Our hats go off to Froome for an incredible performance thus far. But what happened to everyone else?
What’s meant to be the greatest bike race on earth is turning, yet again, into a monotonous, costly victory lap. With two-thirds of the racing done, Chris Froome looks as unassailable as he did in 2013 and 2015. Worse, none of his rivals look to have the disposition—or perhaps simply the legs—to unseat the Briton. If the race continues this week as it has since early July, 2016 will go down as the most tedious Tour de France triumph in recent history.
The race hasn't been without drama. On Stage 7, the kilometer-to-go banner collapsed when a fan inadvertently unplugged the pump that keeps it inflated, and the arch crashed down atop Best Young Rider Adam Yates and delayed the chasing peloton. Huge winds, nearly 80 mph, have buffeted the race, leading to major time gaps on the Stage 13 time trial to Pont d’Arc. Winds also forced organizers to shorten the finish on Stage 14’s ascent of Mont Ventoux.
Even with the course truncated, the Ventoux proved decisive, though not as race organizer ASO would have liked. In the midst of a major showdown in the finale, the crowds overwhelmed the riders, causing a crash among the leading trio of Richie Porte, Bauke Mollema, and Chris Froome that eventually saw the race leader abandoning his broken bike and running up the steep final pitches. Several riders reported being struck and punched by fans, and the melee lead to more controversy when video footage emerged afterward of Nairo Quintana holding onto a motorcycle—a brief move the Colombian said was necessary to avoid a motorcycle that nearly knocked him over. In both Stage 7 and 14, the race jury was forced to adjust times, leading to cries of bias in some corners.
So yeah, the Tour has been as melodramatic as a Trump rally, but that’s hardly the race excitement we anticipated. Given the depth of the field in this year’s event—including three-time champ Alberto Contador, 2014 victor Vincenzo Nibali, and his Vuelta-winning understudy Fabio Aru, and two-time runner-up Nairo Quintana—everyone had hoped for the hottest GC battle in years. But the truth is, since Contador crashed on Stage 1 (and eventually withdrew from the race) and Froome slipped into yellow on Stage 8, the Briton has looked invincible.
When the race followed the same script in previous years, for both Froome and his predecessor Bradley Wiggins, we blamed the monotony on Team Sky’s insipid but overwhelming tactics, in which the team simply rode everyone into the ground like automatons. But the truth is that this year Froome has shown surprising panache, seizing the lead with a raid on a descent on Stage 8, picking off a few more seconds by sneaking into a wind-addled escape at the finish of Stage 11, and, of course, running for the line atop the Ventoux, which may not have mattered to the results but certainly demonstrated how badly he wants the win.
By contrast, most of Froome’s chief rivals have shown little brio. Quintana, who looked the likeliest to take on the Briton going into the Tour, has mostly been Velcroed to Froome’s wheel, missing out multiple chances to attack (as on Stage 9 to Andorra Arcalis) and bleeding time the one instance he took some initiative (on the Ventoux). Meanwhile, Nibali and Aru have looked completely outclassed, with the isolated attack or two they’ve tried easily shut down by Sky’s phalanx of domestiques. The only real challenges have come from Dan Martin and Simon Yates, two young riders who aren’t rated as true GC threats because it’s thought they’re unlikely to have the stamina to push hard into the third week. Plus, their efforts on Stage 9 were brought to heel first by Sky’s dominant train and then, in what looked to be rather effortless, by Froome himself.
So what’s causing the stalemate? Perhaps it’s that many of the climbs at the Tour de France are steadier, shallower affairs than their equivalents in the Vuelta and Giro, which favors Team Sky’s steady pacemaking and inhibits pure climbers. Several times this race, Quintana has lamented that the terrain hasn’t been steep enough to make big differences. It’s possible that with the big budgets of today’s racing comes a certain reluctance for risk, as, seeing Froome’s dominance, riders and teams might be more inclined to shore up their positions than risk losing a podium spot entirely. Maybe, seeing Froome’s ascendancy, teams are saving their strength for when Froome will hopefully suffer a bad day, keeping the powder dry. Or perhaps Froome is just that much better than everyone.
The race has been punctuated by a constant refrain over Sky’s collective superiority, and it’s true that half the squad would be GC leaders if they rode for the majority of other Pro Tour teams. That allows the UK outfit to put strongmen on the front all day long who can ride hard enough to deter anyone from attacking. Without making any doping implications, it resembles Postal Service days of old when Lance Armstrong’s team chewed through the competition, though in this case we hope it’s simply because Sky’s massive £25 million budget has allowed them to stack up with top talent. Even Froome admitted that his team’s strength “must be demoralizing for people to have to think of attacking, knowing that this caliber of riding will be chasing them.”
The Tour is hardly over, a fact that Quintana returns to frequently with his refrain, “Queda mucho tour.” Starting Wednesday, the race will take on three massive mountain stages in the Alps, plus a climbing time trial. That means there’s still everything to ride for. And even though the South American is in fourth place at nearly four minutes back, he’s probably the best positioned to shake up the race, especially since his Movistar team is loaded with a bevy of talented climbers including 2015 runner-up Alejandro Valverde. Quintana proved last year that he has the mettle to take on Froome when he dropped the Briton on stage 20 and clawed back 1:38. Since that win wasn’t enough to put the Colombian on the top step, the other lesson that he—and every other racer—should have learned is that you can’t leave it all to the last.
It’s not just Quintana, either. Mollema, Yates, Martin, Richie Porte, and a few others find themselves in the unfamiliar position of not just verging on their best-ever Tour finish, but also within striking distance of a top place. Probably the only way any of them will have a chance of unseating Froome and Sky is if they hit him, over and over, with their collective effort. Even then it may not work, which is fine. All I’m asking for, all we spectators want, is a bit of spectacle and some good old fashioned, competitive excitement. It’s far too early for a victory procession.