‘It’s unnecessary. We take enough risks on tarmac’ - A peloton divided over Tour de France gravel stage

Stage nine's gravel sectors are instilling fear in some riders and thrill in others

Thirty-two kilometres of white roads have the potential to make or break the Tour de France for some riders this year. On stage nine, starting and finishing in the mediaeval town of Troyes, the peloton will tackle 14 segments of unpaved terrain on a 200 kilometre stage with roughly 2000 metres of elevation gain. Having the legs to not lose any time as the roads undulate up and down is one thing, but the biggest challenge will be making it through the stage unscathed. The risk of mechanical issues and crashes is worryingly heightened by the gravel.

The inclusion of this stage in the Tour de France has understandably sparked debate. Riders and teams prepare for months to challenge for the general classification at the Tour de France – the addition of gravel means that all that work could be undone in a split second of bad luck. Would it be right if the yellow jersey winner of this year’s Tour was decided by a crash or mechanical issue on the gravel? The peloton appears divided by the prospect. 

There are some riders – admittedly those who have a chance at winning the stage – who believe that gravel is a positive addition to a three-week stage race. Ineos Grenadiers’ multi-disciplined super talent, Tom Pidcock, for example, argues that stage nine will make sure that the yellow jersey wearer is tested across a range of terrain.

“I think it fits, absolutely. It adds another dimension to the race,” Pidcock told Rouleur. “The person who wins a Grand Tour should be the best all-round rider and I think there is a place for stages like this in Grand Tours, absolutely. As a spectator for the fans it’s also something that is really exciting.”

Tom Pidcock during Strade Bianche earlier this year (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)

Jai Hindley of Red Bull-Bora-Hansgrohe is in agreement with Pidcock, pointing to the sport’s history when considering whether gravel stages are a good thing. The Australian rider added that it was a common occurrence for the peloton to race on rougher roads in the early days of the Tour and he believes a nod to tradition is no bad thing.

“I think it will be super stressful, the guys told me that the gravel is going to be chaotic and also the roads in between are shit. If it’s windy there it will be chaos. I think it does have a place in Grand Tours though, in the end you have to be able to do everything,” Hindley said. “Back in the day when they were riding up mountains it also wasn’t on tarmac. Not everyone agrees but personally I think it’s all part of the history. It deserves a spot even if it’s chaotic and can ruin some races; it's all part of the sport.”

There are some, however, who sit firmly on the other side of the fence to the likes of Pidcock and Hindley. After working for months in the lead up to a Grand Tour, certain riders are of the belief that adding an extra element of risk and danger isn’t needed to make a bigger spectacle.

“Personally I think it’s unnecessary to have it. I think we take enough risks on normal tarmac. Racing over loose gravel at the speeds we go now – and the way it’s going to be raced is everyone needs to be at the front – I just feel like it’s almost something that looks great on TV and is exciting but if something happens to a main contender like a puncture, people aren’t going to be happy then either. People can see it from two ways, you can love it or hate it,” Stevie Williams of Israel-Premier Tech stated.

Former Tour de France winner, Geraint Thomas of Ineos Grenadiers, agreed with Williams: “I’ve always been undecided about gravel and cobbles and whether it is good or bad. If you have some bad luck it can end your race,” the Welshman told Rouleur.

“It’s always sad if someone who is up there on GC has their race ended by a puncture or crash when you have worked so long for something. If I had to make a call, I‘d probably say take it out and don’t have it. But now it’s there you’ve got to get on with it.”

The peloton during Strade Bianche earlier this year (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)

On Sunday when the gravel stage rolls round, all eyes will be on the key contenders for this year’s Tour de France: the likes of Tadej Pogačar, Remco Evenepoel and Jonas Vingegaard. Pogačar is a Strade Bianche winner who is known to enjoy the rougher terrain and he, unsurprisingly, is relishing the challenge that awaits in Troyes.

“I'm looking forward to it. I did a recon, so I know what's waiting for us. I would say it's not the most fun stage, but it depends how we race, depends on the wind, depends on the weather, depends on the peloton, what they want to do,” the UAE Team Emirates rider commented. “I think there can be a lot of variety in how the race can go, but I think I'm ready for all. Normally, I like these kinds of stages, but you never know what can happen”

In his final sentence, Pogačar highlights exactly what some riders love and what some riders hate about gravel stages. There are those, like the Slovenian, who thrive in the unknown, enjoying the dogfight and the hectic racing that will ensue when the white roads are hit. Others, like Geraint Thomas for example, aren’t as sure of the risk factor, or whether gravel is necessary to decide the eventual yellow jersey winner. Regardless of where the riders stand, there’s no doubt that the stage will provide thrilling entertainment for those watching at home. Punctures, crashes and fighting for positions: it might not be much fun for the bike riders, but popcorn at the ready for the rest of us.

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