Chasing Le Tour: A memorable windswept stage

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The history books will show that stage 13 of the 2013 Tour de France was a flat stage won by Mark Cavendish in a sprint finish. That’s all you need to know, right? Not quite.

The moments between the early break and Cavendish’s 25th Tour de France stage win were some of the most memorable in this year’s race so far.

What started off as typical sprinters stage with an early breakaway of six turned out to be anything but typical. In the second hour of racing Omega Pharma-QuickStep blew the race to bits, forming five echelons and turning a classic sprint stage into a struggle for survival. OPQS saw an opportunity to catch the other sprinters out and put the race in the gutter, causing absolute chaos in the process.

Despite the move by OPQS it wasn’t until 2nd-placed Alejandro Valverde got a rear puncture that the teams with riders in GC contention saw their opportunity. The echelons were only 30 seconds apart from each other so team cars weren’t allowed in the gaps (groups need to be 90 seconds apart before cars are allowed in). Valverde had no team car nearby to change his wheel and had to swap with a teammate. Despite having teammates around him, Valverde was never able to catch back on to the lead group and lost 9 minutes to Froome.

Valverde’s puncture was just the start of the carnage. In a brilliant tactical move, Saxo Tinkoff saw their opportunity to put time into Froome and came to the front of the race with around 30km to go and threw it in the gutter again. The front bunch split just in front of Froome.

The only two teams who had an interest in chasing were Lotto-Belisol (for Greipel) and Sky (for Froome). But their impetus faded and the lead group, which included Contador, rode away from Froome and gained over a minute in the final 30km. Belkin also had a stellar day with Mollema and Ten Dam being astute enough to make the front group (of course, they’re Dutch and live in the crosswinds) and both gained another position on GC at Valverde’s expense.

The tactics at play were thrilling to watch, and seeing Froome lose time on GC on a flat stage was totally unexpected.

Crosswinds are different to any other element you’ll experience while riding, and particularly racing. Unless you’ve experienced racing in bunches at a decent level, you won’t know what it’s like in an echelon in the crosswinds against riders with malicious intent. You’re fighting for grim death in an imaginary draft in the crusty gutter of the road. When someone opens up a gap because they can’t hold on any longer, you have to close it while you’re deep in the red.

Unlike any other type of stage, the guys driving the pace at the front are the ones who have it easiest. In order to be part of that rolling freight train that’s doing all the damage, you need to elbow your way in and hope that you’re strong enough to stay in there. If you don’t hold your ground, someone else will steal that wheel in front of you, and you’ll be pushed back in the gutter. It’s exhilarating when you’re the hammer, but not so much when you’re the nail.

In many ways today was a demonstration of the true essence of bike racing. And while today’s result mightn’t have been all that surprising, the journey to the finish line was truly memorable.

Until tomorrow, thanks for reading and be sure to check out the photos below.

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