Chris Froome attacks on the road to La Pierre Saint Martin, dropping Nairo Quintana, putting both time and doubts into all his rivals. This was the moment the race was won.
Do the maths: You can compare Quintana’s 1m28s loss on Stage 2 to Froome and compare this his final deficit to Froome of 1m12s. Was the race decided in Zeeland? Arithmetically this works but La Pierre St. Martin seemed a more definitive blow to Quintana. Quintana might even have signed up in Utrecht for losing two minutes during the unsuitable first phase of the race. Losing 1m10s on a summit finish clipped El Condor’s wings. Being overtaken by Richie Porte must have left him with that Greek feeling of a deficit he could never overturn, not only was Froome better but Sky was whole. Quintana seemed subdued, stunned and it put Movistar on the defensive. The remaining Pyrenean stages became a procession with Movistar riding cautiously.
Was Utrecht just three weeks ago? Maybe the the confusion comes from an opening week that felt like April as it borrowed spring classics. The Big Four was an easy label but the four made the top-5 overall, joined by Alejandro Valverde. The disappointment was the lack of fight with Vincenzo Nibali and Alberto Contador never in contention.
Alberto Contador was losing time from the Mur de Huy to Alpe d’Huez. The Giro-Tour double will remain unfashionable and that’s bad for the Giro. It means a lot of stars will continue to put their eggs in the basket marked “Tour-July”, spend May in training camps and so the Italian race, as wonderful as it is, risks resembling a nursery for promising riders.
Still, Contador has the Giro to his name. Vincenzo Nibali has spent the whole season playing catch-up with disappointment in Tirreno-Adriatico and the Ardennes Classics. If Alexander Vinokourov’s frustration became too public, too cruel at least we could understand his frustration when Nibali was dropped in Mûr-de-Bretagne. A consolatory stage win in La Toussuire helped but he’s probably facing the Vuelta now and the strange prospect of fighting for team leadership alongside Fabio Aru and the Sky-bound Mikel Landa.
Tejay van Garderen asked to be included with the big five. Presumptuous but he didn’t make a mistake between Utrecht and the Pyrenees. During the opening week US broadcaster NBC asked French TV for more images of the American to which the producer replied along the lines of “you’ll get them when he does something”. He left the race ill and a quick recovery should be possible, we’ll see if he tries the Vuelta. BMC built their race around him but still delivered plenty with three stage wins for Rohan Dennis, the TTT and Greg Van Avermaert’s victory in Rodez.
BMC were one of the teams giving us the curious sight of parallel trains protecting their leaders. Sky, Astana, Etixx-Quickstep and Tinkoff-Saxo were all visible. It looked like the chariot scene from Ben Hur with each leader being pulled by their workhorses. It’s effective because it’s exclusive: only a few teams can afford the horsepower to make it work.
The opening week was defined by its variety with different terrain and the yellow jersey changing shoulders regularly although crashes meant Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin leaving the race with their yellow jerseys. The cobbles came and went with the big names bouncing to Cambrai without problem, except Thibaut Pinot, undone by a derailleur cable; he was ill at the time too and his brain disconnected. The opening week left the sprinters ruing the lack of opportunities but proved a ratings hit and the absence of time trials was compensated by stages resembling the spring classics, an alternative method to weigh down the climbers.
Citius, altius, fortius goes the Olympic motto but La Pierre St. Martin was a case of too fast, too high, too strong. The first summit finish didn’t so much give us a clue as to the final winner, it revealed everything. Or did it? Some talk turned dopage and even motors and we got the annual Sky-storm that has accompanied each of the teams wins.
A variety of hypotheses emerged and left Team Sky on the backfoot. For all the spend on “performance” and talk of how important sleep is to a rider you wonder if Froome was loosing sleep over the aggro. He handled it well enough himself, fielding questions rather than ducking the topic and even confronting Laurent Jalabert live on air after his clumsy RTL radio appearances. Could more assiduous PR work in France ahead of the race have made things easier? Sky cultivate mystery, talking up their use of sports science but without telling us what this involves. This vacuum gets filled with questions, some loaded. Unreasonable? Say bonjour to a sport where trust is so low that people think motors are being used.
The crowd became a factor at times with boos, punches spitting and even the tale of a cup of urine thrown at Chris Froome. It was an ugly side but with reports of 12 million people roadside there will be some cretins. The Tour remains a free, open and popular event. Long may it stay this way.
Peter Sagan drew plenty of cheers. They changed the rules so he upped his game and wins the green jersey by a large margin, and all this despite André Greipel’s four stage wins. But there’s something of the Peter Pan about him, riding like kid on a BMX pulling stunts in the street than a racer, too keen to show his skills than hide until the finish line emerges. The race is all the better for his showmanship but his palmarés could have more lines.
Nairo Quintana ends up second and in the white jersey, a copy of 2013. Could he have done more? Even with hindsight it’s hard to see where he could have ambushed Chris Froome. Team Sky were stronger than Movistar and as useful as Winner Anacona and Gorka Izagguire were, the Spanish team never had a third man to rival the likes of Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas. Will Quintana win one day? It’s possible, he’s one of the rare pure climbers capable of such a feat because he’s not calamitous in a chrono. With Quintana travelling is better than arriving, watching him try to make up for lost time is exciting. The pride of Colombia remains a draw for any stage race.
It’s difficult to break through in the Tour. Can we call Geraint Thomas the revelation of the race? He’s hardly a new name and even his climbing ability isn’t new given he started the season with a win in the Volta ao Algarve, was second to Richie Porte on the Col de la Croix de Chaubouret summit finish in Paris-Nice and then matched the best in the recent Tour de Suisse. It was a pleasant surprise to see Robert Gesink finish sixth after so much misfortune in his career and Mathias Frank finally got the breaks he needed too. Ruben Plaza, aged 35, was a strange revelation of the race with a stage win and powerful racing in the third week. More promising was the debut riding by Warren Barguil who handed the first week very well, the Yates Brothers saved Orica-Grenedge and Alexis Vuillermoz was excellent too. Merhawi Kudus and Emmanuel Buchmann get mentions for decent rides for their age.
After revelations, who was invisible? Cofidis had a terrible time once Nacer Bouhanni crashed out and climbers Nicolas Edet and Dani Navarro didn’t compensate, viewers in France saw the jersey more during ad breaks than in the race. Michał Kwiatkowski had a sad Tour, a loyal team mate before he abandoned but we know he can do so much more. Thomas Voeckler, la langue française, was almost as absent as ex-speaker Daniel Mangeas. Of course The biggest flops go to Luca Paolini who managed to test positive for cocaine and Lars Boom who showed up with low cortisol levels and not much else, he left the race ill before the Pyrenees and Astana started the race with a petit polémique over its MPCC membership. As Tours go one cocaine test and a quarrel over MPCC was as scandalous as it got.
The battle for the best climber competition never got going. Iconic, popular and celebrating its 40th anniversary, the polka dot jersey wasn’t feted like it should be. Daniel Teklehaimanot’s first week efforts feel more exciting than the Pyrenees and Alps combined. What do do?
As the curtain falls on the 2015 Tour de France was this the race we hoped for? No because we never got the contest between the Big Four that had been so enticing for so much of the year. Everyone survived the opening week but with hindsight La Pierre Saint Martin was too much too soon. It set a test that Froome won and others blew, the Briton’s success accentuated by the implosion of Nibali and Contador that day.
The Tour is a play with 21 acts and multiple story lines and if the Big Four was quickly reduced to one, the daily fight for stage wins kept the entertainment going, think of Stephen Cummings, Simon Geschke, Romain Bardet or Thibaut Pinot and the manner of their wins from breakaways.
The Alpine finale proved exciting as Nairo Quintana tried his best and reduced Froome’s lead to a relatively slender margin, the 11th narrowest lead despite a race where you have to go back to 1969 to find a top-20 spread so far apart. Close but Froome was tested on the plains, over the pavé, up the passes, down the passes and even in the pressroom. He won every time.