The Tour de France peloton rode steady on the long transfer stage to Chartres and riders arguably deserved a moment of respite after six intense, white-knuckle days of racing that saw virtually every Grand Tour contender lose time in crashes, the team time trial or late-stage mechanicals.
Grand Tours are a race of endurance, with the strongest riders expected to emerge in the Alps and Pyrenees. However, the design of this year’s Tour de France - starting in the Vendee and then passing via Brittany and northern France - has turned the stage racing into a series of daily Classics. Fate and fortune appear to be as big of a factor as form and team strength.
A breakaway has never been allowed to stay away and there have been no real hills to climb, and so the general classification is extremely tight; every team leader and every team is fighting for every second. That has led to crashes like those on stage 1 that cost Chris Froome (Team Sky), Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and Richie Porte (BMC Racing) and the problems and time losses for Roman Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) on stage 6 to Mur de Bretagne.
Porte managed to pull back some of his time loss when BMC Racing won the team time trial and has since been focused on not losing any other precious seconds. Like many, Porte is already thinking of Sunday’s Roubaix stage and the effect it could have on the virtual general classification. He is worried the cobbles could see some riders lose several minutes.
“I think it’ll be good to get through the next couple of stages because these are the stages where if you’re complacent, things can still happen,” Porte warned before the start of stage 7.
“I think it’s more stressful racing like this. Even trying to get to the front of the bunch is tough. On the small roads, the bunch is packed so tight that nobody gives you an inch. You don’t really see that on television, but that’s probably the most stressful part of these first week.
“This year you just don’t know if the crashes are going to happen to you. We saw that with Bardet and with myself on stage 1. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You can be on the left and the crashes happens, and be on the right and not know the crash happens.”
Porte would rather think about the mountains than Sunday and the 15 sectors and 21.7km of cobbles in the finale of the stage to Roubaix. He is an excellent climber and is looking forward to the more controlled chaos that altitude and gradients naturally bring to the Tour de France.
“It’s not ideal to lose any time, but its all been magnified,” he suggested of the fight for every second.
“It’s silly to say the Tour starts next week, but for sure it’s going to feel a much different race to what it is this week. I for one can’t wait to get into the climbs.”
Of course, the cobbles of Roubaix come before the airplane transfer to Annecy and the calm of the Alps.
Porte has reconned the cobbled section this spring and has Greg van Avermaet, Stefan Kung and Michael Schar to guide and protect him. Yet he still seems to struggle to put the enormity and risks of the cobbled stage into words.
“I think Sunday is still going to be…” Porte said, lost for words.
“Even if nothing happens, it’s going to be one of the mentally most draining stages to come. It’s hard to predict what will happen now. I think there’s a lot of teams with good guys for the cobbles. It’s going to be, let's say, interesting”