Long flat stages are the lowlights of every Tour de France, but riders are doing much more in the peloton than you may think.
Flat stages are the bane of the Tour de France. To get from one gorgeous mountain vista to the next, the Tour sometimes needs to fill in the distance with long transfers that go over relatively uninteresting (though still mostly lovely) landscape in between. These stages are often inconsequential in the yellow jersey competition. From personal experience, they’re good background for summer naps.
For the riders, there is barely any time to be gained in the overall classification, so the biggest names often hold back, preferring to save their effort for the mountains where a good attack can take minutes out of their opponents. Flat stages can feel like exercises in risk management — until the very end, usually the last minute or two of a six-hour stage, when the sprinters bolt for the finish.
At the 2018 Tour de France, several riders criticized a 231-kilometer near-paper flat Stage 7 ride from Fougères to Chartres. Six-time green jersey winner Peter Sagan called it a “boring day.” Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde said long stages like that “make no sense.” For viewers who aren’t fiends for low-level helicopter shots of French châteaus, the action and stakes are too low to stay invested.
But though flats are tough to watch, those participating usually aren’t as bored as you might think. Every stage of the Tour de France is an opportunity for something to go wrong, and that puts riders on edge.
Christian Vande Velde, now a cycling commentator for NBC Sports Network, rode 11 times in the Tour de France. He has occupied both domestique and team leader roles in the Tour before, shepherding Lance Armstrong to two of his stripped yellow jerseys in 1999 and 2001 before finishing fourth in 2008. He says ceasefires flat stages would only occur “once in a blue moon.”
“It’s hard to explain a lot of times just from the chopper or the motorcycle, what you see at home, where it looks like a walk in the park,” Christian Vande Velde says. “In perfect world scenario conditions — let’s say, the break’s out, there’s zero wind, and it’s 65 degrees out, and it’s just a beautiful day — then maybe we’ll have a day that’s civilized. But those days are so far and few between. [There might be] a corner, and then after that there’s going to be exposed crosswinds 50K into the stage. You don’t really have big chunks of time where you truly let your guard down.”
The misconception that flat stages are “easy” may come from the idea that the Tour de France is solely a competition to win the yellow jersey. True, the maillot jaune is one of the most iconic prizes in sports, but every rider and team has its own goals that may have nothing to do with the general classification. The green jersey competition, for example, rewards the individual with the most points, and is largely considered the “sprinters” jersey because the winner is frequently the rider who most dominated the flats.
Transfer stages are also days for breakaway riders from small wild card teams to earn television coverage for their sponsors and, on occasion, sneak a stage victory.
“The Tour de France, there are maybe five guys who want to win, and then maybe 10, 15 climbers,” says Jens Voigt, who started a record 17-straight Tours. “That still leaves 160 guys out there, they are normal, and they can only win on non-mountain stages.”
Voigt, also now working for NBC, was a breakaway artist who won two individual Tour stages across his career. “I’d go with the breakaway where I know the chances are one to 10 that I don’t make it. But hey, one to 10 is much better than zero, right?”
“People like me, we never had easy days,” he adds. “Earlier in my career I was on a French team, and we never had a GC contender, so every time we would hit the mountains, the sport director would come into our team bus, and in a dramatic gesture he would just close the race book and go, ‘Boys, we are on holiday now. The next three days in the mountains in the Alps, we cannot win, we go on hibernation.’ Which is in a funny way actually stupid. It’s the fucking Tour de France, nobody can be on hibernation.”
Stress makes the Tour de France unique. No other cycling competition is as closely watched. At a lesser event, both Vande Velde and Voigt admit that they are more likely to let their minds wander, or talk to riders on others team who they haven’t seen in a long time. For Tour-focused riders like them, many events were considered warmups for the Grand Boucle. If inattention led to a mistake on the road, the consequences weren’t severe if they didn’t affect their ability to race in July.
Mistakes during the Tour could invalidate an entire year of targeted preparation, however. Not to mention put riders at risk.
“The biggest difference with the Tour is just that heightened sense, just the total stress on your adrenal system or your central nervous system when there’s always fans lining the road, there’s always people with airhorns and throwing water, or beer. Or selfie sticks now, and iPads in your face,” Vande Velde says. “There’s always that little bit of danger.”
Riders and teams focusing on the yellow jersey put a lot of work in during flat stages to make sure their team leader stays upright. Crashes often occur during the transfer-loaded first week of the Tour, when energy in the peloton is high and nerves are tight. No one wants to cede ground, and when wheels touch in a tightly-packed peloton, the domino effect takes over, sending dozens of riders to the ground.
The safest place to ride is the very front of the peloton — the fewer people in front of you, the better — but it is also the most difficult place to ride, unshielded from the wind. Riders at the back of the peloton, meanwhile, practically get pulled down the course in the large slipstream created by the mass of riders in front of them, but flirt recklessly with cycling’s rotten luck by doing so. In between both ends of the peloton, teams and riders are constantly maneuvering to find their preferred balance of workload and risk, or to put their stage win-contenders in positions to attack.
“For a spectator on TV, yes, you see, ‘Oh, they’re just riding along.’ But there’s still so much underneath the surface,” Voigt says. “Thrill, and tactics and smartness and cleverness going on.
“And games, right? You can have teams that help each other, and the next day they fight against each other. One day, Cav [Mark Cavendish, and [Marcel] Kittel, and [André] Greipel will work together, and the next day go, ‘No, I don’t talk to you, I have somebody in the breakaway, I’m not going to work today.’ And then the day after they need to work again together.”
So much hyper-awareness takes a toll on riders after three weeks. Voigt, in particular, was good at maintaining positive thoughts — “You think about the last win you had, or you think about a stage you won last year, or you think about the family, the next children’s birthday coming up” — and a process he calls “erase and rewind.”
“I swear, not to save my life, an hour after the stage I couldn’t name the start or finish town,” he says. “I would go back into the team bus, have a cold drink, read my book, or play stupid games on my Game Boy or on my phone just to keep my mind occupied and away from cycling. And I would only look into the race book the next day before the stage to memorize where’s the sprint.”
Yet even the aura and pressure of the Tour de France can’t override the human instinct to look around when they have a moment’s respite. Vande Velde remembers the first time he saw Versailles.
“We were going like 65k an hour, and someone pointed it out to me. And that hit me, ‘Wow, holy shit, that’s amazing,’” Vande Velde says. “I think somebody almost went flying into the ditch. [Laughs]. And that’s the last time I ever looked at Versailles.”
Voigt remembers what might have been a hallucination of a death-defying maneuver by one of the Tour’s helicopter pilots.
“He actually did fly so low above the ground that he passed between the ground and 100,000 volts of electricity wires above him,” Voigt says. “And there’s not much space. These wires are high, yes, but a helicopter is a big machine.
“And I’m like, ‘Fuck, did only I see that, or did somebody else saw that?’ And I asked other people and nobody noticed.”
Stage 21 is the most famous of the Tour de France’s flat stages, a short, loosely-contested procession that takes several laps around the Champs-Elysées. On the final Sunday of the Tour, everybody but the sprinters takes their chance to say an overdue hello to the friends on other teams they’ve been unable to acknowledge for weeks. Only then do riders fully take stock of where they are.
“When you see the Eiffel Tower for the first time, when you see the Arc de Triomphe for the first time,” Vande Velde says, “people never forget that.”
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