What did I learn after watching every stage of this year’s three-week race? The supertuck needs to go, Peter Sagan is as entertaining as ever, and Stage 17 was epic.
The lead-out to this year’s Tour de France was dark, with 2017 champion and prohibitive favorite Chris Froome caught up in a protracted doping investigation over his use of an asthma medication. But despite the cloud of scandal, plus a few favorites crashing out early and none of the high-horsepower sprinters making it over the mountains, the 2018 Tour de France was the most hotly contested and thrilling edition in years. Until the final time trial—which was decided by a single second—three riders were within two minutes and 37 seconds of the Yellow Jersey with the final two spots on the podium still up for grabs. There was “grinta” galore, lunatic descending, reckless attacking, and, ultimately, a new champion, Welshman Geraint Thomas, a rider who wasn’t even on most people’s dark horse list. Here are our picks for the best and worst of July’s chase for yellow.
Best Medieval Torture Device: Cobblestones
With an eye toward upping the drama of non-mountain stages, organizers packed more brutal cobblestone into Stage 9 than any in history—15 “sectors” of dusty rocks as smooth as baby heads. Each time the road pinched it was game on, as the entire field fought to close gaps. If it rained it would have been total carnage. As it was, the dust on granite was like ice in spots. Somehow, the remaining favorites survived the day—proving themselves as hard men. Romain Bardet was heroic as he repeatedly fought back to the front. It was even possible to feel empathy for Chris Froome whose Sky squad foolishly drove the pace from the front of the field and ultimately put its own riders at risk on the dusty corners.
Best New Development: The Mountain Crit
Criteriums are urban bike races that follow a circuit and pretty much go full tilt from the gun. That’s what Tour organizers envisioned in the Stage 17, except here the route would climb over three Pyrenean mountain passes in only 65 kilometers—the shortest non-time-trial stage in more than 30 years. Despite a bold move by Movistar that set up Nairo Quintana for the stage win, the fireworks didn’t happen until the final climb, which saw Chris Froome crack and his teammate Geraint Thomas secure yellow. If more cobbles and short mountain stages were designed to enliven the Tour, they certainly did so.
Best Rule Enforcement: A Future of Strict Time Cut-Offs
Field sprints in the Tour have been a joke since the 1980s. The big powerhouse sprinters can’t really hang in the mountains so, historically, the organizers have looked the other way when the burly boys would grab team cars for tows. Worse, race officials would also pardon sprinters en masse when the “grupetto” (the soft pedaling herd behind the race) would miss the time cutoff. It’s seems that the Tour is done with the accommodations. A few hard Alpine stages (notably Stage 11 which was only 108-kilometers long and therefore had a shorter cutoff window) early in the race sent most of the lummoxes—Andre Greipel, Marcel Kittel, Dylan Groenewegen, and Fernando Gaviria—packing along with aging phenom Mark Cavendish. By placing short steep mountain stages earlier in the race, the tour seemed to willingly shed bigger riders. It’s been theorized that the intention is to recruit more fast and powerful athletes that can actually ride over mountains—like Peter Sagan—to contest for field sprints in the future. We like that idea.
Best Trend: Rise of the Strong Men
Most Americans don’t know it, but the greatest bike racing on the pro tour happens in the spring, when tough and versatile racers—think of less waif-like George Hincapie and Fabian Cancellara types—battle it out in a series of one-day races on rough, cobbled, muddy, cold roads. They’re called the Spring Classics. Possibly because of the cobble stage, many of the spring stars showed up at this year’s Tour. John Degenkolb won the Roubaix stage. And a crew of strong, well rounded racers animated this year’s Tour: Greg Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert, Julian Alaphilippe, Sonny Colbrelli, and of course (see previous entry) Peter Sagan, who can do anything on a bike.
Best Daily Coverage: The Move
Lance Armstrong started his Tour podcast last year, with support from Outside. It continued as The Move this July, and we once again hosted it on our website. So yeah, full disclosure, we’re slightly biased, etc. But the real reason his podcast made this list? Because he’s a pariah, Lance is beholden to nobody. That allows the disgraced seven-time champion to call the racing and cycling culture as he sees it. He rips organizers, team directors, and hypocritical former dopers ruthlessly. An example: “Marc Madiot the manager of Team FDJ, says cycling and the Tour de France has a credibility problem. And this coming from a guy who during his career admitted to taking amphetamines and cortisone and no telling what else. As far as I’ve known him, he was a guy that would take everything but the kitchen sink. How can Madiot say that with his history?” What’s more, it would appear that the Tour boosters at NBC took notice. On the whole, their 2018 coverage was a lot less pollyanna-ish than in the past. Bob “Bobke” Roll even called into Lance’s show this year.
Lance to Bobke: “We’ll get you on The Move and you can drop the F-bomb.”
Bobke: “That sounds fun.”
MVP: Peter “Makes Party” Sagan
He contests for every sprint, but he also throws down in long-range breakaways that, on paper, dosen’t suit him, and when the mood strikes, he guts out climbs faster than half the field. He’s also the most charismatic guy in the peloton, in an Andy Kaufman meets John Travolta-in-Slovakia way. And nobody is more quotable in a post-stage interview.
Best Use of the Tour de France as Recovery Ride: Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin
Winning the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in the same season has been called impossible in the modern era, but Froome won the Giro in May and stood on the third step of the Tour podium in Paris. He was just behind Tom Dumoulin in France, whereas Dumoulin was second in the Giro. They came into the Tour playing possum, claiming low expectations, but if not for an unfortunate puncture (Dumoulin) and one bad day (Froome) either one could have won the whole shebang. We’re cool with this trend that pays homage to the grand tour riders of yesteryear.
Best French Lesson: This Song that NBC Kept Playing...
Now we know how to pronounce Champs d'Elysees—and we have a catchy jingle to annoy our children with. “Oh Champs d'Elysees, Champs d'Elysees…”
Best Show of Philippe Gilbert’s Grit
He was a breakaway machine and a selfless teammate throughout the race. He also shattered his kneecap as he chased a stage win and tumbled over a stonewall. Except “Phil Gil” got back on the bike and rode another 60 kilometers to finish the stage. Can you blame him for abandoning the Tour after his left leg did this?
Best PR Makeover: Team Sky
It’s hard not to hate on Team Sky: Wiggins and that mysterious package. Froome and that bizarre asthma medicine finding. How they race based off of power meters rather than instinct and heart. How skinny and unlike you and me they are. The budget that pays even super domestiques like Mikal Kwiatkoski $1 million. The way they’re just so damn good. But then there’s Geraint Thomas, who headed into the Tour as a former domestique and possible pinch hitter in case Froome got punted by the UCI in July. His unexpected emergence in the maillot jaune not only prevented a tainted Chris Froome victory, it gave Sky a rare feel-good story. Cheers to Thomas for putting Wales on the map—and for giving the Tour, for now at least, the appearance of a clean champion.
Dan Martin for his ill advised but lionhearted attacks that earned him the combativity prize for the Tour’s most aggressive rider.
Teams Lotto-Jumbo and Movistar for finally challenging the Sky juggernaut.
A taste of steep gravel. Steep dirt is old school for the Tour. But it’s also all the rage in recreational cycling. Hopefully Stage 10 was a sign of future gravel routes in the Tour.
And a shout-out to the Aussie TV feed for introducing us to idioms like (and these are best read aloud in Crocodile Dundee voice): “He’s got the bit in his teeth and he likes the taste.” And: “Bringing a dog to a bike race is like bringing a shark to a pool party.”
And Now for a Few Dishonorable Mentions
The stupid grid start on Stage 17 that did nothing for the race. A senseless gimmick that should be abandoned henceforth.
The stupid and dangerous supertuck (ass on top tube) that resulted in Philippe Gilbert’s crash and that likely will result in many more overcooked corners in the coming years.
The stupid Euro fans that crashed out Vincenzo Nibali.
The stupid gendarme (plural) that teargassed the peloton.
- And the stupid gendarme (singular) that tackled Froome.