Tanner: Boom, Nibali handle perilous stage

Tanner: Boom, Nibali handle perilous stage

July 10th, 2014 by Jim Tanner in Sports - Columns

Netherland's Lars Boom crosses the finish line to win the fifth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 155 kilometers (96.3 miles) with start in Ypres, Belgium, and finish in Arenberg, France, on Wednesday, July 9, 2014.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

The sound you heard coming from northern France early Wednesday was a decisive Boom - Lars Boom, to be exact.

The Dutch pro cyclist took advantage of a wet and treacherous day to win stage five of the Tour de France. He was one of the lucky ones.

In addition to having a name that accurately describes what he did on the 96-mile route from Ypres, Belgium, to Arenberg, France, Lars Boom has got to be the second-best sporting name of the summer behind Brazilian soccer star Hulk at the World Cup.

Even before the Tour de France began Saturday, riders were looking aprehensively toward Wednesday's stage. As originally planned, the stage would feature nine sections of ancient cobblestone roads that were sure to beat up bikes and bicyclists and rattle a few nerves.

Cobblestones can bring even the best riders to tears. Think about riding a bicycle on the bumpiest road you've ever driven on, except it's "sort of" paved with small uneven stones, is more narrow than a normal road and lined with screaming spectators. It's like that, only worse.

Oh, and then it rained Wednesday, so it was cold, muddy and all those stones were as slick as ice. Sounds like fun, huh?

The race organizers chose to bypass two of the cobbled sections to make the race somewhat safer, but the day still was brutal with wrecks sending riders sliding across pavement and cobblestones, flipping into ditches and crashing into spectators throughout the stage.

The biggest loser of the day was defending Tour champion Chris Froome, who crashed hard twice before even reaching the cobblestone segments and was forced to abandon the race, leaving his Sky team without its leader.

The other prerace favorite, Alberto Contador, managed to stay upright for the most part, but he suffered and lost time in the second half of the stage on the cobblestones.

American hopefuls Tejay Van Garderen and Andrew Talansky both suffered crashes Wednesday, but they managed to limit their losses and remain in contention despite losing time to race leader Vincenzo Nibali.

Nibali confirmed to everyone that he deserves to be wearing the yellow jersey. Not known as a strong technical rider, Nibali rode well on the wet streets and cobblestones to finish a solid third in the stage and put valuable time between himself and his top challengers. Peter Sagan, the reigning Tour sprint champion, put in a good ride and is in third place in the overall standings.

But the big winner Wednesday was Boom. His specialty is riding spring one-day classics that are contested on the same cobblestoned roads the Tour used Wednesday, and he knew the slippery conditions would play to his strengths as a strong bike handler.

"This morning, when I saw the weather, I smiled a bit," a mud-splattered (and possibly insane) Boom told reporters after the stage win. "For many years, I've dreamt of a wet Paris-Roubaix, and I got what I wanted today at the Tour de France."

After the stage many commentators wondered if the wet conditions on the cobblestoned segments were too dangerous for the riders. Hogwash. Many of the bad crashes -- including both crashes that took out Froome -- occurred on normal paved roads before the race even reached the cobblestones. Is there a point where a stage can be too dangerous? Of course, but riding in the rain, while maybe not fun, is just part of elite pro bicycle racing.

The Tour de France should be seeking to crown the best all-around rider. As Nibali showed, that requires being able to ride well despite the conditions and manage risk. Will anyone suggest that the mountain stages that begin next week are too steep? Of course not. Cycling is a risky sport that requires athletes to ride right up to the edge without losing control.

For Team Sky, the loss of Froome is even more humiliating after team officials chose to leave 2012 Tour winner Sir Bradley Wiggins off the team to avoid infighting between Froome and Wiggins over team leadership. I bet they'd like to have Wiggo on the Tour roster right about now.

Now Sky will depend on Richie Porte to take over as the team leader, a role the Australian pro was not planning on taking this year.

When asked if he thought Porte was up to the task of being a team leader, Sky teammate Geraint Thomas could only shake his head and say, "Well, he'd better be."

Everyone still competing in the Tour de France had better be ready, because there's still a long way to go before the race ends in Paris.

Contact Jim Tanner at jtanner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6478. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.