The years go by and the result is the same as Chris Froome wins his fourth Tour de France in five years. This year was different with a trio of inseparable riders in the mountains where the contest was so close that they were scrapping over time bonuses, if not to beat Froome then at least to ensure place on the podium. But like last year Froome built his win in the time trials, dominating them in Düsseldorf and dispatching them in Marseille.
There was never the knockout blow that Sky have delivered in the past whether at Ax-Trois Domaines or La Pierre Saint Martin. This was both deliberate and accidental. The course was designed to avoid an early high altitude summit finish; and Chris Froome never looked capable of achieving this. But if the course had been different with a big summit finish showdown perhaps Froome would have prepared differently?
The chart shows Chris Froome’s win was built on the two time trial stages. He established a gap at the start, defended it for the best part of three weeks, then extended it in Marseille. Düsseldorf was as much as psychological victory for Team Sky as it was a stage win with Geraint Thomas and four riders in the top-10 while supposed challengers BMC Racing’s fourth rider was 43rd and their leader Richie Porte wasn’t among them. The mini polemic over Sky’s skinsuit only helped more with the mindgames and got the media asking Sky about cloth rather than corticosteroids even if tempers flared over the team’s media strategy as the team once again walked headlong into another publicity trap marked “TRAP” as they continue to show themselves as a team capable of prosecuting a sporting campaign but struggling to win hearts and minds. Chris Froome and his improving French helps with the locals but large parts of the British media from cyclingnews to national newspapers have an uneasy relationship with the team.
The opening week quickly saw Marcel Kittel establish himself as the best sprinter in the race and giving the new German audience something to cheer. Five stage wins and in what looked like such a relaxed style, a team mate would lead out the sprint from afar early, force the others to launch too early and Kittel would make his long sprint to surge past in the final metres. Kittel is photogenic, even the photofinish cameras loved him.
The opening phase of the race served up many sprint finishes but it really missed a sprint rivalry. Arnaud Démare won a stage but only after Kittel was removed from the contest by an earlier crash. That day was dominated by Peter Sagan’s exclusion from the race. With hindsight even docking him points and relegating him, the UCI jury’s initial decision, seemed harsh but the subsequent decision to eject from the race was mistaken and looked rushed, as if they’d reviewed the video footage, seen an elbow and judged on the spot rather than deliberating and calling in those involved to explain themselves. The refereeing of the race became a theme in part because the rulebook and its application can now be crowdsourced, whereas once it was an official surveying from a motorbike now it’s multichannel TV and social media. But like those unwritten rules the final decision is still internal to the race rather than outsiders. The tension is widened further by the lack of explanation, accounts still differ on why Sagan was ejected, consensus is that it was the elbow in the finishing straight, L’Equipe reported it was for the previous crash but there’s no official account… and no accountable officials.
This brings us to another of the themes of this year’s race: the Counter Factual. Historians enjoy asking if one event or decision had turned out differently what would have happened to the world as a consequence? If it had been dry in Düsseldorf then it would not have been globally significant but what would Alejandro Valverde have done during the race? If Peter Sagan had not been ejected by the commissaires would Team Sunweb’s success only have been half as good? If Richie Porte had not fallen on the descent of the Mont du Chat would Romain Bardet have stood on the podium in Paris, would Chris Froome have won? The point here is not to go down the rabbit hole of speculation, just to note that the final results were shaped as by the actions of those absent in Paris as well as those who made it to Paris. History gets written by the winners but a blog can at least remind us of the losers too.
Indeed the absence of the big teams and their stars was theme this year. Movistar lost Alejandro Valverde on the first day and Nairo Quintana looked as stale as a three day baguette. BMC swapped last year’s two pronged approach for one leader for the Tour only for Richie Porte to go from the form pick to hospital following his crash down the Mont du Chat. This left BMC Racing orphaned and if Damiano Caruso rode to a creditable 11th overall they never weighed on the race much.
Next year’s race will see teams reduced from nine riders to eight. Team Sky did this when Geraint Thomas crashed out on Stage 9 and they still dominated. Christian Knees, Luke Rowe and Vasil Kiryienka towed the peloton across the plains while Mikel Nieve, Mikel Landa and Michał Kwiatkowski took over in the mountains; Sergio Henao didn’t seem as convincing but did his work too. The records will show Froome won but his Polish worker deserves a share of the credit. There is talk of Mikel Landa going to Movistar but why would the world’s wealthiest team let go of such a potent potential rival? Presumably only because another team can guarantee leadership for the grand tours but surely Sky will do their best to retain Landa’s service.
Fabio Aru took a stage and the yellow jersey but fell ill and he still has the look of a dilettante in the Tour, capable of winning the Giro or Vuelta but not yet the Tour. He suffered from the lack of a strong team but Astana never had big plans for July, Aru was supposed to target the Giro until a knee injury changed his plans while injury kept Miguel Ángel López out of the Tour leaving them with a squad padded with Kazakhs yet to make a name for themselves. Jacob Fuglsang crashed out but their time together wasn’t a roaring success, see how the collaborated with Froome on the road to Chambéry rather than picking him off.
Rigoberto Urán made the podium without ever challenging for the win. By some measures he rode the perfect race, never making a mistake and never taking a risk. For others, especially Bardet’s fans in France he was a wheelsucker but they’d do well to remember that Urán’s pursuit of Froome through the Casse Déserte helped tow Bardet onto the podium too. It’s an interesting scenario for Cannondale-Drapac, a huge result for a low budget team. Perhaps it’s one that doesn’t get consumers dreaming of Cannondale bikes but it can certainly reassure and attract much needed new sponsors. He’s only 30 having turned pro as a teenager Urán has led a life unlike many and if you’ve yet to read the interview with him over at Alps and Andes then take a moment to do it. Many pros have come a long way whether Chris Froome from Kikuyu or Yukiya Arashiro from the tiny Pacific island of Ishigaki but few profiles open with a line like “When Rigoberto Urán was only 14 years old, his father was gunned down near Urrao” and it tells how he took over his father’s role as bread earner selling lottery tickets in the street.
Romain Bardet makes the podium again but in a different manner. Last year he needed a coup d’audace, this time it was his coup de pédale as he matched Chris Froome in the mountains and even got the better of him in the two summit finishes albeit by seconds, sometimes just bonus seconds. It’s a result for him and his team, a tricky second album tops the charts. Ag2r La Mondiale as a whole were enterprising and even if they could never go mano a mano – should it be gamba a gamba? – with Sky, they still took up the fight, especially on the descents when nobody else did. If their mountain train didn’t match Sky it was instrumental in derailing Fabio Aru and therefore helping to put Bardet on the podium. Bardet now faces a dilemma, to improve his time trialling at the expense of his climbing. Or does he? From the comfort of a sofa it’s perhaps not so dichotomous, he thinks about a better skinsuit, a more profiled helmet and improved corner lines before worrying about adding bulk to his thighs and bulk that could subtract from his climbing. Plus he was simply ill in Marseille, in Düsseldorf he was matching the likes of Richie Porte.
There was a wide cast of supporting actors. Lilian Calmejane took an impressive stage win made more thrilling by his late cramps. Despite Thibaut Pinot’s fatigue and Julian Alaphilippe’s absence the French had plenty to cheer and Warren Barguil was a home hit, finally confirming his promise with two stage wins and the mountains jersey, a competition whose worth rises and falls but this year finds a fitting winner. Barguil almost had a third stage win but was in tears after being beaten by Urán in Chambery when many others might be satisfied that day with second place and the polka dot jersey but he feared this only meant his luck was still out. Antoine Blondin often wrote “deviens ce que tu es“, the Nietzschean “become who you are” with the open road as a terrain for self-expression. Barguil epitomised this as he did as he pleased and he told the media he won’t race for GC because he can’t sit tight on a mountain stage nor aim to limit his losses in the time trials so his future looks like more stage wins and polka dot jerseys although who’d rule out the Vuelta and Liège-Bastogne-Liège someday too? With a year left on his contract how Team Sunweb combine him, Tom Dumoulin and Michael Matthews is a luxurious dilemma for the small but cohesive and coordinated team.
Alberto Contador attacked but he also crashed and this wasn’t the Tour he aimed for and if his move on the road to Foix helped stir things up the stage was already a boiling pot and on the other stages he wasn’t the catalyst the race needed to get things burning. His final time trial form suggest the Vuelta’s looking good and is due to announce his future soon, probably a Giro-Vuelta double next year.
Michael Matthews inherited the green jersey after his rivals fell away but this was no lucky accident, he’d been hunting for the jersey as evidenced on his Jurassic raid on Stage 9 to reach the intermediate sprint when others could not and if the stage to Rodez had his name on it for a long time his win in Romans was the result of another breakaway with strong backing from his Sunweb team.
Simon Yates took the white jersey in a discreet manner, he and Louis Meintjes were often close to the action but not yet part of it. Dan Martin is another of those counter-factuals because he had Richie Porte fall in front of him down the Mont du Chat and it was minor miracle he only lost a minute a bit plus some skin. Maybe the podium would have been a step too far but a stage win or two were within his grasp. George Bennett didn’t make it to Paris but showed he could climb with the best.
Once again the list of stage winners reads like a who’s who of big names, not a single upstart or plucky underdog although the likes of Wanty-Groupe Gobert and Fortuneo-Oscaro did a fine job of enlivening the race for them the Coubertin aspect of taking part really does count and Yoann Offredo is now more familiar to millions in France after three weeks than years of spring classics. But for many teams this was a hard tour, no wins and little publicity.
Live coverage the entirety of every stage was new and it’ll odd to revert to races that are not shown in full. The advent of the cameras didn’t appear to affect the racing, the utility of going in a early breakaway on a stage set for the sprinters remains as low as ever despite the promise of extra publicity. Still television continues to shape the route and we will see if this continues but as a three week event the Tour, or at least for those who experience it wholly via television, will contain a part that Norwegians call Sakte-TV. The 101km stage from St. Girons to Foix was exciting but equally so was the 187km stage to Les Rousses. We’ll see what the global audience data says but it’s been a success in France, in large part thanks to domestic success but they refreshed the production and the commentary for France Télévisions too.
Chris Froome’s narrowest win when measured by time and it may prove his most satisfying so far, to have been tested and won. But as close as the contest was perhaps this will be his least memorable? It’s too soon to tell but previous wins have seen him deliver summit finish knockout blows and last year saw exploit the descents and crosswinds which won him new fans and some extra time. This time was defensive, close your eyes and try to picture a defining image of Froome this year and it’s hard to recall one, in large part because he missed out on a stage win and the iconography that accompanies this. Instead his rivals fell away, sometimes literally, and as much as Romain Bardet and his team tried to attack the Frenchman could only take metres rather than minutes, even if this was impressive progress by him. For once Froome had several rivals in the mountains including the surprise of Urán but this novelty was quickly banked as Aru faded and the trio of Froome, Bardet and Urán proved inseparable to leave an Alpine stalemate. The riders were on the same level, the course was curated to keep them close. Possibly the likes of Richie Porte and Alejandro Valverde could have unlocked this but we’ll never know. Instead, like Dumoulin in the Giro, the final time trial was an insurance policy tucked in Froome’s back pocket for two weeks. With hindsight Froome could have been beaten on the stage to Peyragudes and to Le Puy but easier said than done attacking the Sky train on a climb as linear as the Peyresourde or going clear on the Peyra Taillade with over 30km to the finish, especially with invaluable riders like Mikel Landa and Michał Kwiatkowski only too eager to work for their leader.
It’s a hypothesis here that the measure of a great tour is how often the yellow jersey changes shoulders and only three riders wore it this year, two of whom looked like they were trying it on for size rather than making plans to wear it in Paris. The contest was closer than ever but still the same result. Froome now has four wins and the fifth looks set to be his hardest challenge.