The Spoke Word: Tour de France Stage 6 report

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British sprinter Mark Cavendish made it two in a row today as he claimed Stage 6 of the Tour de France to go with his big win yesterday. American Tyler Farrar, riding with a broken wrist, finished second after a textbook leadout from his Garmin-Transitions teammates, with double-stage-winner Alessaandro Petacchi of Team Lampre third.

There were no changes to the overall standings, as the Tour contenders all finished safely in the peloton. Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara remains in the yellow jersey, though he is certain to lose it as the race enters the mountains this weekend. Pre-race favorites Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck, Alberto Contador, and Lance Armstrong remain in third, sixth, ninth, and 18th overall, respectively, separated mainly by riders who, like Cancellara, will fade in the Alps and Pyrenees. (Full standings.)

Today’s 141-mile run from Montargis to Gueungon unfolded according to flat-stage formula, with a three-man break going early and staying out until about six miles from the finish as Cavendish’s HTC-Columbia team did most of the work at the front of the peloton to keep the breakaway from getting too far ahead.

If you’re wondering why breaks are allowed to escape and why anyone would want to try, especially when they so rarely survive to the finish, there are several reasons. Riders in breakaways get valuable camera time for as long as they’re off the front, which helps build their reputations and also gets valuable exposure for their team sponsors.

As for the peloton, the main impetus for allowing breakaways to form is calmer racing. When the peloton is altogether, riders at the front will launch constant attacks and counter-attacks, either to form a break or prevent one from escaping. As long as this continues, the riding is fast and nervous.

If a break forms containing riders whom no one else considers a threat or rival—some teams really don’t like each other–the peloton will allow them to get away so things can settle down. From that point, the break’s chances of survival are dictated by the riders it contains and the ambitions of the teams behind.

Traditionally, it is up to the team of the yellow-jersey wearer to ride at the front and prevent the break from getting too far away. But there are scenarios in which the yellow-jersey team won’t ride at the front, including the presence of a teammate in the break or, as was the case today with Cancellara’s Team Saxo Bank, the assumption that their rider will be losing the yellow jersey soon anyway.

In such instances, it is the job of the sprinters’ teams to control things, as they will want to make sure the break is caught before the finish so they can set up their captains for the stage win. But they won’t want to catch the break too far from the finish, as this will only encourage more attacks and nervous riding. This is why it seems the breakaway riders are always caught with just a couple of miles to go in flat stages like today’s.

There are scenarios in which the breakaway riders can stay out to the finish. If the teams can’t agree on who’s job it is to ride at the front, if they don’t help each other out, or if the stage is a more tactically complex climbing stage, the break stands a much better chance of survival.

Tomorrow will be the first day in the mountains. While not the kind of high Alpine stage that can blow the Tour apart (the first of those will come on Sunday), it’s definitely hilly enough to see a lot of riders spit out the back and to see a breakaway perhaps make it to the finish for the first time in this Tour.

The route ends with a summit finish after a moderate climb of 5 percent, which should see the favorites all arriving together as they save themselves for the more challenging climbs of Sunday’s Stage 8.

—John Bradley

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