A blustery stage 5 near the northern coast of France proved to be one of the most brutal days of the 2015 Tour de France so far: while the race may have appeared uneventful on television - so much so that Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) was awarded the most aggressive rider prize simply for finishing the stage after chasing for much of the day - most of the riders agreed it was stressful and exhausting, even more so than the previous day's cobbled finale.
The constant change in direction meant riders had to fight for shelter from the wind on different sides of the peloton all day, and the chaos made for a difficult fight.
“I suppose many might have seen on TV that it was a nervous day, but down on the road, I can say it felt quite more nervous than it seemed," Movistar's Jonathan Castroviejo said. "We got through the day and that's a lot; this is one of the hardest days I remember on a bike. For me, there's no doubt: it was a lot more demanding than the cobblestones on Tuesday. There were horrible winds, rain, roads that stayed damp forever, some sunny spells later turning into more rain."
The stage was also once again marred by a number of crashes, the first of which took out sprint contender Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) just 10 kilometres into the race. The Frenchman abandoned in pain. "I didn't fall once all year and then to crash three times in ten days is bad luck," Bouhanni said. "I wish the best to my eight teammates, the Tour is still long!"
Also dropping out were Jack Bauer (Cannondale-Garmin), who was involved in a separate incident, and Orica-GreenEdge's Michael Albasini, who finished the stage with a broken humerus.
Trek director Kim Andersen said, “The roads were so slippery; it was unbelievable! No one was really racing; it was not a nice race today to look at, but if they had raced hard, it would have been much worse.
“I said in the pre-race meeting that I was more afraid of today than yesterday and I think there were more crashes today. We had four or five men down, but luckily everyone is okay. Julian [Arredondo] was the first, and it was quite bad. Then we had Bauke [Mollema], Laurent [Didier], then Laurent again, and also Bob [Jungels]."
Many pundits expected that with the strong winds, it could be a day for one or more strong teams to take control and split the peloton in the crosswinds, then ride to distance some overall contenders, similar to what took place in 2013 in Saint-Amand-Montrond. The peloton split today, but this time all of the main contenders were up front and the second bunch was filled with the wounded from the numerous crashes of the previous stages. For most of the second half of the stage, the front group rode in block formation, no team pushing the pace to line out the bunch. Even so, the second group finished over 14 minutes behind.
Even though the peloton was riding with caution, a rain-slicked section of road with 25km to go caused one rider to slide out, and one tap of the brakes and dozens more followed suit. Svein Tuft (Orica-GreenEdge), Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), Michele Scarponi (Astana), Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Georg Preidler (Giant-Alpecin) were among the fallers, as was much of the MTN-Qhubeka lead-out train.
Edvald Boasson Hagen said he was intending to ride for Tyler Farrar, but plans changed after Farrar was caught up in the wreck. "All of us actually crashed near the end but we also all got back to the front okay," Boasson Hagen said. "Daniel [Teklehaimanot] did well to help bring me back quickly and then the other guys also got back. After the crash the plan for the sprint had to change and we would now ride for me." The Norwegian champion finished fifth.
In the front, most of the GC contenders fought to stay out of trouble until the magic 3km to go banner. Team Sky's Luke Rowe explained that the racing was harder than it looked. “The first week was always billed as being like a classic each day, and it’s lived up to expectations. Every day has been super nervous and there’s been so many crashes," Rowe said to TeamSky.com. "I didn’t witness any today as we were right at the front. That’s a stressful way to ride – and it consumes a lot of energy – but it’s the safest way, so that’s what we’ve been doing.
“I’m certainly feeling it in my legs, but when you drop back and see guys ripped to bits with holes in their shorts, you’re glad you did what you did."
Alberto Contador stayed safe, but his Tinkoff-Saxo teammates Matteo Tosatto, Ivan Basso and Michael Rogers all crashed during the stage, with Tosatto hurting his knee. Mountains classification leader Joaquim Rodriguez avoided crashing, but teammates Damiano Caruso, Tiago Machado, Marco Haller, Luca Paolini and Jacopo Guarnieri all touched the pavement today.
Even Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo), who normally struggles in these kinds of conditions, was kept safe by his team. “For me, days like today could be done by bus,” Gesink joked. “But actually, it went quite well. The roads were slippery, but fortunately, I wasn’t bothered because we have good tyres. As a team, we worked hard to be in a good position, but that was even harder than it perhaps looks on television. We had to fight for every inch all day long.”
Movistar's Nairo Quintana could breathe a sigh of relief after making it through yet another treacherous day. "There were lots of crashes, but we always kept the front and that saved us from all incidents," Quintana said.
"I wouldn't say the past five days were excellent, since we failed on stage two and our rivals took a big gap, that minute and a half, but otherwise, seeing how we reacted to the cobblestones, against the wind... the team was spectacular. I think that, should we get through this first week unscathed and not further [behind] than this, we should be satisfied."