Why There Really Were Cobbles in The Tour
The second article in the series “Cobblestones in the Tour” focuses around the issue of why the Amaury Sports Organization decided to include the cobbles in stage 5 to begin with. Ever since the 2014 Tour de France route was published, doubts were cast regarding the value of the cobblestones. Some saw the decision to borrow roads from Paris-Roubaix as a means of marketing The Hell of the North to a more widespread audience. Others saw it as a way to increase the prestige and liven up the, sometimes, predictable Tour de France. Others still viewed it as an attempt at breaking the trend of a climber/time-trialist winning “le Tour;” after all, a true all-around rider has not won the event in a great many years. However, the decision to include the cobbles likely had a less ideological genesis, but a more fiscally motivated one: with two main causes.
The ASO is a company and like every other company, it has a bottom line. The ASO promotes bicycle, sailboat, and long distance endurance races (such as the Dakar Rally) and as with any sports promotion company, they make the most money when the entire world watches their events. This is because when they have a larger audience they are able to tell companies that more people are seeing the advertised product, therefore each commercial is more valuable and the ASO charges accordingly.
The Tour is arguably their most watched race and because of this, the ASO uses the money earned by selling the Tour’s television rights to help balance out the promotion of less lucrative events. So, they decided to increase the appeal of a specific stage by adding something special to the race: the cobbles. That single day of racing was supposed to help increase their viewership for stage 5 and also hopefully increase the viewership of all subsequent stages, thus allowing them to charge extra for the commercial time during the broadcast of the entire event. With the inclusion of the cobbles in this year’s Tour, the ASO put the bottom line of their company ahead of the safety of the athletes that they make their money off of.
The ASO, coupled with their plans to increase both single day and total Tour viewership, also intended to increase the battle between GC riders in the late mountain stages by adding in something to separate the riders early. The cobbles were supposed to force splits in the peloton that would leave yellow jersey contenders fighting to regain time in the mountains. And, though this seemed like a decent enough plan when the course was announced, the rain (coupled with a dearth of cobble riding experience from the GC riders) caused a great many yellow jersey hopefuls to get injured.
So, with contenders like TeJay van Garderen, Andrew Talansky, and Chris Froome all hitting the deck that day, the future mountain battle was one that never really came. Froome pulled out of the race that day, van Garderen lost a great deal of time and confidence, and Talansky suffered injuries that (in part) led him to abandon in the following stages. All of these injuries (both physical and mental), coupled with Alberto Contador and Fabian Cancelarra’s later withdrawal from the race, resulted in a peloton more focused on survival than on attacking. So, instead of “livening up” a race that already has a certain amount of predictability, the cobbles on Stage 5 served as more or less a Coronation Ceremony for the Italian, Vincenzo Nibali.
An event like the Tour is one designed to test the mettle of all who are lucky enough to participate. This test is generally held on the mountains and in the time trials on the way to France’s capital city, but this years inclusion of cobbles has led to a new type of event: a demolition derby on two wheels. Because, in an attempt to grow already large profit margins, the ASO left the teams, riders, and fans’ dreams for the 2014 Tour shattered on the cobbles of Northern France.