Chaos and unpredictability are in the air at the 2022 Tour de France. In Copenhagen, they manifested in a heavy downpour and confounded the expected hierarchy of the time triallists; today as the race crossed from Zealand to Funen, they blew in on the salt breeze of the Nordic straits and created a palpable sense of unease and tension.
Of course something surprising was going to happen: the Tour had never spent 18 of the final kilometres of a stage crossing one of the biggest bridge systems in Europe before. Whatever else happened, we were guaranteed a novelty, and at the very least, we saw a new stage winner in Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl’s Fabio Jakobsen. But it wasn’t just the unusual parcours of stage two of the 2022 Tour de France that promised chaos. It was something more, fed by videos posted by cycling journalists on the bridge of the wind blowing windsocks horizontally across the road, by the visible nervousness of the peloton as it raced down narrow roads and by the anticipation of cycling fans around the world who could feel the tension building.
The echelons that cycling fans and Tour organisers ASO wanted on the Great Belt Fixed Link didn’t happen: the wind was cross/headwind on the first bridge, block headwind on the second; the wrong kind of wind. But the tension in the peloton was too great not to break: there was a crash involving yellow jersey Yves Lampaert on the suspension bridge, then with about two and a half kilometres to go, a big crash took down a lot of riders and blocked the rest. At least this meant the finishing sprint itself would be less messy: only 40 or so riders survived the cut, and though Intermarché’s Georg Zimmerman almost swerved into BikeExchange-Jayco’s Michael Matthews under the flamme rouge and Caleb Ewan found himself running into the solid matter that had formerly been a narrow gap between Jasper Philipsen and Danny van Poppel, Jakobsen’s victory was about the only uncomplicated thing about the stage.
It was not a straightforward day, and this is normal for the opening road stage of the Tour. Both Mark Cavendish and Robbie McEwen told me in interviews years ago that the opening sprint finish of the Tour is often unpredictable and difficult. Everybody is fresh, nobody has each other’s measure and the rhythm and hierarchy of the race has not yet been established. I believed them, because I could myself remember openers like 2002’s in Luxembourg, where a rider even as a cycling journalist I had not yet heard of, second-year pro Rubens Bertogliati, surprised the sprinters; and 2006 in Strasbourg, when the big head-to-head between McEwen, Daniele Bennati, Tom Boonen, Óscar Freire et al was won by… Jimmy Casper, who looked as surprised as everybody else was.
So there’s always an air of unpredictability around the Tour’s opening road stage, and in recent years it seems to be getting more magnified. In 2013, the Orica-GreenEdge team bus got wedged underneath the finish line gantry - not a racing incident, but it affected the racing, as the finish line was changed to a different spot on the parcours, then back to the finish once somebody worked out that by deflating the marooned behemoth’s tyres it could squeeze through. In 2015, strong winds and driving rain smashed the bunch to pieces on the Dutch coastline, leaving only 24 riders in the front group including eventual yellow jersey Chris Froome. The 1:28 he put into eventual runner-up Nairo Quintana was bigger than their final difference of 1:12.
It’s got even more pronounced in recent years. A similar big crash to today’s in the final kilometres of 2019’s opener in Brussels took down a lot of riders and the resulting disorganised sprint was won by the unexpected Mike Teunissen. The 2020 Tour’s opener around Nice was hit by similarly squally rain to 2015, which turned the dusty roads of the Riviera into skid pans. There were multiple crashes, until Tony Martin of Jumbo-Visma decided enough was enough and effectively neutralised the race; a grateful peloton had no disagreement. As a final kicker, Thibaut Pinot came down in a late crash and the back injury he sustained there kept him from winning races until April this year. Last year, a fan holding a sign reading “Allez Opi Omi” stood too far into a narrow road, facing in the wrong direction, and brought down a large number of riders.
In the immediate aftermath of last year’s stage one craziness, some suggested that a prologue or opening time trial might have mitigated things by imposing a hierarchy on the race before they lined up as a bunch. But all it seems to have done is put the inevitable back by 24 hours.
Why is the first road stage of the Tour such a magnet for unpredictability and chaos? It’s certainly not geographically specific - the grand départ takes place in a different place each year. The narrow roads of Brittany and the twisting roads of the Riviera were cited as causal factors in 2020 and 2019, but the Tour tackles narrow and twisting roads for three weeks every year, and the chaos still manages to concentrate itself into the opening weekend. There is no simple answer, because it’s a complex combination of circumstances and inputs. The Tour is the biggest and most important bike race in the world, it is getting bigger and more important every year, and so when all the pent-up expectation, pressure, excitement, tension, nervousness, fear and emotion is finally release, it creates a strange energy all of its own, and it takes a few days to dissipate.
Don’t expect this to change any time soon. The 2024 Tour will start in the Basque Country, a region whose fans are as passionate about bike racing as Flanders and Brittany and whose roads are tough, bumpy and unforgiving. It won’t be a normal grand départ, which is to say that it will be as normal as grand départs can be.