They have raced through Holland, Belgium and into France. They have raced over tarmac, mountains and, perhaps most importantly, cobblestones. A week into a journey that will span 3,642 kilometers they are covered in cuts, bruises, gashes and the raw abrasions known to the fraternity as “road rash”. They are cyclists and this is the Tour de France.
The sport of professional cycling is far bigger than one event but the Tour de France captivates the wider imagination in a way that other grand tours can only dream of. If you were to wonder why, then the events of the first week provide an emphatic answer.
In the space of eight stages we have had drama of the most ludicrous kind; tears, crashes and the final defeat of the ultimate cycling idol. Fabien Cancellara inevitably won the prologue, the short time trial designed to provide a Yellow Jersey holder for the start of the Tour proper, and the big Swiss rider is now homing in on the record for most days in the Maillot Jaune without actually winning the Tour.
After a torrid first stage was taken by sprinter Alessandro Petacchi, with British favorite Mark Cavendish falling in a huge pile up 500 metres from the line, the Tour entered the lowlands to be greeted by torrential rain. Naturally this was not conducive to a safe peloton and all of the big names in the running for the General Classification were involved in nasty falls. Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel was the beneficiary of a chaotic peleton chase into the finish and held on to take the overall lead into his homeland.
This triumph was to be short lived after Chavanel suffered three mechanical failures over the cobbles in Northern France, allowing Thor Hushovd to steal the stage with Cancellara once again going back into yellow. Performance of the day came from diminutive Spanish climber and Tour Holder Alberto Contador who used his slight frame over the jarring pavements to stay in contention when many expected him to lose time.
Elsewhere the battle for the sprint title was causing consternation for the usually imperious Cavendish as he totally mistimed his finish on the long, flat stage into Reims. His two victories in the following two days will go some way to assuaging his annoyance at not being in the running for the Green Jersey. The manner of his victories have been telling, especially on the way into Gueugnon when he blew his contenders off his wheel to win by two bike lengths.
The Tour is inevitably decided in the mountains where the dual agonies of gradient and distance sort out the men from the boys. Sylvain Chavanel proved once again that he is rider of considerable repute, blitzing the first mountain stage after recognising that the big boys were saving themselves for other battles. Even he couldn’t keep up with the fraught pace set by the Astana team of Contador on the Col de La Ramaz, but then he wasn’t alone in this.
Lance Armstrong, the greatest cyclist, and arguably the greatest sportsman, to have ever lived was left bowed by misfortune on some tough alpine slopes. After crashing at a roundabout just six kilometres into the race it was always going to be difficult to recover. When he was then felled by two colliding Euskatel Euskadi riders later in the race, just before the pace was ramped up on the first Category one climb of this year’s race, his Tour was effectively over.
Armstrong lost eleven minutes overall on the leaders as Andy Schleck took an impressive stage victory to prove he is perhaps the most natural climber in world cycling, with Alberto Contador finishing ten seconds back and Cadel Evans leapfrogging them both to take Yellow.
It is sad to see such a great champion broken so early in this Tour. Although Armstrong was unlikely to win, or perhaps even make the podium, his involvement gives the Tour that extra edge of interest. He will fight on to Paris and I would now expect an attempt at a glorious stage victory now overall triumph is a distant dream. Fingers crossed we will see Lance Armstrong ride over an Alpine or Pyrenean summit arms aloft and Texan jaw jutting with fierce pride one last time.