Chris Froome rides the Stage 13 time trial in the Ardèche. In a race where he’d taken seconds on descents and in the crosswinds, it was the time trials were he put minutes into his rivals and Stage 13 put him out of reach of all his rivals. This was the moment the race was won.
Marginal gains: In years past Chris Froome delivered a knock-out blow at Ax or La Pierre St. Martin whereas this time the story was more one of the steady accretion of seconds here and there. Froome’s biggest punch was landed on Stage 13, the 37.5km time trial in the Ardèche. It was a sombre day coming the morning after the terror attack in Nice, a day when the minute of silence mattered more than the minutes on the results sheet. The race went ahead and Tom Dumoulin won the day while Chris Froome put minutes into rivals. By contrast in all mountain stages whether uphill “summit” finishes or downhill dashes he only took a handful of seconds and sometimes lost time to his rivals.
Mirror, mirror up the wall: Stage 2 and the finish on the Côte de la Glacerie (Mirror Factory Hill) above Cherbourg was very instructive with hindsight. 27 riders finished in the same time as Peter Sagan and all final top-10 overall in Paris would make this front group with the exception of two riders. In other words this short hill was selective enough to give us a glimpse of who had it and who didn’t for the coming weeks. Vincenzo Nibali, Ilnur Zakarin, Thibaut Pinot and Alberto Contador were all on the wrong side of the split.
The first exception was Richie Porte after he punctured in the run-in and was accidentally ignored by his team, someone should have been with him but easier said than done on the dicey high speed approach. The noise of the crowd and the helicopters meant cries over team radio could not be heard but the split resources between him and Tejay van Garderen must also be to blame. A slow wheel change and a forlorn chase cost him 1m45s. This deficit cost Porte the podium but the Tour is more than an arithmetical contest and perhaps the loss and the opportunity to fight back unloaded the pressure that had previously burdened Porte? Porte often looked incisive in the mountains yet still went backwards, he lost time to his rivals thanks to boomerang attacks in the Alps and also paid a big price in the Ardèche time trial too.
The second exception was Louis Meintjes, 8th overall and just 0.41 a second behind Joaquim Rodriguez separated by the milliseconds counted during the two time trial stages. Cherbourg was only the start, he’d lose time on several flat stages after being caught on the wrong side of splits and the good news for him is that this can be corrected with race craft and more help from his team, Lampre-Merida rarely seemed to be surrounding him with help.
Where the race was won: Froome’s descent of the Peyresourde put him in the yellow jersey after Stage 8, a psychological win as opposed to the habitual first stage sucker-punch to his rivals and a victory for surprise rather than his W/kg ratio. Similarly Froome’s move on Stage 11 to Montpellier where he joined Peter Sagan was another psychological triumph, only a 12 second gain time bonus included but it showed him as active and in control were others, especially Nairo Quintana were on the receiving end of the Mistral wind.
The chart shows the GC standings in time relative to Froome over the three weeks. Richie Porte’s red line takes a dip after surrendering 105 seconds with his Cherbourg puncture and all riders lost time to him on Stage 8 after his Peyresourde descent. The big inflection comes on the Stage 13 when all of Froome’s rivals fell away in the time trial. It shows the paradox where we never got a contest for the yellow jersey yet the final top-10 is the closest ever with seven minutes between it, last year it was a more typical 17 minutes, it leaves a a feeling that Froome was never attacked yet the settled view that he could not be beaten.
Others were in the top-10 along the way before they faded, Bauke Mollema was riding high and a hope for the podium in Paris but began to slow in the Alps, he was dropped on the climb to the Emosson dam and lost time the next day in the Domancy time trial and then a crash the final day wrecked everything.
The Running Man: If there was one image of the Tour de France it’d be Froome running up Mont Ventoux. It was shocking because the TV footage arrived before knew what had happened, had he crashed, had a fan stolen his bike? It will be remembered for years but it just that, an image. In sporting terms it was inconsequential, both because the commissaires revised the day’s results and because even if Froome had lost time that day he’d have regained the yellow jersey in the following day’s time trial. To borrow from Zhou Enlai it could be soon to tell what the incident really meant, whether in terms of jurisprudence and precedent or for structural matters like the way the crowds are managed.
DNF and MIA: if Mollema was valiant others were simply not able to have a go. This year’s Tour had more flips and flops than a Brazilian beach and so many contenders fell by the wayside. Literally with Alberto Contador after his crash on the opening stage. He left the race and took his aggressive racing with him and would have been catalyst for the action that many were to miss in the mountain stages. Thibaut Pinot’s form was questionable before the start and we gradually got the answers, his exit marked a miss in a season where until the Dauphiné he’d hit the bullseye in almost every race he’d started. If Pinot has had a bad summer, Fabio Aru has had a dire year so far and his Dauphiné stage win was a mirage that distracted from his consistent absence in the mountains and come the Tour we only saw a spark of what he could do in the uphill time trial from Sallanches to Megève before his tragic implosion on the Joux Plane, a punishment tour of Spain awaits. Warren Barguil couldn’t improve on last year’s result, how much was down to the team’s collective crash in January is hard to know. Pierre Rolland was overhyped by a team in need of attention. Last year Tejay van Garderen said he wanted to join the Big Four contenders only to flounder after the second rest day, something he repeated again and a career review beckons. Even the omnipotent Team Sky had issues, they usually bring two GC contenders but Geraint Thomas was off the pace in the Tour de Switzerland and his results this year were worse than 2015.
Nairo Quintana was the biggest flop. Was he overrated? No, he’s been second twice in the Tour before. Was his approach wrong, staying in Colombia for months prior only to do the modest Route du Sud? Maybe but he did exactly that last year and finished second after giving Chris Froome a fright on the final two mountain stages so he was expected to return and repeat only with some more experience. He’d banked better early-season results this year too. We still don’t know what went wrong yet for all the disappointment he finishes third. If his attacks fell flat he never cracked.
Ça va barder!: Romain Bardet finishes second thanks to consistently good climbing and his bold move down the the Domancy road and up to Le Bettex. TV footage from the Ag2r La Mondiale team car shows manager Julien Jurdie issuing a message over the radio to his riders as they approach the descent: “be careful on the Domancy section, let’s make this safe, let’s make this safe“. Only at just the same point Bardet and Mikaël Cherel were attacking the descent and riding away. The move earned Bardet 23 seconds plus the 10 second time bonus, a small gain measured by time but a giant move when set against so many others who sat tight. This was enough to leapfrog other podium rivals and to become the French darling of the race and win support from many others. His audacity was also lucky because Chris Froome crashed behind and this slowed the chase behind but that’s racing and by putting himself ahead on such a risky section of the race Bardet bought an option on the stage win and then climbed up to secure it.
Could these contenders have challenged Team Sky? We’ll never know but in their absence we found the other rivals unable to escape the asphyxiating grip of Froome’s team especially Wout Poels, briefly a rival of Team Sky during the 2011 Vuelta a España and recruited last year. Others wanted to attack but could not overtake Team Sky’s train of millionaires.
This all lead to cries of “boring” and “Quintana must attack” as if the Colombian just wanted the quiet life or was a bicycling version of a stubborn mule that refused to budge, more Eeyore than El Condor de Tunja. He tried and couldn’t. In fact for all the promise of the high mountains it’s astonishing there was not a single meaningful uphill attack. Nobody, Froome included, launched a successful move on any of the big climbs. Yes there were attacks aplenty but nobody soared. Instead all the big GC contenders arrived in groups. Some of the action came from the wrong sources, the Ventoux crash and Froome’s slide on Stage 19 probably got hearts pumping on sofas and team cars alike.
For all the complaints about this year’s race recent vintages have not been thrillers either. Last year after the La Pierre St. Martin summit finish on Stage 10 the media were reduced to the “anything can happen” phrase, code for the race is locked down barring accident. In 2014 Vincenzo Nibali took yellow on Stage 2 and once Contador and Froome crashed he begun a victory lap of France. 2013 saw Froome and Sky lock down the race; 2012 was the same only with Wiggins.
Whether it’s the immediate frustration today or longer term concerns some are calling for “something to be done” to counter Sky’s dominance. Even race director Christian Prudhomme wants smaller teams, although he’s been calling for this before Sky became a GC threat. By regulatory hazard Team Sky’s latest annual accounts were published during the Tour de France and a post on here highlighted their financial superiority. It’s hard to find a single solution and even if we raise one, say a a salary cap, it’s not a question of yes or no but more about the how, why and who. The topic is worth a separate post someday soon.
Away from the general classification there was plenty of action and it was more than a consolation for views, the battles were of the highest quality. Mark Cavendish took four wins and wore the yellow jersey, one of the few prizes in the sport that had eluded him. It marked a surprise return to form and was also remarkable for the way the bunch sprints were less dominated by sprint trains with the contenders having navigate their own way through the final kilometre.
Look at the list of stage winners and it was quality every day, there were no plucky wins for the little guy and no crumbs for the smaller teams. Every time a breakaway stuck it was packed with hitters rather than passengers. This was most notable on Stage 10 when the race left Andorra for Revel and we got a Business Class breakaway of star riders, Michael Matthews won with help from his team as they found a way to beat Peter Sagan. Among all the stage winners IAM Cycling’s Jarlinson Pantano is arguably the weakest winner at least measured by his palmarès but his valiant efforts and fearless descending only speak to the quality of the winners: the Colombian was a star in the mountains.
Talking quality, what about Peter Sagan? What a difference a year makes as he was Slovakia’s answer to Raymond Poulidor after so many second places a year ago. Now he took three stage wins, wore the yellow jersey and wins the points jersey to the point and we almost forget he’s the world champion because we only saw the rainbow stripes for a few days. He was also a priceless helper, infiltrating breakaways and driving the pace to help Rafał Majka and Roman Kreuziger to achieve their own ambitions. Majka especially enlivened the mountain stages with relentless energy.
Revelations: Where there revelations? Yes Jarlinson Pantano had a great time but he’d landed a major win in last month’s Tour de Suisse. Julian Alaphilippe’s talent is not new but he displayed hitherto unknown powers of recovery to have a strong final week after numerous energetic displays; an impressive show but as veteran manager Cyrille Guimard icily remarked it was all à la Virenque because for all his flamboyance he wasted energy that could have been conserved for a win. He’s on a team that won’t settle for TV airtime and will win big soon but does he become a great stage poacher or does his climbing ability mean he’s a grand tour contender?
Adam Yates has to be the big reveal, tipped for years despite still being 23, he had a solid Dauphiné and hit the big time this July with fourth place overall and the white jersey, just 21 seconds off Nairo Quintana’s podium position and you wonder if a sneak attack down the Joux Plane could have brought him the podium. He probably worried it could have brought a ruinous crash and gifted the white jersey to Louis Meintjes, the other revelation. The African was runner-up in the white jersey competition aged 24 and also tipped for some time but climbing with the best in the mountains and often fending for himself while Rui Costa went on solo raids.
Finally a salute to the crowds. While there were a few imbeciles along the way they’re surely outnumbered by a ratio of hundreds out thousands to one. Millions cheered and they should be celebrated, one component of the Tour’s grandeur is the roadside support and the roaring soundtrack. Other sports events this month in France were cancelled but le Tour is too symbolic to stop. This is a national event that tours the country and is as much a socio-cultural phenomenon as a bicycle race. A massive police presence, overt and covert, was present, visit the finish area of a race and the crowd was packed with men in civilian clothes clutching walkie-talkies looking around at the crowd rather than the road, caravan or riders. If the race didn’t always deliver the athletic contest we crave, its repetitive presence brought a moral comfort to millions in France.
Three weeks of action with some great battles for the stages whether in the breakaways or the sprints. There wasn’t a single lucky break or a plucky fake. Rafał Majka proved a satisfying winner of the mountains competition and Peter Sagan was even run close for a while in the points competition before taking his fifth green jersey, one short of Erik Zabel’s six wins. Adam Yates was an impressive white jersey too.
Only once again the general classification lacked a visible contest. A vintage or Hollywood Tour requires the leader’s jersey to change shoulders often – if not daily then regularly – to give the public a show but once Chris Froome took the lead the battle faded. A hierarchy was established and the contest for first place ended but this has been the case for years now. Unlike recent editions the race for the podium continued but Froome’s team, notably Wout Poels, locked down the mountain stages to the point where those fighting for the podium spots paid for any attacks, the likes of Dan Martin would attack, get reeled in and then spat out the back. Even Froome didn’t attack successfully in the mountains. Instead he used the two time trials to distance everyone else for good. Romain Bardet found the way to undo Team Sky’s climbing strength was to use the downhills and took a deserved and celebrated second place, a moment of audacity built on top of daily consistency. It’s Froome’s third win and must be his most satisfying, not only because he joins Philippe Thys, Louison Bobet and Greg LeMond as a three time winner but because of the variety of his riding, he may have taken time in the time trials but he took applause on the descents and in the crosswinds.