Sprinter stages – they almost have you feeling sorry for Carlton. When we settled down in our mini-market/café with it’s big screen and fridge full of cool beer we were quite prepared to sit and wait on Kittel obliterating everyone again after the usual boring run-in. But Big Bora Pole, Maciej Bodnar, AKA ‘The Bison’ – in his Cannondale days he had a great Polish bison air brush job on his top tube – had other ideas; jumping his doomed breakaway companions and heading off on a solo epic which only ended in sight of the line. He had us on the edge of our seats and turned a good day into a great one…
And his day would come, in the Stage 20 chrono he did get the flowers and the pretty girls.
* * *
‘Sprinter stages,’ why are they so dull? Albeit ‘Bison’ Maciej Bodnar (Bora – hansgrohe & Poland) did a job of enlivening the last wee bittie of yesterday’s procession.
Firstly, the GC teams won’t go in the break, they’re there to look after their team leader; mountain stages are different where they’ll put men up the road so as the team leader can bridge up to them.
That rules out Sky (Froome), AG2R (Bardet), Movistar (Quintana), Trek (Contador), Astana (Aru), UAE (Meintjes) and Orica (Yates).
In all of Lance’s seven Tour ‘wins’ his team mates (Hincapie) only ever won the one stage – the focus has to be 100% on the GC man.
Secondly, the big sprinters’ teams won’t go because the last thing they want is for a break to ‘stick’ – they want a mass charge.
Scratch Dimension Data (Boasson-Hagen), QuickStep (Kittel), Katusha (Kristoff), Lotto (Greipel), Sunweb (Matthews), Cofidis (Bouhanni), LottoNL (Groenewegen), Bahrain (Colbrelli) and Fortuneo (McLay).
Even although it’s apparent that the likes of Bouhanni isn’t on form, neither is Greipel at his best but if he can win on the Champs Elysees then all will be forgiven.
BMC: they’ve lost their GC man, Porte so their focus now will be on ‘transition’ stages for GVA, Kung and Roche.
Bora: after the loss of Sagan for the sprints their focus changed to Rafa Majka but with him out now too, to their credit they’ve started going in the breaks with Maciej Bodnar serving us up a great ride on Stage 11.
Direct Energie: with Calmejane’s beautiful stage win their Tour is a success whatever happens, but as with BMC they’ll be thinking more of ‘baroudeur’ stages for the likes of Chava and Tommy V. But it’s still surprising we haven’t seen them be more aggressive on the flat, you would imagine they crave that TV time?
Cannondale: See BMC/Direct Energie, with Talansky having given up his dreams of Grand Tour podiums and Rolland on his best form in years, they’ll be hoping for mountains glory but again it’s hard to see why they don’t fire men up the road to get the Cannondale name out there.
FDJ: whilst the elimination of Demare and three of his team mates, morale isn’t going to be good but again, French team, French race – why so little visibility?
Wanty: where would we be without these boys? Every day they fire men up the road, doomed or not, they’re getting the column inches and TV time. Team boss, Hilaire Van Der Schueren was saying the other day how happy his sponsors are with all the exposure.
Another factor to consider is that in years gone by it was only the last hour or two of sprinter stages we witnessed on tele so much of the tedium went unrecorded to us punters.
But now with every minute of every stage televised and analysed by ever more ‘experts’ the reality of these stages is there for all to see.
In the Hinault – and Cipo in the Giro – eras, the racing didn’t start ‘til the Capo had stopped for a pee, taken off his arm and leg warmers and given the nod.
What’s to be done?
Drink more beer, earlier, that should help.
Our day was good if long, it’ll be nice to get some real food soon though – with only pizza places and burger joints open when we finally flip the lids on the laptops.
We left our nice rural digs and headed south, missing out the race start and skirting the flat, quiet, wooded region of Landes down to Labastide d’Armagnac where we took up position at a junction where a gaggle of folks had gathered.
Everyone was laid back with not a Janitor in sight.
We didn’t have to wait too long on the action with the first sign being the TV helicopter hovering low just beyond the bend to get a shot of the peloton streaming round.
Maciej Bodnar lead the desperados round the corner from Belgian Wanty Warrior, Frederick Backaert who won a stage in the Tour of Austria, last year; tail gunner was former Paris-Tours winner Marco Marcato (UAE & Italy).
The peloton flashes past pretty quick on a stage like this – even though these stages are processional to watch on TV the average speeds are still respectable, Stage 10 was run off at 44.3 kph for instance.
We picked out big Norwegian UAE man, Stake Vegard Laengen and Tommy V sharing a frame.
And LottoNL’s German, former Tour of Luxembourg winner, Paul Martens.
And even as early in the stage as this, well before the end game began, Kittel was attentive, head poking up over the riders in front keeping a weather eye on proceedings.
Your DS will tell you not to sit at the back of the peloton; but that’s where you’ll always find Dimension Data’s Steve Cummings as he waits for ‘his’ stages – it’s harder for him to hide now though in that nice British Champion’s maillot.
Dan McLay (Fortuneo) was keeping him company back there, waiting for his time to come on stage and perform; and he’s creeping up in those mad finishes – 14th, eighth, seventh, fifth….
Pierre Rolland rolled to a stop right beside Martin to check out the derailleur on his bike; a bit of twig – Pah!
Rolland has been going well this year with stage wins in the Giro and Route du Sud – but this is the big one, win a stage here and his contract will be that much more lucrative for 2018.
Tail end Charlie was Direct Energie’s Thomas Boudat, he was coming back from a mechanical – a multiple French champion on the track in pursuit, points, scratch, madison and omnium, he was world champion in the latter in 2014.
But track titles, who cares these days?
Labastide D’Armagnac is home to the Notre Dame des Cyclistes chapel, initiated in 1959 by cycling mad priest, Joseph Massie who was inspired by the Madonna del Ghisallo chapel on the Tour of Lombardy parcours.
It’s a treasure trove of old jerseys, photos and cycling memorabilia from way back through the Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, Indurain and Contador eras.
The stained glass windows rather than dedicated to our lord, the Virgin or the saints have Coppi and Bartali, Anquetil and Poulidor and the late, great Luis Ocana.
The first two mentioned were crafted by 1966 Tour de France winner and now Tour of the Mediterranean organiser, Lucien Aimar.
As well as the window in his honour, there’s a painting of him above one of the door lintels alongside a statue of the Madonna.
He was a local man and it was the failure of his Armagnac business coupled with health issues which drove him to take his own life in 1994 – rest in peace, Luis.
Respects paid we continued south to Estang where we found a wee place which couldn’t make up it’s mind if it was a bar, a cafe or a shop – but the big screen worked just fine and the Sagres was ice cold.
Maciej Bodnar had us in the edge of our seats, but as L’Équipe said of Kittel, yesterday; “No Mercy.”
Pyrenees today – and it’s grey out there, a day for a mountain exploit?
We can but hope.