Vladimir Lenin was once said to have observed on the subject of geopolitics that there are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen. Action and events have a habit of concentrating themselves into short, momentous periods, separated by quieter times. It’s a sentiment that cycling fans could well relate to, especially at the 2022 Tour de France. After three quiet days in Denmark, in which not much happened, and a fourth day that only burst into life in the final 10km, suddenly, a week’s worth of action and more got compressed into the second half of stage 5, run over the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix and finishing in Arenberg.
In a corner of Europe that itself has seen more than its fair share of history, the chaos which descended on the Tour and made it almost impossible to follow exactly what was happening was given physical form in the huge clouds of dust which the riders and race vehicles kicked up from the cobbled tracks and which drifted across the landscape, obscuring the horizon and casting a pall over the race. Through the dust, it was possible to make out vague shapes, but you had to squint hard to see any detail, though as the stage unfolded, things for some riders were becoming uncomfortably clear. For Primož Roglič, Ben O’Connor, Jack Haig and Alexey Lutsenko, the GC is now over; for Haig, left on the roadside by a mid-stage crash, the entire race is over.
The broad conclusions and key facts from the day were as follows: Simon Clarke of Israel-Premier Tech outsprinted the three other survivors of the lead group in Arenberg; Tadej Pogačar attacked out of a very small lead group with Jasper Stuyven; Jumbo-Visma co-leader Jonas Vingegaard was rescued after a mechanical with just under 40km to go by several of his team-mates and notably Wout van Aert, who squeezed the gap to Pogačar down to only 13 seconds on the line and picking up a lot of other riders on the way; Roglič was derailed by a hay bale which had somehow been knocked into the road and dislocated his shoulder, losing two minutes to Vingegaard et al and more to Pogačar (the time was irrelevant - the physical knock-back will be harder to absorb than the actual number of minutes and seconds); Ben O’Connor was left even further back after mechanical trouble.
There was far, far more. There were questionable tactics by EF Education-EasyPost rider Alberto Bettiol, whose forcing on several cobbled sectors may have cost his team-mate Neilson Powless, second overall tonight by 13 seconds, the yellow jersey. There was the mysterious underperformance of Quick Step-AlphaVinyl, who might have been expected to dictate events on a stage like this and instead could barely follow. There was Pogačar himself, who didn’t put a foot wrong, yet was left completely isolated by his team. There were 176 different stories to tell, from each of the 176 starters. But the exact sequence of events, which will be pieced together by riders and teams over the dinner table and in the days to come, will be of less immediate concern to some teams than the general feeling that when the pressure was on, the result was panic.
Ben O’Connor punctured before sector nine; left with only Benoît Cosnefroy and Geoffrey Bouchard, he proceeded to ride hard on both sector nine and sector eight, losing his team-mates. A cool head would have made the calculation that riding those sectors a little slower would have had a small initial time cost, but a bigger saving in terms of still having team-mates to help in the subsequent chase. Ag2r’s biggest target for the Tour was O’Connor’s GC, and the team was too slow to rescue it when it was clear it was in jeopardy. The Australian lost 3:21 to Pogačar.
However, greater pressure was put on Jumbo-Visma, whose luck deserted them and who also did a good impression of a team panicking as the race circumstances dramatically turned against them. Their yellow jersey Wout van Aert crashed early on and looked out of sorts through most of the cobbled sectors. A botched series of bike changes for Jonas Vingegaard was filmed from overhead by the helicopter TV camera and showed riders in bright yellow helmets running around like headless chickens as they struggled to maintain control of the situation. Vingegaard had had a mechanical and swapped bikes with team-mate Nathan Van Hooydonck, who is almost 20cm taller than the Dane. He couldn’t reach the saddle, and swapped again with Steven Kruijswijk (who now had Van Hooydonck’s bike), and basically rode it across the road, dropped it and picked up his spare from the team car, which had by now arrived. Kruijswijk ditched Van Hooydonck’s bike and ran across the road (to get his own bike back) while Van Hooydonck appeared (on Vingegaard’s original bike) and got his own bike back.
The ancient Greek playwrights had a plot device which they used to resolve narrative blocks: the deus ex machina. Literally, it translates as the ‘God out of the machine’. A deus ex machina is an unpredictable or surprising event, happening out of nowhere, which tends to bring a story to a forced conclusion, and many critics of their usage point out that they are almost always unrealistic and interrupt the flow and internal logic of the narrative. However, this is cycling, so the deus ex machina that upended Primož Roglič’s Tour - a protective hay bale that had somehow been knocked into the exit of a roundabout - was at once both discordantly incongruous, and yet utterly unsurprising. This is a sport where collapsing inflatable arches, signs held by spectators, the handles on a musette bag, metal fences and even sponsorship boards side-on to a strong wind have at various points separated riders from their bikes. In the subsequent crash, Roglič dislocated his shoulder, and was passed by his team-mates Van Aert, Benoot and Van Hooydonck, who were pacing Vingegaard back.
Jumbo-Visma attempted to rescue both riders. A reshuffling in pacing allocation left Laporte and Van Aert in the ultimately successful pursuit of the main peloton with Vingegaard; Benoot and Van Hooydonck did their best with Roglič, but while Vingegaard had only suffered a mechanical, Roglič had absorbed physical damage and couldn’t close the gap. The Dutch team might have rued their bad luck. They’d provided strong back-up to two good leaders, and the day had teetered on the precipice of disaster; Tadej Pogačar, on the other hand, had been isolated for almost all of the cobbled sectors, but cleverly worked off the efforts of other teams - Bora, Ineos, Quick Step and Alpecin - to keep himself ahead of any trouble. Nothing touched him. When he attacked and dropped all his rivals, it looked like he was finishing the Tour off in the first week, as he did in 2021.
However, the dusty fog that obscured our view of the riders maybe also distracted us from the fact that in the final 20km, the young Slovenian’s lead over the chasers was being squeezed down, mainly thanks to the efforts of Van Aert. At the finish, Pogačar had gained only 13 seconds on Vingegaard, Geraint Thomas, and a lot of other favourites, and he’d spent a whole lot of energy doing so. A lot happened in stage 5 of the 2022 Tour, but once the dust had settled, not a huge amount had actually changed.