Tales of the unexpected

This year’s Tour de France was never likely to be a procession. The Grand Depart in the less-than-flat island department of Corsica, a parcours that visits some of the most iconic – and punishing – peaks of the last 99 races, and one of the most fiercely competitive fields in memory all add up to a race that was likely to tear up the script from the outset.

However, I suspect that the events of the last week have exceeded even the wildest dreams of race director Christian Prudhomme. From low farce to high drama, from individual glory to triumphant teamwork, this Tour’s had it all so far.

On the buses

It wasn’t surprising that the first real drama came in the final half hour of the sprinter-friendly first stage, but the fact it was caused by the Orica-Greenedge team bus becoming wedged under the finish gantry was certainly unexpected. The ensuing confusion resulted in a major crash with 6km to go that took out most of the stage favourites and left many riders nursing wounds.

The bus incident was also this year’s first example of Tour organiser ASO’s famously combative approach to media management as soon as there’s a whiff of bad news. Almost as soon as the tyres were deflated and the bus moved, ASO went on the offensive, blaming the team for being three hours late in sending their bus to the finish. For their part, Orica-Greenedge were appropriately contrite, but interviews with bus driver Garikoitz “Gary” Atxa, and director sportif Matt White suggested the situation was less clear-cut.

Now, ASO isn’t exactly well-known for accepting when it’s in the wrong – some would argue that its opinion of its infallibility has been concrete since the days of Henri Desgrange – but going on the offensive at the first hurdle isn’t the wisest strategy, in my view. First, it makes ASO look like they’re unwilling to accept responsibility for what happens on their own race – never a good look for any organisation. In a wider sense, though, it also sends a concerning message to potential team sponsors, by suggesting that their names could be dragged through the mud for the slightest infringement on cycling’s biggest stage. For a sport that is already suffering a paucity of sponsorship money due to doping scandals, throwing Orica-Greenedge under the bus may not a great way to make friends and influence people in the long term.

 Underdog tales

Back to the racing, and the following days provided the kind of stories that send sports writers lunging for their keyboards and riders agents’ reaching for the phone.

Jan Bakelandt’s desperate solo escape, albeit potentially assisted by a small terrier, not only provided a nail-biting chase to the line, but also netted him the yellow jersey by a second. Stage 3, meanwhile, saw canny Aussie Simon Gerrans steal a stage win from favourite Peter Sagan; the very next day, Gerro also pulled on yellow thanks to Orica-Greenedge (yes, them again!) putting on a titanic effort in the team time trial around Nice.

These ‘against-the-odds’ victories are almost always more compelling than the sight of a dominant favourite doing what they’re paid to do. We watch sport to be entertained, after all, and it’s pleasurable to be surprised by an unexpected twist. This may be a reason why, as impressive as it was, Bradley Wiggins’ metronomic victory last year isn’t regarded as a classic unlike, say, Greg LeMond’s last-minute eight-second victory over Laurent Fignon in 1989 (amongst other reasons, of course!)

The other side of the story is that, in all three stages mentioned above (and arguably Stage 1 too), we see an underdog beating the odds. In story terms, we typically root for the protagonists who battle against adversity: from David and Goliath to the stereotype of the ‘Aussie battler’ to the main characters of many a Hollywood blockbuster (not least sports movies!), it’s a familiar archetype that comes up again and again. It’s powerful because the underdog is the person that most of us can relate to: his or her victory mirrors our own aspirational struggles against the headwinds of life, whatever they may be.

So, when nine riders clad in form-fitting skinsuits, who only days before were a laughing stock due to Busgate, play air guitar on the podium of the biggest annual sporting event in the world, it’s OK to get a little emotional. You’re meant to.

Back on track?

The return to mainland France has imposed a semblance of order to the race, but it’s merely the calm before the storm.

The last two flat stages have seen Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel take hotly-tipped wins, but Peter Sagan’s presence at every critical juncture is setting up a fascinating three-way battle for the green jersey. Cavendish and Greipel may leapfrog Sagan and each other  as they rack up big points with wins, but Sagan is better suited to lumpy stages (like today) and is consistently scoring points elsewhere. To draw another literary parallel, it’s the tortoise versus the hares. And we all know who won that race.

This weekend also sees the first real action in the battle for the overall lead with two challenging Pyrenean stages. While the focus of attention is on Ax 3 Domaines as the climatic finish of Saturday’s stage, I’d also argue that Sunday’s five-col epic will also throw up a few surprises. At just 168km long, and with a technical descent to the finish town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre, there’s ample opportunity for Contador, Evans, Rodriguez or an as-yet-unknown David to slingshot a rock directly at the Goliath that is Team Sky.

It’s going to be an exciting weekend. I’ll be back next week with analysis of the next act of this year’s Tour in a few days.

Writing about the web: Tour 2013 week one

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