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Stage Eight: Nice town, shame about the stage

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Dreux – Amiens, 181km

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On the stage

I spent a few days in Amiens some years back. Extraordinary cathedral. Real sense of history ancient and modern, ecclesiastical and military. A few nice restaurants, some great bars. A pleasing sense of prosperous provincial French life. The surrounding countryside is nice, too – so I’m expecting some good helicopter and drone shots as the peloton weaves northwards. A therapeutic Saturday.

What’s that? The stage? Oh, don’t worry too much about that. Couple of bumps early, long downhill. The break will be caught and the sprinters will fight it out. You’ve read my preview on this sort of stage – twice. Nothing much has changed. Gaviria will be the fastest unless we see a serious resurgence in form from Groenewegen (unlikely), Kittel (very unlikely) or Cavendish (extremely unlikely). Sagan will be close enough to the front to maintain his stranglehold on green. Maybe the Bastille Buzz will push Demare or Laporte* onto better things, but I fear not. The break will have a French feel, I’m sure.

On the upside, this is shorter than stage seven. 181km is a sensible length for a stage like this. 231km less so.

This is the bit where I try and assess the risk of serious crashes. Never say never, but this isn’t a terrifying day. The weather looks warm and benign, with no rain and little wind forecast. The run in has a sharp turn in the last km, because of course it does, but it isn’t an especially technical arrival and shouldn’t slow the quick men unduly. There will be, though a few weak bike-handlers who’ll be pleased the chicane comes inside the last 3km when their time, if not their body, is safe.

This one’s got Fernando Gaviria written all over it.

* Since I mention him, I’m going to take a minute for a confession. My brain, it transpires, has only one slot available for “young French rider, more promise than I initially believed, worth watching, two syllable name where the first syllable is La.” This feels like a fairly specific slot but it is over capacity at the moment, resulting in Laporte and Latour being routinely confused in my mind. I think I’ve caught this error each time, before they wrong name’s gone out, but I can only apologise in advance for the error when it does make it onto your screen. It is more annoying for me than for you. Anyway, let’s move onto Amy’s booze.

Amy’s drink of the day

Eric Bordelet 18 Year Single-Cask Calvados

Getting a bit fancy here. As a fan of Bordelet’s ciders, I could not resist when Christy suggested this splurge.

A description, from Chambers Street Wines: For lovers of Calvados, I implore you to consider this: a single cask selection by none other than Eric Bordelet. Many of our customers are familiar with Bordelet’s phenomenal ciders, some of the best in Normandy, and this is his second release of brandy. The juice in the bottle was originally distilled in 1998 by a neighbor of Eric’s named H.B. Beudin (who I am unable to find any information on), and spent 18 years in cask without any additives, including water, and was bottled unfiltered at cask strength resulting in a fantastically pure expression of barrel-aged spirit. It is incredibly aromatic with baked apple tatin, cinnamon, dried orange peel, brown sugar, stewed plum, and dried flowers on the nose.

On the Tour

Seven stages are in the books, and that’s the first week done. We’ve got the stage above, the chaos of cobbles on Sunday, and then a rest before the breathless start is rounded off, and the climbing begins. So far, we’ve ticked the traditional boxes of a first week – the sharp uphill finish, the time trial (team, on this occasion), too many sprints and lots of French villages doing “field art for helicopters”, a genre that I believe doesn’t receive the respect it is due.

What about crashes? More than any other race, more even than the Giro or Vuelta, the Tour is what happens when cycling is turned up to 11. Everyone is desperate to fight for every inch of road. When the speeds pick up and street furniture and tight bends are introduced, we get crashes. Especially early in the race. It is my least favourite part of a Tour, but you know it is coming.

This year, there’s been some conversation about whether smaller teams have made the race safer. I for one don’t believe that safety at the end of flat stages was the significant reason for a change I welcomed, but it may have been a factor. So far we have a tiny sample size, but it is worth thinking about.

We all knew there’d be crashes regardless of the changes. Sure enough, stage one saw plenty of favourites lose time (and skin, in a few cases). Stage two saw a pile up so far forward that barely two dozen riders were in the leading bunch over the line. There’ve been tumbles and hard luck stories but I haven’t yet read a medical report that’s made me shudder this July, and that’s a welcome change.

A once familiar sight
Bongarts/Getty Images

So I was starting to think there might be something in this. Now I’ve reviewed the history, I’m not so sure – there is a change, but it came earlier than you might think. To get some numbers, let’s look at abandonments. This year, 5 riders didn’t make it to the end of the seventh stage. A comparable number is 5 in 2017, and 0 in 2016. That suggests (small sample) limited improvements.

Go further back, though, and things were tougher. We saw 9 abandon in the first seven stages back in 2015, 10 in 2014 or 9 in 2013. In 2012 it was a bruising 15. Yes, it is still a small sample, but let’s hope something is happening and we’re not about to revert to a fairly unpleasant mean.

Of course, there’s more than just crashes that cause abandonments – illness cost us Matthews this year – but that is true in previous years too, as the disqualification of Sagan reminds us. Crashes can be hugely significant and still see riders start in future years, but using this proxy, we’ve quietly already seen a big improvement. 20

Numbers can only tell us so much, but I’d be astonished if we can ever find a link between smaller teams and fewer serious crashes. What stands out when looking at the story of last year’s race abandoments is one bit of awful luck (the dire and unseasonal downpour in Dusseldorf that contributed to the end of the races of Izagirre and Valverde on day one) and one bit of truly poor race planning (the stage nine decent of Mont du Chat that was pilloried as too dangerous before it ended the race of numerous riders, including Porte, and cost many more significant time). In historical terms, however, 2017 was a good year, especially in the first week.

The crash on stage two this year was entirely predictable even to a muppet like me. Team sizes won’t change that. Good weather, good luck and skilled riders will help. Race planning that prioritises rider safety over economics or fan convenience would help – that one, at least, could be further managed. However, this is a sport in which people go awfully fast out there in the hard and dangerous world; living with that is one of the compromises for riders and fans alike.

I hope the remaining 171 make it to Paris unscathed.