As we rolled out of Brest this morning, there were plenty of black and white Breton flags flying and it was really nice to see the fans lining the roadside again.
ast year, because of the restrictions, it didn’t really feel like the Tour de France. We were riding through ghost towns and the roads were eerily quiet in places that would normally be full of colour and excitement.
The atmosphere from the fans is what makes the Tour so special. But sometimes it’s what makes it so dangerous too.
While everybody knows how hard it is physically to ride the Tour, what they don’t realise is the amount of concentration needed and the sensory overload of the opening days.
I often compare it to a real life game of Mario Kart. You’re flying along a road full of hazards like potholes, kerbs, roundabouts and speed bumps on a bike at 60kph. You’ve got dogs wandering onto the road, spectators waving stuff, running beside you and unexpectedly stepping out in front of you. You’ve got bottles bouncing out of cages and rolling under your wheels – stuff being thrown at you from all angles. And then you have the crashes.
The first one came with 45km to go, just after we crested the last categorised hill of the day, which was thronged with fans. Instead of watching the race, one of them faced away from the riders and leaned into the road while holding a hand-made sign in an effort to get on TV. With nowhere to go, former world time trial champion Tony Martin was the first to hit the spectator, setting off a chain reaction that sent three quarters of the peloton to the ground.
Weirdly, having not raced since the end of the Giro a month ago, meant it took me a while for me to get back into the swing of things this morning. From the start I didn’t really feel that great. I didn’t do much training at all last week so this morning I was feeling a bit rusty, a bit tuned out mentally, and struggling to concentrate, so I decided quite early to sit back a bit rather than fight for position at the front of the peloton.
People often underestimate how sitting at the back and not fighting for position all day can save you energy. Sometimes it’s physically hard, but the mental energy you save is worth it.
When the bang came, I was right at the back and had time to brake and stop behind the enormous pile of bodies and bikes on the road. The pile-up was so big that I had no idea if my teammates were involved, or what was going on at the front of the race. As well as riders and bikes on the narrow road, there were medical crews, mechanics running with bikes, and people everywhere. The whole road was blocked and all the rest of us could do was wait.
It’s a pretty strange moment in a bike race when that happens. You’ve been tensed up, nervous, concentrating hard for hours and, suddenly, you have three or four minutes where all you can do is stand there and look around you. At one point I was wondering if we were ever going to get going again or ever see the front of the race again. It was a bizarre moment.
When we did get rolling again, the majority of the peloton were in the second group so I think common sense prevailed and the front of the race slowed down again to let all of the guys who crashed regained contact in the last 30km or so. The group I came back with included Van der Poel and eventual stage winner Alaphilippe, so their teams stopped riding on the front too.
The second crash came with around 9km to go. With the stage win and yellow jersey up for grabs the race was on to get to the bottom of the final hill. I was pretty far back when it happened. We were doing around 70kph though, so even though I slammed on the brakes as hard as I could, I only just managed to stop in time. As I skidded towards the pile, I just hoped that the guy behind me had started braking as well.
On a stage like today, all it takes is one lapse of concentration, one touch of wheels, one nudge of a handlebar, for carnage to ensue. It’s hard to blame anybody because we’ve all made those mistakes. It was a horrific crash, one of the worst at the Tour in quite some time and there must have been 70 guys in it.
Our GC hope, Mike Woods, hit the deck in the incident. I offered him my bike but he just shrugged and said there was no point, which was fair enough. With the race in full flight, even if he got a new bike he’d end up losing three or four minutes to anyone who stayed upright.
Normally, inside the last 15km you expect to go full gas to the finish line but once you’re stopped like that, there’s no point. The professionalism kicks in and you start thinking about saving energy for the rest of the race.
From our point of view, I was the only one on the team who didn’t crash today. We’ve got no idea how badly injured some of the guys are. Chris (Froome) crashed pretty hard in the second crash and was limping afterwards, so he’s gone for an x-ray. I think Andre (Greipel) fell twice. Some of the other guys seem okay, but who knows how they’re going to feel when they wake up tomorrow?
Today was a pretty chaotic day and a shitty day for the team. What makes that statement weird is that – for an opening day of the Tour, it wasn’t as bad as I expected.