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 wanted, Stage 3 of the 100th edition proved to be a bit of a dud.
Yes, there was some of the most riveting coastal scenery ever visited by the race. 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 Point A to Point B safely, return to the hotel, get a 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 of 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 making an 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 could 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 pack. It came down to a sprint in the last 500 yards. Australia’s Simon Gerrans threw his front wheel over the line just before Peter Sagan of Slovakia.
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 visit: 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, and it paid another $2.6 million in other expenses, said Paul Giacobbi, who heads the regional government.