Do runners get bored (like you) during the flat stages?

“I never sleep in the afternoon. The only exception: when there is a flat stage on the Tour de France program.” We would almost apologize for taking Janez Brajkovic out of the nap. The Slovenian, a former teammate of Lance Armstrong, then leader of the Astana team, shot his shot on the roads of France. Recently retired, he continues to follow the news of cycling. But for this Rodez-Carcassonne transition scheduled for Sunday, July 17, he will set his alarm clock around 4:30 p.m. “Of course, it’s not the flat stages that make you want to become a runner”smiles Stéphane Rossetto, a record number of kilometers covered in a breakaway during the 2019 edition. “But you signed up. It’s part of the job.”

Long straights in the fields in stages of more than 200 km can be experienced very differently depending on the role of each runner within a team. Take Axel Domont, Romain Bardet’s lieutenant when he was in AG2R: “If I got bored on the Tour? But I didn’t have time for that! Even on a Châteauroux-Tours in the depths of Beauce, you always have people by the side of the road. People come in strollers, let their dog cross the road, sometimes a little partying … I would have blamed myself forever if Romain had fallen while I was talking behind the peloton “. Even for an adventurer like Stéphane Rossetto, today in the Auber 93 team, the peloton is not the last place we talk: “There’s so much noise! ​​Mainly for the audience. The brakes are no longer heard in front of the peloton. You have to always be alert.”

Both for good students. Because, in the back of the class, when the getaway is gone, controlled by a platoon in the race, there is a way to kill time. “We operate a bit in autopilot mode, describes Romain Feillu, a short-lived yellow jersey wearer in 2008. Do you see a Parisian taxi driver driving naturally from bumper to bumper on the Place de l’Etoile? In the peloton it’s a bit like that. ” To the point of being able to admire the Arc de Triomphe, or more generally the landscape? “We were passing in front of the Palace of Versailles at 65 km / h, remembers American runner Christian Vande Velde with the SB Nation spot. A guy tells me. I’m speechless: ‘Wow! It’s incredible !’. And just then, there’s a guy making a mess in the ditch, right in front of me. It was the last time I looked at the castle. ”

Definitely, the platoon is not the best place for an unobstructed view of these Cistercian chapels that look so cozy filmed from the helicopter. “It’s already happened to me in the middle of a platoon that runs by the sea and I don’t see an inch of the big blue,” smiles Romain Feillu, 1.74 m though.

The Tour de France platoon in the middle of the sunflower fields, during the stage between Carcassonne and Quillan, July 10, 2021. (CHRISTOPHE ENA / AP / SIPA)

It is not from what is seen, but from what is said, that the back of the peloton is still a strategic point when the pilots speed up the news. “This is where he finds out about the latest rumors about what’s happening on other teams. The throbbing heart of ‘Radio Peloton'”, smiles Thomas Boudat, two Big Loops on the clock. On the roads from Rodez to Carcassonne on Friday, some runners will barely have a few copies of their CV in their backpack, the transfer season begins just after the Tour, as you remember. The team. “Of course, I tested the waters for a transfer during a transition stageJanez Brajkovic smiled. The trick was to let the guys know that they have a lot of influence and connections to the peloton that you wanted a change of scenery. “

As for those who still have a cozy contract, be careful not to gain weight during the stage. Because fit well in the middle of the peloton, without pedaling or almost, the risk exists. “In these stages, you tend to eat up all your supplies very quickly”, recognizes Mickaël Delage, former pilot fish of French sprinter Arnaud Démare. Romain “Top Chef” Feillu is inexhaustible “Buns stuffed with Saint-Moret and pineapple” which he had taken from his sports director’s car to power these stages on the desolate plain. “When we don’t have time, when the stage is nervous, we go straight to the energy gels. Tastefully, it has nothing to do with it.”

No fries or peanuts in sight, though. But some substantive discussions become surreal. “I compared the terms of my mortgage with other brokers, says Romain Feillu, whom you can almost imagine with his files spread out on the handlebars and pencil in hand to jot down the good tips for negotiating an advantageous rate with your insurance. “He wasn’t always so serious. With Comrade Pierre-Luc Périchon, with whom I share a passion for Coluche, we’ve already redone several of his sketches, in the chair.”

The Tour de France platoon on the coast of Château-Châlon, in the Jura, on September 18, 2020. (ALEX WHITEHEAD / SHUTTERSTOCK / SIPA)

It’s the story of some boys who remember the good old days and … a partial broadcast of the stage, around 3 in the afternoon. “Before, the platoon only started when I heard the television helicopter coming, smiles Sébastien Chavanel, former sprinter turned coach. The era of 300-kilometer stages is over since the early 1990s, and prominent names like Peter Sagan don’t hesitate to make fun of the routes. “boring” when you exceed 200 limits. Inevitably, shorter stages offer less respite, laments Sébastien Chavanel. “Today we’re getting closer, we’re drowning everywhere. And all we see is that most of the guys are making faces.”

Why this general grimace soup? Probably because the Covid-19 pandemic has been there and has changed the situation of many runners. “Many of the friends I still have in the peloton tell me that the face of this type of stage has changed, points Janez Brajkovic. Earlier, we set off with force to catch the breakaway, and there was a period of latency before the platoon began the chase. Today we started strong and continue the whole stage at this pace. The fault of Covid, which has precarious many runners with short contracts, one or two years at most. Every stage, even a transitional one, is an opportunity to save the place. ” The hourly averages increase, year after year, while the victories of the fugitives become rare on the plain.

The first week got very nervous, the mountain stages are reserved for team leaders … One wonders when we will have time to get bored in the peloton. “At least one stage in every Tour de France”, size Janez Brajkovic. A position assumed by career management. “We can’t ask runners to be 100% for 21 days”justifies RMC, Thierry Gouvenou, the man behind the route. “Typically, in the middle of the second week between the Alps and the Pyrenees”, illustrates the Slovenian rider. That’s fine, this is precisely our Rodez-Carcassonne (202.5 km) of the day. If you do not set the alarm at 4.30pm, remember to watch the faces of the pilots hidden in the middle of the platoon.

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