Tour de France or Tour de Crash
The Tour de France is the preeminent bicycle race in the world. It is not one of the many professional races that fade in and out of popularity or prestige, but rather the bellwether behind which all other events follow. The oldest Grand Tour demands the attention and respect of the cycling industry, the governing bodies of the sport, and the world as a whole. As a result, the group organizing the event (the Amaury Sport Organization) holds an incredible amount of power within cycling and is capable of setting precedents for events even outside of its control. This year the ASO chose to include cobblestones into Stage 5 of the 21 day event, a seemingly small addition. However, this decision cost the race its defending champion and injured a multitude of other riders. So, the question on everyone’s lips following the end of “La Grande Boucle,” is whether or not cobbles should be a part of an event like the Tour?
This question undoubtedly is one lost on a great many of those watching the event, as they see the cobbles as a tiny addition to the Tour, a small obstacle to be overcome before the real tests begin later. A common group of cobble belittlers would have to be the Americans. They frequently scoff when hearing of the Europeans talk about the “pavé,” as the practice of paving roads with rocks was one that did not come over to the New World. In reality, the only similar road surface, in the US, would have to be the much more tame brick paved streets found in the United States’ older areas. However, the equal comparison of bricks and cobbles is one of the most inaccurate that has been ever made. The worst brick streets in America hardly even compare to what the cobbles of Northern France are able to dish out.
The stones are individual rocks, painstakingly hand chiseled and then laid by long dead workers, as an attempt to offer a “flat” road surface. These rocks are unevenly set, different sizes, and in some cases missing, all resulting in a surface more akin to the trails tackled in a World Cup Downhill race than the smooth asphalt of a road race. These “roads” punish, break, and cripple those not exceedingly well prepared. The poor souls untested by the cobbles, in this case the General Classification climber/time-trialists that are seen lighting up the late mountain stages, were beaten down by the stones on Stage 5. It takes bigger men to tackle the cobbles, with the weight and strength to push down on the pedals while floating on the saddle. This difference between the riders who excel on the cobbles and the ones that just hope to survive them, creates a very different race than that of the traditional early Tour de France stages.
The presence of the pavé on Stage 5’s parcours fundamentally altered that stage, the Tour, and potentially certain riders’ careers. With the knowledge of impending destruction at the hand of centuries old roads, the peloton raced more aggressively than it otherwise would have. Everyone wanted to enter the cobblestone sectors at the front of the field to minimize danger. This resulted in riders taking big risks on the paved sections leading up to the stones, with disastrous repercussions. The multitude of crashes that occurred on those rain soaked “roads” cost the defending champion a chance to defend his title, seriously injured other pre-race favorites, and cost the viewers the opportunity to witness one of the most hotly contested Tours in recent history. So, the question now is not whether or not cobbles should be included in an event like the Tour, but rather “why did the ASO include them to begin with?”