Two hours before the finish of Stage 7, Daam Van Reeth, a Belgian professor of economics and business, shared some information on the TV ratings of the first six stages of the Tour de France.
The numbers were not encouraging.
Ratings are down across several major cycling markets compared to the first week of the 2017 Tour — down 4% in the Netherlands, 10% in France, 17% in Germany, 19% in Spain, and 50% in the United Kingdom.
There’s probably no one single reason for this, though the FIFA World Cup comes to mind, as does fatigue over Chris Froome’s salbutamol case — along with Team Sky’s stranglehold over the GC for five of the past six years. Reeth points to exceptionally good weather across much of Europe as another possible explanation. Each of these factors likely contribute.
Because many point to the competition from @FIFAWorldCup , I also made a comparison between the 2018 and the 2014 TdF ratings:– Flanders – 33%– Australia -20%– France -19%– Netherlands -7%– Spain -53%– Wallonia -4%
So I think we can rule out the World Cup as a factor.
— Daam Van Reeth (@vrdaam) July 13, 2018
However a look at Friday’s stage was a perfect example of what must be avoided if pro cycling’s biggest event wants to capture a young generation of viewers with short attention spans and endless digital distractions at their disposal.
The flat 231km stage, from Fougères to Chartres, was the longest of the 2018 Tour, and, we can only hope, the most boring.
The day’s six hours of racing could be summarized in this manner: Ten riders escaped, but were quickly brought back. A French rider from a French wildcard team escaped and rode over 100km alone at the front, but was caught. Another French rider from a French wildcard team escaped and rode 50km alone at the front, but was caught with 40km to go. The bunch rode together, spread out across the width of the road, in a procession until the final 5km, and then there was a field sprint.
Stage 7: Crosswind mayhem made less exciting by lack of crosswinds as the peloton trundled closer to the cobbles. #oversimpLeTour
— Chad Haga (@ChadHaga) July 13, 2018
The Tour’s longest stage finished a half-hour behind the slowest expected finish time, and it wasn’t due to headwind, it was due to the fact that there was almost no racing happening. (There was a brief moment where Ag2r La Mondiale and Trek-Segafredo put the hammer down at 100km to go and split the peloton into three groups, with Thursday’s stage winner Dan Martin caught out, but it was short lived and too far from the finish to be significant.)
Otherwise, the marathon ride resembled a rest day of sorts — a transition day after two hard stages and Sunday’s cobblestone stage on the horizon.
Even stage winner Dylan Groenewegen’s “Shhhh” salute across the line, aimed at critics who had counted him out, could have been mistaken as “Let’s not wake the viewers who fell asleep.”
“It was quite long,” said GC leader Greg Van Avermaet. “We were discussing this in the group — ‘Is this really necessary at a big tour?’ You could ask if it was really worth it, but I think everybody probably enjoyed it. It was the first easy day after a pretty stressful first six days. For us it was nice to kind of relax.”
World champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) said he used the day to catch up with friends in the bunch.
“It was a boring stage, but it was okay to have a stage without stress, under the sun, without wind,” Sagan said. “I had time to speak with everybody in the peloton.”
— Le Tour de France (@LeTour) July 13, 2018
Asked what he did to stay engaged during the nearly six-hour ride across the northwestern France countryside, American Taylor Phinney (EF Education First-Drapac) told CyclingTips he focused on his pedaling technique.
“It was pretty boring… but that’s all right, you’re still riding your bike, and I enjoy riding my bicycle,” Phinney said. “Today I was recognizing that every time I shift, I shift while my right foot is going forward, so I was trying to shift with my left foot forward… so, coming to some realizations.”
Even Robbie McEwen and Matthew Keenan, the official English commentators for the Tour’s live broadcast, were critical of the stage, pointing out that it was not a strong advertisement for the Tour de France when the event is competing against the World Cup and Wimbledon this week.
What’s done is done — though it may be repeated again on Saturday, a flat 181km stage where a field sprint is again expected — but race owners ASO should take note that their three-week formula needs work. Long, flat stages don’t encourage breakaways, they discourage them. Shorter stages are almost always more exciting.
The 65km Stage 17, with three categorized climbs and a summit finish, looks to be a step in the right direction. It will be the shortest road stage of the past 30 years, and should be an explosive one — perhaps similar to the 100km mountain stage at the 2016 Vuelta a España where Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana attacked Chris Froome, turning the GC upside down.
Poll: What was the most surprising thing to happen on Stage 7 of the Tour de France? # TDF2018
— CyclingTips (@cyclingtips) July 13, 2018
Granted, not every day can be a summit finish or a trip across the cobblestones. Transition stages are necessary. Race organizers follow the money, and must find a way to include starts and finishes at towns willing to pay to be part of the Tour.
But five sprint stages in the opening eight days is unimaginative, and if flat sprint stages are needed to connect the route, steps can be made to keep them more interesting. Make them shorter, where breakaways are more likely to succeed. Throw in some gravel roads, as they’ve done with “plugstreets” at Gent-Wevelgem. Throw in more time bonus sprints, or intermediate sprints — or both. Find a hill of some sort for the finish, as the Giro d’Italia has done over the past few years. Just do something. Otherwise, the decrease in viewership will continue.
CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers is writing a daily column during the 2018 Tour de France, focused on analysis, commentary, and opinion.