Time to rewrite the rules on how the peloton chases down breaks, and chances for a Peter Sagan stage win are dwindling, says Edward Pickering
There’s an old cyclists’ maxim, called Chapatte’s Law, which estimates the amount of time a break needs on the peloton in order to stay away. It’s named after Robert Chapatte, a checked-blazer-and-polo-shirt, 1970s-vintage, French cycling commentator, who surmised that for every remaining 10 kilometres, the break needed one minute.
It’s been ailing for some time. But it is with great sadness that I announce the death of Chapatte’s Law, which has breathed its last on the roads of the 2014 Tour de France. An ASO-issue results sheet will be cremated, and the ashes scattered into the crosswinds of Provence on Sunday. Cause of death: asphyxiation by the sprinters’ teams.
Alexander Kristoff busked a bunch sprint win in St Etienne, after a day of toil by the Giant and Europcar teams, who allowed a five-man breakaway to gain a parsimonious five-minute lead with 90 kilometres to ride. They barely handed out enough rope for the break to hang themselves, although the quintet more or less did the peloton’s dirty work for them by dropping one by one, in the manner of an Agatha Christie murder mystery.
Five became four when Netapp’s David De la Cruz crashed and broke his collarbone. Florian Vachon of Bretagne, then Gregory Rast, of Trek, simply couldn’t stay the pace. With only two left at the front with 26 kilometres to go, Simon Clarke of Orica committed fratricide on fellow survivor, Garmin’s Sebastian Langeveld, and went for it alone. Clarke was looking stronger than the Dutchman, but he made sure of it by attacking while Langeveld was taking a drink.
Giant’s presence at the front of the bunch was understandable – John Degenkolb was second yesterday, (and first in the sprint), and the Dutch team telegraphed his intention to go one better by controlling the stage from the start. Equally understandably, Cannondale sulked in the peloton – after working for an entire day yesterday and achieving nothing better than ninth for their trouble, they weren’t feeling charitable. The reason for Europcar’s contribution was less clear, at least initially.
Europcar’s tactic, one they’ve tried out on a couple of occasions so far this Tour, was to launch a two-up attack. Perrig Quemeneur and Cyril Gautier went with 30 kilometres to go, and simultaneously the other Europcar riders who’d been diligently sharing pacing duties with Giant melted back into the peloton. Attacking in a pair is an effective way of getting away, and it’s surprising more teams don’t try it.
It took Gautier and Quemeneur 12 kilometres to catch Clarke, and they formed a co-operative enterprise, with Quemeneur taking on the hard work of pulling at the front, and Clarke sitting in between the two Frenchmen, the filling in a Europcar sandwich, a kangaroo steak baguette. The Giant-led peloton saw them more as a carrot dangling on a stick, however, and when they closed to within 30 seconds of the break with 15 kilometres to go, it was a question of how long they would last.
The catch was made at five kilometres to go. At three and a half kilometres to go, Cannondale hit the front, with five riders in a line in front of Sagan, and another one on his wheel for good measure. It looked like an effective and powerful leadout.
But leadouts on hilly stages deep in the second week of a Grand Tour aren’t comparable with those of the first few days. Cannondale quickly ran out of men, and while Omega Pharma also tried to put numbers at the front of the race, the sprint disintegrated into a chaotic free-for-all, from which Kristoff emerged victorious.
Peter Sagan was second, his eighth top five in 12 stages. He’s safe in the green jersey, but looking at the stages to come – three flat stages, five days in the mountains and one time trial, it looks that as far as stage wins are concerned, he’s run out of road.