The filmmaker Orson Welles once observed that there are two emotions in a plane: boredom and terror. It’s a sentiment that is becoming increasingly familiar to cycling fans, who might have experienced long, long hours of the former through stage four of the 2023 Tour de France as it rolled through the pleasant but nondescript landscape of the Landes to the north of the Pyrenees, and then sudden jolts of the latter as at least three crashes in the final three kilometres battered the peloton. Jasper Philipsen emerged from the chaos to take his second stage win, narrowly ahead of Caleb Ewan, who must be getting bored of coming second – this was his sixth runner-up spot of 2023.
But those three minutes of adrenaline – five if we’re being generous and including the run-in to the finish on the Circuit Paul Armagnac in Nogaro – were a very late payoff for a stage that saw very little other than the peloton trundling eastward and saving their legs for the Pyrenees.
The most vigorous effort made at kilometre zero was that of Christian Prudhomme waving a yellow flag to indicate that the race was underway. As Tour car yellow sticker 1 accelerated away from the peloton, the riders stayed put. There was one measly KoM point on offer, deep into the stage, so Neilson Powless was not going to attack. And none of the riders on smaller teams felt minded to tire their legs for nothing. Benoît Cosnefroy and Anthony Delaplace went on a mid-stage sortie, but without any more intent than a bit of getting a bit of low-key television time. Writers and photographers are often offered the chance for people to use their creative skills in exchange for exposure, and they rightly point out that one cannot eat exposure, or pay bills with it. Similarly, the quid pro quo for many teams at the Tour de France used to be that in exchange for putting a rider in the long suicide break, the sponsoring company could benefit from the publicity. However, this is 2023, and teams need publicity less than they need UCI points.
It’s early in the Tour for nothing to happen. The Grand Boucle operates on its own mysterious rhythm and the action in the race has always ebbed and flowed. There are quiet days and intense days, and explosions of action and collective breathers, and the hive mind of the peloton makes up its own mind which will happen. It even used to be common on the race for the peloton to take occasional days off. Long, flat, hot days in the middle of the race were the perfect opportunity for a few hours of active rest while the peloton went from A to B. However, stage four was neither particularly long nor hot, and there are enough teams with nothing to show in the race so far that perhaps infiltrating a group of four could at least provide them with a sniff at success. Still, the 2023 Tour has been an odd one – the opening stages were much more GC-focused than previous Grands Départs, and riders reported that they were far less stressful than usual. Perhaps the hierarchy imposed by the steep climbs of the Basque Country stuck a pin in the bubble of pressure that usually makes the Grand Départ so mentally taxing and intense and took the air out of stage four.
The Tour has changed in the last few years. In the modern era, from the 1990s onward, there was an accepted template in almost all stages that there would be a break, then the break would probably be chased, and then it would be caught, or not. For a while, the breaks had a decent chance of holding off the bunch – we knew less about watts, FTPs and aerodynamics then, and pursuing breaks was an inexact science, given expression in the plausible-sounding Chapatte’s Law, named after French television commentator Robert Chapatte. Chapatte’s Law stated that a peloton could take back one minute in 10 kilometres. Teams got more organised and sports science became more developed in the 2000s, and escapes on flat stages at least were dubbed ‘suicide breaks’, because from around 2010 onwards, they simply stopped being able to stay away. First, fewer teams started trying to get into them, so that through the 2010s, there’d be riders perhaps from Cofidis, Bretagne, Wanty and Direct Energie, but certainly nobody from the big teams. And then in the 2020 Tour, on stage five, no break went and a rubicon was crossed. By this point, the small teams were no longer small teams, and were coming to the Tour with sprinters, or climbers, or at least enough nous to realise that getting into suicide breaks was a waste of watts. Their publicity came from social media and press releases, and they no longer needed the two or three hours of TV time on a few flat stages of the Tour. These days, they’re desperate for points as well, to gain promotion to the WorldTour, or to avoid relegation from it, so a possible top-10 has tangible value, against the intangible value of being in a break.
Of course, stage four was objectively boring. At the same time, professional bike riders are not performing monkeys, and days like this are an excellent opportunity for cycling fans to get things done. As the race heads into the Pyrenees tomorrow, and thence north towards the Massif Central, this lull in the action will be forgotten and be woven into the overall tapestry of the 2023 Tour.
The 19th century French political author Germaine de Staël once said, “One must choose in life between boredom and suffering”. It’s a choice that equally faces the riders of the Tour.