The opening stage of this year's Tour de France was a blatant attempt to get Mark Cavendish his first yellow jersey. Organizers kicked off the race with a pancake-flat run into Harrogate, UK, where Cavendish's mother is from. It's probably the only time the peloton's most accomplished sprinter will race in a Grand Tour in his home country, and certainly the only time a stage will finish in such a personally significant place. The yellow jersey is the only career monument Cav is missing, and eschewing the traditional prologue time trial for a sprint stage was the best shot organizers could give Cav to claim it.
But instead of the gift-wrapped narrative the race wanted, we got the evil funhouse mirror version. Cavendish was in second wheel coming into the last 250 meters of the sprint, but he was boxed in. Instead of waiting for a gap to open up, he tried to bully his way into a space that wasn't there and caused a devastating high speed crash. The Tour wanted to crown Cavendish with a yellow jersey, but his race ended after one day, with him wincing and bloodied, wheeling his bike across the line towards an ambulance.
With more than 3500 kilometers of racing over uncertain terrain, crashes are inevitable. The Tour is as much about surviving the chaos as it is about being the fastest racer. A straightforward fitness test of a bike race would be boring. There is a lively dramatic tension in the constant, if quiet, threat of calamity. The last two editions of the Tour suffered from the bureaucratic dominance of Team Sky, but the pendulum has swung all the way towards entropy this year. It has been crunchy.
Through the first week of racing, stars have disproportionately suffered. The UK start was about Cav, but it was also a celebration of the 2013 winner Chris Froome. Froome controlled the race so thoroughly in 2013 that many Grand Tour contenders skipped the 2014 Tour, including Colombian wunderkind Nairo Quintana, and targeted other races. On Stage 4, Froome fell twice but finished the race with the rest of the contenders after spending a lot of time behind the peloton getting medical attention. The next day's route featured 15 daunting kilometers of jaunty cobbled roads, but Froome never even made it that far. He fell again that morning and anonymously exited the race with fractures on both hands, becoming the first defending champion since Bernard Hinault in 1980 to abandon.
None of it was really his fault. Five kilometers into Stage 4, the rider in front of him jolted over into Froome's wheel and knocked him down. It's an unfair way to be knocked out of the race, but silly, avoidable stuff like that is part of the texture of the race. People fall like this every year, be they defending champion or an anonymous domestique. The Tour is not discerning in this regard.
Next-in-line favorite Alberto Contador didn't last until the first mountain stage before the race claimed his scalp too. Contador attacked on a descent Monday and he crashed hard going about 36 miles/hour. He slowly got back on his bike and gutted out 15 kilometers with a broken tibia before he hugged vice-captain Michael Rogers, dismounted his bike, and entered his team car, crying. Between Froome, Contador, and Andy Schleck, all three former Tour winners who started have crashed out.
There's not really a unifying thread between any of the three high profile exits of Week 1. Fans overcrowding the roads and taking selfies have been a big problem, most notably when the domino effect of David Lopez' collision with a fan knocked Schleck out of the race. Riders groused about the difficulty of the cobbles as a gimmicky, unnecessary safety risk, and they did cause a few wild crashes. Fan containment and the inclusion of hostile cobbles are both legitimate issues that deserve careful consideration and discussion, but neither were responsible for Contador, Froome, or Cavendish prematurely leaving the race. Cavendish is out because he took a risk and paid for it. The other two fell victim to a combination of substandard bike handling, bad luck, or wet roads. There is no tidy narrative for polemicists to tee off at. While the near-simultaneous loss of the three biggest stars dampens the rest of the Tour, the race goes on, unforgiving and haphazard as always. All three riders tuned their whole season around the Tour, attempting to tame the course. No matter how many times they studied the stage profiles, scouted stages in April, finely honed their form specifically for this course, or even positioned themselves in the peloton, they couldn't overcome the basic unflinching cruelty of bike racing. Power meter readouts don't mean anything if you can't stay upright.
Now the only A-list contender left is current race leader Vincenzo Nibali. Nibali has performed admirably thus far, winning a rolling stage with a late solo attack and two mountain stages by grinding everyone else to powder. The feared cobbled stage wasn't close to a problem either, as he was the top overall contender by two minutes and distanced specialists like Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan. Even if Froome and Contador were still around, there aren't any guarantees they'd be close to Nibali. If he hangs on to win, he'll become the sixth rider ever to win all three Grand Tours. He looks unbeatable right now, but as this Tour has gone out of its way to show us, nothing is guaranteed. There's probably not a scenario where his 3:37 lead evaporates without a crash involved, but there is a cabal of hungry riders right behind him looking to capitalize on a rare opportunity to snare a podium place while heavy hitters are nursing wounds.
This is one of the best parts of the Tour. Pre-race plans almost never work out, and there is always disappointment for some who thinks they can win. But the other side of that disappointment is unexpected success for other riders. The texture of the race changes every day and it's exciting to watch a new cast of characters try and win the race. This might be the best chance for a lot of second-tier stars like Bauke Mollema, Tejay Van Garderen, and Thibaut Pinot to get on the podium, or for up-and-comers like Romain Bardet to establish themselves. Chaos might radically alter what we think the Tour is going to be like, but the race goes on, as always. It's bigger than its stars.
Patrick Redford lives and writes in Oakland, Calif. Bug him on Twitter @patrickredford.
Photos via Associated Press