Tour de France 21 Stories: Wind and Winning

There’s a reason why Breton an Norman cyclists have a reputation for being tough: wind. There’s no shortage of it round here.
Geraint Thomas has an eloquent chapter on it in his book, The World of Cycling According to G: “On the first few days of a Grand Tour the entire peloton is already on edge, spooked by the slightest noise or unexpected incident. And if, just when it is starting to settle down, the wind kicks up, the fragile truce is shattered in seconds.
“It doesn’t need to be strong; 20 mph will do it, it’s the direction. Tailwinds shorten the stage. Headwinds lengthen it. Crosswinds drop a grenade.”
Today’s stage runs from South to North directly along the coast with forecasts of rain, Westerly crosswinds of up to 30km/h and gusts of 50 km/h.  Crosswinds lead to echelons, and echelons can blow a race apart.
As Thomas explains, an echelon is a neat diagonal formation of rapidly rotating riders, a highly efficient machine for slicing through the wind at speed. Only, there are a limited number of places on board. If you don’t muscle your way on pronto, “you will be spat out the back, out of the protection of those tightly packed bodies and into a wall of wind that will stop one man on his own as effectively as a stick through the spokes”.
Or as Mark Cavendish puts it; “When an echelon forms it’s like falling through ice, you’ve got five seconds or you are finished.”
Echelons were what did it for Valverde in 2013. Stage 13 was a flat sprint stage, on paper a quiet day for the GC hopefuls. Then came the wind.
Cavendish’s Omega Pharma-Quick Step team snapped into action, bossing the race with a perfectly organised break from which they eventually set up a flawless sprint victory for their leader. Things fell apart behind: Contador’s team launched another assault with 31k to the finish, leaving Froome in the yellow jersey to flounder and lose over a minute. But that was nothing to Valverde’s woes. He punctured with 86k still to go and his team’s best efforts notwithstanding, was unable to claw his way back. He eventually lost nearly ten minutes and plummeted from 2nd to 16th place on GC.
And we have just witnessed another masterful windblown performance from Cavendish, the sprinter they said was past his prime; too focussed on the Olympics; lost his bottle.
‘They’ are fools.

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