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Tour de France

Tour de France stage 10 roundtable: The future of flat stages and COVID all-clears

Do leadout trains still work in the modern peloton, and does cycling still need pan-flat stages? And did the news all the riders were clear of COVID come as a surprise?

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The Tour de France returned from a rest day Tuesday with a stage concluding in sprint victory for Sam Bennett on the Île de Ré.

The pan-flat stage was riddled with crashes and tension as the peloton remained on high-alert for possible crosswinds and the threat of splits in the bunch. It all came down to a bunch kick, however, with Bennett taking victory after Sunweb set up the sprint with a huge leadout train for Cees Bol in the final kilometers.

It was perhaps the news before the stage started that dominated the headlines of the day. After the much-anticipated rest-day COVID-19 tests, all riders were cleared to continue racing into the Tour’s second week, though race director Christian Prudhomme and four team staffers were found to be positive.

What is the place of such pan-flat stages that gamble on crosswinds for drama, and do leadout trains still work?

And how much of a surprise is it that the whole peloton got the COVID all-clear?

Time for some takes!

Are leadouts still effective in bunch sprints given so many top sprinters now freelance through finishes?

Are leadout trains still effective for bunch sprints?
Are leadout trains still effective for bunch sprints? Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Fred Dreier (@freddreier): I think big leadouts are effective if you have a guy who can finish it off, and obviously Bol is not yet that guy. I think that the days of the big leadout at the Tour de France are dwindling because the Tour organizers are gradually reducing the number of pure sprint stages. Thus, it makes less sense to put all of your eggs in the pure sprinter basket if there are only two true sprint stages and a bunch of hilly stages that could go to sprinters or breakaways. Even the “sprint” days now have plenty of climbs.

Jim Cotton (@jim_c_1985): I think it’s as much about the types of sprinter that are dominating the peloton at the moment. Riders like Bennett, Peter Sagan, and Caleb Ewan have the craft to duck and dive and the legs to haul themselves up a dragging climb near the finish. That said, even those guys have a trusted final man to guide them through the melee before a fast finish. Bennett won today off the back of his teammate Michael Morkov’s work, and Ewan has Jasper de Buyst. OK, so Sagan is an exception to the rule but he’s a whole different subject!

Dan Cavallari (@browntiedan): It doesn’t make a lot of sense to have a leadout train this year, anyway. This Tour just isn’t all that sprinter-focused, so most teams likely focused on tailoring squads to the climbs and rolling terrain. In another year with more sprint opportunities, perhaps it will make more sense to have a team with a big leadout train, but that doesn’t seem to be the direction the Tour de France is headed toward anyway.

Is there still a place for these super-flat stages that ‘gamble’ on crosswinds for drama?

Flat stages - yes or no?
Flat stages – yes or no? Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Jim: While there wasn’t a huge amount of action today, I couldn’t help but find the race absorbing to watch; it was super-tense all day and you just felt at every corner or exposed section that something would happen, and the riders were clearly on the limit. It made for a good change of pace from the weekend’s mountain stages.

Dan: I don’t think fans would miss these types of stages, to be honest. Today’s stage was interesting enough, but if we’re relying on crashes to provide the drama, I think there’s something amiss with such a stage. More and more these stages seem like throwaways that don’t have much bearing on the race as a whole.

Fred: Yes, however, I do think it helps to throw a few hills into the windy sections to further break up the group. As we saw on stage 7, hills plus crosswinds plus Ineos Grenadiers totally exploded the race. Tuesday’s stage, while flat, was more about the spectacle of using the race route to connect two offshore islands. I don’t think this was a strategic stage for the GC.

Did it come as a surprise that all riders came through the COVID-19 check with the all-clear? And how important it this for the race?

There was a collective sigh of relief following the all-clear for riders Tuesday.
There was a collective sigh of relief following the all-clear for riders Tuesday. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Fred: I was expecting there to be a few positive tests within the peloton, so I’m pleasantly surprised that none of the riders have recorded a positive. The fact that race director Christian Prudhomme recorded a positive test was very surprising when I first read the news, since he sits at the top of the race’s pyramid of power. But the more I thought about it, Prudhomme’s position as the handshaker-in-chief makes a positive test not all that surprising.

Dan: I was definitely expecting some positive tests, and I think we’ll see some before all is said and done. After watching the riders contend with unruly fans on some of the climbs in the first week, it certainly seemed we were headed in a bad direction. It’s a relief that no riders tested positive. That’s great news for the Tour de France, but Tour organizers would certainly do well to address the problem of fans on the climbs to help ensure we get a third week of racing. 

Jim: I did go into it the day with a sense of pessimism, thinking at least one or two teams would go. Obviously, from the riders’ perspective it’s a huge relief, but also, as a fan and part of the media, it would have hugely overshadowed the race if teams had been axed. Imagine what would have happened if Jumbo Visma, UAE-Team Emirates, or Ineos Grenadiers been booted? The eventual winner come stage 21 would constantly have an asterisk against their result. There’s a second test to come next Monday, so fingers crossed for more of the same.

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