The satirist and author Thomas Carlyle once claimed that he would rather die of exhaustion than boredom. Not a problem that was likely to afflict the 2020 Tour de France peloton on stage 5 of the race. As race director Christian Prudhomme waved his flag dramatically to signal the start of hostilities just outside Gap, his car accelerated away, leaving space between his back bumper and the front of the peloton for the attackers to rush into.
And nothing continued happening for a long, long time. Kaspar Asgreen (Deceuninck-Quick Step), whose job as a teammate of race leader Julian Alaphilippe and of sprinter Sam Bennett was to police attacks, radioed to his team car for permission to have a go. His brief attack was neutralised by Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal). And that, apart from a Bora-Hansgrohe rider jokingly accelerating off the front using one leg soon afterwards, was that.
Nothing continued happening pretty much all the way to Privas, 183 mostly interminable kilometres from Gap. In terms of racing action, the story of the stage that was after a long period of existential nothingness, in which racing fans considered the age-old philosophical question, ‘If nobody races a bike race, is it a race?’, a caesium-133 atom oscillated 34,950,386,009,540 times and crosswinds briefly blew in the last 10km, Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) won the sprint.
And then, just to remind us that the Tour can snatch unpredictability from the jaws of predictability, Julian Alaphilippe was given a 20-second time penalty after the stage and lost the yellow jersey.
Perhaps the most telling moment in the race came when Benoît Cosnefroy took the points on the fourth-category climb of the Col de Serre Colon, which came neither at the start, nor the end of the stage, but somewhere in the middle. The King of the Mountains classification has been criticised in recent years for not offering much in the way of a competition. Here was an uncontested sprint in a largely uncontested competition in a stage that remained uncontested until the outskirts of Privas.
Post-stage penalties aside, it was a boring day. It was not the first boring stage on the Tour de France, and it probably won’t even be the last this year. But it was the first stage for many, many years in which no breakaway went. This was unusual, but in the end, it didn’t make the slightest difference to the race, which would have finished with a sprint in every possible realistic scenario. Indeed, the last time a flat stage of the race was won by a break when the peloton tried to chase them down was when Thomas Voeckler took stage 5 in 2009.
The warning signs have been there for a few years. Yoann Offredo shook his head in disbelief as he attacked on a stage in 2018 and saw nobody following him. Just two days ago, Jérôme Cousin spent most of the day labouring on his own ahead of the bunch.
Escapes are so unlikely to succeed in this kind of stage that we call them ‘suicide breaks’. And a combination of factors has made them even less and less likely to succeed. First, the sprinters’ teams are too many and too well drilled to let go the chance of a stage win in the most important race in the world. They won’t let more than four riders up the road on a flat stage, five at the outside, and their lead rarely goes above three and a half minutes. Second, teams are more ambitious than they used to be, as the sport has grown.
There used to be any number of teams with neither a big sprinter nor a big GC rider, and these teams used to populate the breaks. Now, even Arkéa-Samsic, who spent their first Tours from 2014 making sure they had a man up the road almost every day, are sitting in a protective bubble around Nairo Quintana, who could yet win the yellow jersey.
Third, the Tour has been incrementally getting harder, with fewer flat stages and more mountain and middle-mountain stages. This year especially, with riders having far fewer races in their legs, they must be doing a cost-benefit analysis of getting into the break and realising that the physical cost in terms of tired legs with two and a half weeks of mostly very hard stages to come is more than the benefit, either in terms of the unlikely scenario of actually winning or in exposure for the sponsors. Who wants to make their riders tired for an hour or two of TV time when you can put a viral tweet out and gain far more attention that way?
Some of the GC teams have almost completely given up on getting riders into breaks. In 2019, Ineos didn’t send a rider up the road until stage 18 - Dylan van Baarle. And that was to provide climbing support for their leaders in the GC battle. (This isn’t new - they did exactly the same in 2016 - nobody in the break until stage 18.)
The question is, does this matter? The break on flat days is doomed anyway, and the only real question is: who is going to win the sprint? Beyond giving the television commentators something to talk about, there’s no actual racing suspense involved. On the mountain days the breaks are much bigger, and are sometimes let go and sometimes not, and on the hard transition days, of which there are a number in 2020, the same applies. The ‘race within a race’ always happens on these days.
If ASO really wanted more breaks on flat stages, there are levers they can pull to encourage it - more bonus seconds, more bonus sprints, a restructured points competition, smaller teams, for example. Maybe they will experiment with ideas like this if there are more days like stage 5.
At the same time, as followers of cycling we know that the Tour is more than just a race. The slow unfolding of a stage against a backdrop of superb scenery or impressive châteaux is part of the joy of the television experience. And the pictures of a rider or small group of riders making their way to the finish a few minutes ahead of the peloton is part of the iconography of the race, as well as a representation of hope and optimism against the odds.
And anyway, the Tour doesn’t need breaks to make itself interesting. Just as we were digesting one of the slowest days in the race’s history, Alaphilippe lost the yellow jersey. Even on a day when nothing happens, the Tour still manages to be exciting.
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