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Tony Martin asked for respect. He stuck his hands out and spread the front of the peloton wide across the road. As they climbed the Côte de Rimiez, he conversed with others around him, riders of the same vintage, and made the truce. Piano, piano, his lips read on the TV cameras.
It was the first lick of rain in this region for nearly four months, according to locals. Oily automobile residues gurgled out of crevices in the tarmac and set the surface to ice.
And so they fell. In lashes, like the rain itself. Half a dozen riders at a time, a dozen or more different times, so frequently that the only reasonable and obvious option was to stop fighting each other and focus entirely, slowly, on the job at hand: Staying upright.
The race jury, capable of neutralizing the race, declined to take action. So the peloton took its own.
But when the reigning Tour champion is a quiet 23-year-old, and the two champions who came before him aren’t even at the race, who takes the reins when the reins need taking?
There is no real patron of the peloton these days. For that, you need a big personality and a big champion. Both, not just one. You need a Bernard Hinault or a Lance Armstrong, a Boonen or a Cancellara.
The modern peloton doesn’t have one. Saturday was proof, though, that it doesn’t need one. When Martin asked for respect, he was asking riders to respect themselves. “I felt that I had to take responsibility, not just for our own team, but for all riders,” he said.
On the eve of the Tour, a group of race veterans convened (presumably via Zoom call, such are the times) to discuss the eventualities of a three-week bike race. The ifs and whens. It was decided, Ineos’ Luke Rowe said, “how we are going to approach the Tour in general, and look after each other, and do the right thing when it’s needed.”
It’s the sort of collective discussion and action that the sport has largely been without. The CPA, the rider’s union, is both notoriously toothless and ill-placed to act in real-time, as was required on Saturday.
“Maybe I made the important sign, but it’s an initiative from every team,” Martin said. “Everyone stayed in line and everyone wanted to be safe and go easy on the descent. I am proud about the peloton and how we stayed together.”
The only exception was a trio from Astana who kept riding. Seconds later, Miguel Angel Lopez skittered across the road on his cleats and his top tube, straight into a roadsign. The instant karma didn’t go unnoticed. “Maybe that’s bad luck,” Martin said. “Or maybe it’s more.” The verbal abuse Omar Fraile received upon re-entry to the peloton is likely to prevent a repeat.
Martin isn’t the patron of this Tour de France. There isn’t one. There needn’t be one, if riders understand their power to dictate terms on the road.
Tony Martin asked the peloton to respect itself, and it did.
Except for Astana, of course.