First weeks (if you're going to use this very liberal definition of week) of Grand Tours have tended to be quite good recently. I mean, the Giro, that was okay, right? And the Vuelta doesn't so much have a first week as much as, well, an immediate plunge into mountainous hell. But what makes a first week fun? Well, I've narrowed it down into a couple of factors: rider safety, time consequences for GC, course design, how the teams rode it, and wackiness. Let's dive right in!
What happened this year? Rider safety? Well this Tour has had a lot of that. It's probably due a no claims bonus by this point. Three crashes, and only two people have abandoned because of them. The biggest one was at the end of stage one, ending Michael Mørkøv's race early, if later than expected thanks to the Dane's bravery. It also ruined Sam Bennett's hopes of sprinting with the best. Alberto Contador also suffered from crashes, abandoning today from falls sustained on the first two stages.
Is that good? Not that people abandoning is ever a good thing, or favourites' chances being ruined can ever be called a triumph for anyone, but yeah, it sort of is good. There are still 193 people left in the race after nine days of cycling, and nearly 2000 kilometres, with no huge crashes or terrible course design. Okay, there were a few squeezes, but really, an A+ for this week's safety.
How does it compare? Very favourably. This year (probably, there's insufficient data) saw the first stage seven start with a full complement of riders, and despite a few complaints about neutralising the last three kilometres, the peloton has been mostly safe. Last year, for example, there was a huge crash on stage three, and thirteen abandons by the rest day.
Time Consequences for GC:
What happened this year? Well, very little, in terms of seperation between the favourites. The two top favourites, Froome and Quintana are only separated by twenty-three seconds due to a good attack by the defending champion, but the course has been hard enough to drop some pre-race favourites lacking form, not looking at any Thibaut or Fabio in particular. Richie Porte, who now looks like one of the strongest climbers in the race lost some time due to a puncture, but you can't fault anyone for that.
Is that good? Sure, if you like the Tour de France as a competition. Froome and Quintana are still basically neck-and-neck, and if they falter there are loads of guys within a minute to come in and take the spoils. This is still a race going into the Alps, unlike Froome's first two Tour victories.
How does it compare? Again, favourably. Last year, Froome lost no time in the crosswinds, on the cobbles, in the TTT, was one minute ahead of Contador, and two ahead of Quintana even before he charged away on La Pierre St. Martin. The same is true for 2014, where Nibali had the Tour de France over with, the trophy all but sent to Sicily by the first rest day. Here, the Alps will decide.
What happened this year? Well, there were some high points and low points. The first two stages were well designed, with threats of crosswinds keeping the peloton on their toes the first day, and a wide-open stage finish on the second. However, stages three and four were turgidly long and flat, with little to liven them up, so marks down there. The Massif Central stage promised a lot but ultimately didn't deliver, with no attacks or time gains made. Stage 7 also seemed not to have the desired effect, with the climb too easy to disrupt the Sky train. Stage 8 hit the target for me, however. The climbs narrowed down the peloton, with some probing moves singling out those who was strong and who was not, with a gutsy attack and follow-through from a top GC contender to top it off. Stage 9 was never going to be the biggest day of the Tour de France — the summit finish wasn't steep enough, and the valleys were too long, but again, it revealed the true GC leaders, and who were the most willing to attack.
Is that good? Overall, I'd say it is. I enjoyed most of it, I think, even if Sky were allowed to dominate more than the race designers might have intended.
How does it compare? Difficult to say. I think each stage stayed more true to its intended purpose in 2015, with a few stages this year being slightly anticlimactic.
How the Teams Rode it:
What happened this year? In a word: Sky. SKY SKY SKY SKY SKY. They ensured the tempo was okay on the flat, they charged up mountains with their number 6 domestique, and they only dropped off when Froome was definitely okay to continue by himself. Weirdly, if I were to pinpoint a team that were on the front nearly as much as Sky on the flat, it would be Direct Energie, who presumably have nothing else to do but slave on the front for Bryan Coquard and get exposure for their sponsor, who presumably cut out the middleman when it comes to supplying energy. While the pace hasn't been infernal, that I've noticed, the big exception was the training ride on stage 3, where half the stage was ridden at thirty kilometres per hour.
Is that good? No, not really. Sure, Movistar have no real incentive to ride on the front if they're happy with the pace, and they don't want to tire out their own domestiques, but those black jerseys are boring to look at, man!
How does it compare? One thing that's hard to avoid is Sky pulling the peloton, so this isn't too different.
What happened this year? Is the Tour de France champion, whose bike handling skills have always been derided, attacking to take the yellow jersey on a descent wacky enough for you? If not, we've got a couple of photo finishes and the yellow jersey in the break. As well, there was a horseback hero and a punch in the face.
Is that good? It's okay. Not too many laugh-out-loud moments, but there has been some fun.
How does it compare? The wackiest early parts of the Tour in the last two years have both included Luca Paolini. Getting thrown off for cocaine, really? And who takes out their phone during the Tour? But I would call this Tour wackier than 2015, less so than 2014.
I would call this first week marginally more fun than the last couple of years? If it didn't have long attacks or huge GC action, it was fun, and the race is wide open for the second and third weeks.