To win, the strongest teams now strangle the race, force their tactics and try to control variables. The underdog has little chance. Despite increasingly challenging courses, pelotons often remain compact and massive until the final kilometres.
Over the last 15 years, the differences between riders’ abilities have diminished because of better training, proper diets, a more international peloton and more aerodynamic, lighter equipment. The races have become more predictable. Often, only the injured or ill fall off the pace.
When nearly 200 riders charge down a narrow, twisting, rural road three metres wide, crashes are inevitable. Cameras can’t capture the chaos in the belly of the bunch. The peloton rarely relaxes. Within it, we ride inches apart, our elbows rubbing, our shoe buckles clipping sharp spokes, our tyres brushing up against another rider’s.
There is precious little room to manoeuvre. Behind the first line of riders every inch of the road is used. To get to the front of the peloton, we’ll accelerate up the dirt shoulder, a driveway, a sidewalk or a bike path and dodge spectators, parked cars, utility poles and potted plants. In our hasty dash to the front, we jump kerbs at 50 kph. Crashes are inevitable.
The constant live feed of news from a race, which streams over the internet and television, has increased the tension. A decade ago, seasons began progressively. The early races were often slower, and riders used them to gain fitness.
Now, the first race of the season has become as important as the last. Training camps are held in December to ensure we’ll be in top shape by the end of January. From the first race of the season in January until the last in October, entire pelotons of 140 to 200 riders fight for attention. Often we are considered only as good as our last race. The battle is relentless.
In the one day cobbled Classics the fight for the front is furious. Every rider knows his chance of victory could end if he is too far back in the peloton. From a four lane highway we funnel onto a dusty or mud-coated rural cobbled lane. In dry weather, the peloton kicks up a dust cloud, which blurs our vision. In the rain we slip and slide to find the best line around riders who have fallen on muddied stones.
But the worst crashes often occur before the most technical bits of course, when the peloton stampedes through the countryside like frenzied cattle towards a chute. On smooth tarmac, the speeds are higher and the peloton a compact mass. One rider’s error will bring down a multitude.
Not only do larger pelotons lead to more crashes, but the racing is also more controlled. Breakaways have less chance of success against multiple eight to nine man pursuing teams. Rules downsizing teams to fewer riders and shrinking the peloton would make the racing more animated and less dangerous.
The worst crashes aren’t limited to the Classics. In a Tour de France stage, where the stakes are highest and every kilometre has value, the fight for the front is relentless. In the first week of the race, every rider seems to be aiming for a chance at victory, the yellow jersey or simply a few flickering moments on television.
As a result, crashes are more frequent in the first third of every Tour. As the race wears on, the effervescence yields to fatigue, every rider finds his spot in the physical hierarchy, and the race becomes safer.
Changing the format of the Tour by adding a time trial or mountain stage in the first week, to create greater time gaps earlier, would reduce crashes.