Reflections on a Tepid Tour de France


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Photo: Shimano/Cor Vos

The Tour de France fizzled to a finish on Sunday, and for the first time in a decade I scarcely cared. That's because watching this Tour was as interesting as watching Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal/Discovery machine dismantle the race for seven straight years. (I mean really, it took vandals with carpet nails to add some drama.) After his unprecedented spring and Team Sky's utter control of the Dauphiné, Wiggins entered the race as the outright favorite, but nobody expected the domination that ensued. That commanding performance was good for Sky but bad for audiences and TV. Once Froome annihilated the opposition on Stage 7 and Wiggins pulled on the maillot jaune, the final result was a fait accompli. Yawn.

The lack of drama left me with plenty of time to ruminate on the good, the bad, and a few of the lesser story lines. So with hopes for a better race next season, here are a few things to be learned from this year's tepid Tour.

Though the victory was about as compelling as an English-language interview with Peter Sagan, you still have to respect Wiggins' win. Prior to 2009, the matter-of-fact Brit was a track cycling superstar with nary a thought of the Tour de France. The singular focus it took to transform himself to the GC man of the moment is both impressive and formidable. The Wiggins camp has credited his new training regimen, gleaned from swimming, and Team Sky has also taken an extremely analytical approach to winning, with oversight of everything from post-stage warm-downs to ice baths and highly regulated nutrition plans.

And yet you can't help but think that Wiggins' dominance is pushing credibility. This season alone, he has won Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie, the Dauphiné, and the Tour de France, a feat that's never before been achieved, even by the likes of Eddy Merckx. Can a cyclist naturally peak for months and months at a time? I expect a few of Wiggins' competitors may be drafting their own swim coaches to try and find out. But anyway, Wiggo's unrestrained tongue-lashing of the journalist who dared ask him about doping ranks as one of the most exciting and hilarious moments of the Tour.

Speaking of doping, I'd like to say I was surprised when Frank Schleck tested positive for the banned diuretic Xipamide, but we're so accustomed to this routine that the news barely even registered. Predictably, Schleck denies wrongdoing, and he's making noise about having been poisoned. Really? That's the best you've got? As one of the premier cyclists in the world you control every substance that goes into your body down to the last calorie, and yet you want us to believe someone slipped you a mickey?

Am I the only one thinking that whomever poisoned Schleck should have used nightshade or hemlock? At least that way we wouldn't have to endure another two years of meaningless trials.

You have to admire Team Sky. When they launched in 2009 with the stated goal of “creating the first British winner of the Tour de France within five years,” most in the sport had to choke back the sniggers. Not only has general manager David Brailsford turned that dream to jaune, but he's seemingly doubled-down with the emergence of Chris Froome, who was second to Wiggins and looked just as capable of winning the Tour as his team leader. Now who's laughing?

One recurring thread was the supposed strife between Wiggins and Froome and whether or not it would boil over into outright insurrection. Personally, this seemed more like media hype than anything, but you can hardly blame journalists for trying to find something—anything!—exciting to write about this Tour. Sky never waivered from its support for Wiggins (remember when Froome was left on his own on Stage 1 after he punctured?). And though Froome looked the stronger climber, his future (be it enlisting upcoming team support from Sky or soliciting a contract elsewhere) was always going to be best served by playing his part. Whether Sky can massage all its big pieces (think Froome, Mark Cavendish, Richie Port, Michael Rogers) into a cohesive team again remains to be seen.

An important side note: Cavendish's transformation from enfant terrible to classy world champ is complete. Even as he was doing team duty shuttling bottles for Wiggins and denied a dedicated lead-out train, the Manxman still managed to pick off three Tour stages. His masterful emergence from 20th wheel to the win on Stage 2 was a virtuoso performance and put to rest any doubts of his claim to the title of fastest man on the road.

The brightest light to shine beyond the otherwise black British freight train of this Tour was the lime green of Liquigas-Cannondale. Racing in his first Tour de France, the 22-year-old Slovak defied the pressure by roaring to three stage wins of his own and handily smudging out the competition for the green jersey. And the team's leader, Vincenzo Nibali, was the only contender who dared (or was able) to attack the Wiggins-Froome juggernaut, though he was (a little too) easily kept in check.

Rumor has it that Nibali will be lured away from Liquigas at the end of the season, which will leave the Italian team with a major GC hole. Given that they were the only team even approaching the level of Sky, it's tantalizing—though pure conjecture—to think of Liquigas taking on the Brits next year with none other than Froome at the helm. Let the trading conjecture begin.

Nearly as impressive as Wiggins was team Sky's daunting lineup of helpers. Of course there was Froome, who is a mean domestique considering he bested Wiggins at last year's Vuelta a España. But don't forget about the rest of the Sky guys, who patrolled the front of the peloton for virtually the entire race. On any other team, riders like Norwegian road race champ Edvald Boasson Hagen, three-time World Time Trial Champion Michael Rogers, and grand tour stage winner Richie Porte would be leaders in their own right; on Sky they were running blocking for Wiggins.

Perhaps the race's most impressive gregario, however, was BMC's Teejay Van Garderen, who finished fifth overall to eclipse defending champ Cadel Evans. And had he not been called back to wait for Evans at a few key moments, he might have edged higher. Van Garderen is young (just 23) and BMC is still publicly circling around Evans, but if the young Washingtonian continues his march—look for him to fight for the win at the USAPCC—BMC may have to rethink its 2013 plan.

The last time a Frenchman won the Tour was in 1986, when Bernard Hinault clinched his fifth title. It's been slim pickings for the home team since then, and the French have been pouting about it for over two decades.

Not so this year. Four French riders won stages in 2012, with Thomas Voeckler taking two finishes as well as emphatically securing the polka dot jersey for best climber. How can you not like a guy who looks like he's wrestling a warthog when he's riding a bike and who seemingly has no control over his facial expressions (as in here, here, here and here)?

Even better news is the emergence of 22-year-old Thibaut Pinot, who held off all the favorites to win the mountain-stuffed Stage 8. Despite being the youngest racer in the peloton, Pinot finished the Tour 10th overall, which holds a lot of promise for the future. Perhaps the French will finally stop sulking. But I doubt it.

It's tempting to lay some of the blame for the race ennui at the feet of director Christian Prudhomme. It's been said that he tailor-made this year's course for Wiggins as a means of enlisting British interest in an Olympics year. Yet when he unveiled the course last October, there's no way he could have known that Contador, for whom the 2012 course was equally well suited, would be sitting this one out. Nor could he have predicted the meltdown of the rest of the competition (Evans flatlined, Andy Schleck broke his pelvis, Frank Schleck got popped for doping, Garmin-Sharp crashed out on Stage 6). Still, with a rash of shorter stages, a focus on time trials, and a dearth of mountain finishes, the course was always destined to be a bit bland.

Prudhomme will certainly pull out all the stops for next year's 100th edition of the Tour, but what he really needs is some competition. He should get it in Contador, who will be back next year and looking to avenge himself. If there's one thing that could derail the Wiggins show, it's the Spaniard, whose attacking style doesn't suit the Brit's steam-engine approach. We have a year to wait and see.

In the meantime, I'm counting on Contador's return in August to make the Vuelta—like the 2012 Giro before it—a much more interesting race than the Tour. You get that Prudhomme? The Tour may not be the greatest bike race on the earth forever.

—Aaron Gulley