CALVI, Corsica — A funny thing about the Tour de France is that it can give competitors the most fabulous terrain on which to ride, but it cannot force them to race.
Instead of being the tricky day full of traps and surprises that Tour teams feared and organizers hoped for, Stage 3 of the 100th edition proved a bit of a dud.
Yes, there some of the most riveting coastal scenery ever visited by the 110-year-old race. The drama, however, was in short supply. Corsica may be France’s “island of beauty,” but the riders were just as happy to whiz past it.
“Twisty roads like that along the coast, stunning scenery, and I’m sure it made for great shots from the helicopter,” race favorite Chris Froome said. “But that’s not what we were interested in.”
In a three-week test of endurance, not every stage can be a classic. There are days, such as Monday, when the peloton decides the priority is to get from A to B safely, get back to the hotel, massage, eat and sleep. To have success at the Tour, survival comes first.
“The race is always what the riders make of it,” Tour director Christian Prudhomme said.
Jan Bakelants was happy. The Belgian started the day in the yellow jersey that he won with a clever and gutsy spurt of riding Sunday. He will wear it again for at least another day during Tuesday’s team time trial in Stage 4. The teams will race against the clock, heading off one after the other in aerodynamic helmets, on a pancake-flat, 15-mile course in Nice, past the coastal town’s airport and along its famous beachside avenue, the Promenade des Anglais.
With that technical and quick ordeal awaiting them, and because coastal headwinds slowed the riders, none of the 21 other teams could be bothered Monday to really try to take the lead from Bakelants.
His RadioShack teammates did a grand job protecting him. They rode much of the stage at the front of the pack, not letting breakaway riders get too far ahead and discouraging other teams from any thoughts of making a concerted assault. Their management of the stage helped make for dull racing, but it kept Bakelants in yellow.
“We never panicked,” he said. “We managed the gaps.”
But Tuesday will more than likely be his last day in the leader’s jersey. There are 71 riders just a second behind him in the standings. One of them on a team that time trials better than RadioShack will be in yellow next.
“We have good riders but haven’t really trained for the team time trial,” Bakelants said. “It will be tough to keep the jersey, but I’ve already had it two days and that’s special. ... It’s extraordinary to have worn it.”
At the end of the stage, in the final 9 miles, the racing picked up. Several riders tried and failed to get away from the chasing pack. It came down to a sprint in the last 500 yards. Simon Gerrans, an Australian, threw his front wheel over the line just before Peter Sagan, a Slovakian.
On paper, Stage 3 looked daunting — 91 miles of narrow roads as sinewy as a blood vessel, with very little flat. On television, the coves, the white beaches and cliffs plunging into turquoise seas looked incredible. The riders strung out like a necklace of colored pearls as they sped along the coastline on a succession of twisting and breathtaking bends.
That is why Corsica paid the Tour to come this place: to make it look good. The island gave close to $4 million to the Tour’s owners for the right to host the first three stages this year, and paid another $2.6 million in other expenses, said Paul Giacobbi, who heads the regional government. That bought “hours and hours and hours” of worldwide television coverage and “1 billion spectators,” he said.
The logistics were complicated. The Tour was transporting itself on seven ships back across the Mediterranean to the French mainland overnight on Monday so it could resume less than 24 hours later for Stage 4 in Nice. After Monday’s trek from the port of Ajaccio, two planes whisked the riders from the finish in Calvi so they could sleep in hotels on the French coast that same night.
This was the Tour’s first visit to Corsica. Both came away happy. Prudhomme, the race director, said viewing figures in France for the Corsican leg of the race are the highest they’ve been in a decade.
“That is because of the 100th edition and the beauty of Corsica,” he said.
Not that Froome and the other contenders for overall victory much cared. They were happy simply to be heading back in one piece to the French mainland, where the Tour will be decided in stages in the Pyrenees and Alps far more decisive than anything Corsica could offer.
“I’m quite relieved to be heading off Corsica now,” Froome said. “Hopefully, the race will settle down a little bit.”