need team mates round you all day and only to make an effort when it becomes unavoidable. So you chose a rider, another favourite maybe or someone you can trust not to do something stupid and you make sure you can see them all the time. It begins to feel like stalking after a few days but it's what you have to do. Pre-radios, you had to remember to keep eating, drinking and be well-placed but nowadays the DS is on the radio with that good advice because even though you might not feel the need to refuel that day, it will be important for the next stage or when you dip into your reserves when the mountains start.
You wouldn't think it would be possible but occasionally everything goes perfectly. Those are the stages where you are in the wheels the whole day, take no wind and make no big efforts. In fact you can reach the finish and feel almost as good as you did at the start. It only happened to me once in 11 Tours.
We were going to Alencon in 1984 and that was a good day. Now that everyone has the team in their ear, the communications might be better but then they are more nervous too so you get the reminders. The feed zone is a classic example. It always speeds up because everyone wants their lunch, even though you can get food from the car, it still gets faster so there are four choices to be made: fight for the front and minimises risk, stay in the middle and hope you don’t get a musette in the spokes or hang back accept you might be sprinting with the bag on your back for 5km after the zone because of the accordion effect.
The easiest choice is not to take a bag at all and get your food before or afterwards but strangely not many guys do. It's the least stressful option and the first week of the Tour is all about controlling your nervous output.
Positioning is another thing you have to learn. Some guys can do it easily and some have to force themselves to stay in the front. As a GC rider, you can hang with the sprinters and have a good place, hardly use the brakes and take no wind but it'll cost you a lot of nervous energy if you aren’t that comfortable pushing and shoving, so you balance that with the physical savings. Come the last kilometers, you can slip back a bit from the madness when the lead-outs really start because then even your own sprinter will treat you with no mercy.
Also, in the first few stages, unlike normal racing, you can't count on moving up on the hills even if you're a climber. No one wants to give up their place so the big guys hang on for dear life and instead of dropping back they make themselves wider. As we've seen in Yorkshire the really populated climbs are just as dangerous for crashes as the town centre run-ins, so you really have stay near the front and pay attention.
And one last thing. Don't fall off.
- Robert Millar
Robert Millar was one of the last pure climbers of the Tour de France, winning several stages in the mountain stages and finishing fourth overall in 1984. He is also the only English speaker to have ever won the prestigious polka-dot jersey climber's competition jersey. Millar retired in 1995 but has continued to follow the sport closely. He was often critical of the media and quickly cuts through the excuses and spin to understand why and how riders win and lose.
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