When it’s a long, hot, flat day on a Grand Tour, we all know the script by now.
A small breakaway goes clear early on; a couple of local boys under strict orders to get on TV.
The peloton leave them baking in the sun for four or five hours. They get reeled in towards the finish, provide comedy ‘throat slit’ gestures for their adoring public, and leave the sprinters to decide who is today’s Alpha male.
Job done, and we all move a day closer to the mountains.
But as the Vuelta headed from Nimes towards the Mediterranean coast on Stage 2, no breakaway formed. Because the threat of crosswinds was, literally, in the air – the meteorological feature with the potential to split a bike race into pieces more than any other.
Everyone was on high alert.
Plans to attack early would’ve been frivolous and reckless; frankly, to waste energy on a doomed breakaway would be a dereliction of duty when echelons are in the air.
Crosswinds? Echelons? What’s all the fuss about?
When a strong crosswind blows it forces the riders to find a slipstream and seek shelter just to one side, off the shoulder of the rider in front, rather than directly behind their wheel as they normally would.
They do this in turn, forming a diagonal across the road, until the width of the road is full of sheltering riders.
The ones who miss the shelter are battered by the wind, dislodged from the group (because a slipstream is THAT important), and about to kiss goodbye to anything resembling a civilised heart rate.
These diagonal groups of riders scattered down the road are echelons, and echelons are exciting because they’re unpredictable.
You get riders in dribs and drabs, none of whom can hope to bridge the gap to the group in front because the wind is stronger than they are.
Find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time and you’re in trouble.
But, despite the tension, and the wind, the race just about stayed in one piece.
Until the final few kilometres, when I swear I actually saw several members of the Belgian Quick Step Floors team licking their lips in the manner of a big bad wolf bearing down on a fictional girl in a red outfit.
Being Belgian, you see, they are the masters of windy conditions.
And with only three or four kilometres to go, our breakaway finally went clear. It was wearing blue, it’s name was Julian Alaphilippe, and it was crushing a massive gear.
Leaving everyone else floundering in the wind he launched team mate Yves Lampaert clear for the win.
It was smart, it was beautifully timed, and it was several minutes of excitement at the end of several hours of tension.
Just when you thought there was to be no breakaway today, there was. And just when you thought the wind wasn’t going to have it’s say, it did.
(Alaphilippe Image: By filip bossuyt from Kortrijk, Belgium – 307 alaphilippe, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50374971)