Lessons from the Tour de France
This year's Tour was one of the most exciting to date. We look back on the race's most riveting moments and explore its most important trends.
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The centenary Tour picked up where last year’s race left off with Team Sky bulldozing everything and everyone (almost) from the front. You could say it looked a little different than 2012 because the British outfit subbed in Chris Froome for Sir Bradley—then again, Froome was at the tête de la course in 2012 and was arguably the strongest man in the race then, too. It must burn him at least a tiny bit to know this could have been his second Tour title, though you’d never hear it from the Kenyan-born Brit, who is as gracious and soft-spoken off the bike as he is unrelenting and ruthless on it.
Fortunately Sky’s second win wasn’t as monotonous as its debut. The team left Froome isolated for over 100 kilometers in the Pyrenées on Stage 9 and then ceded time to Team Saxo in the wind on the Stage 13 finale, which made for exciting racing.
The fact that Froome never came under any true pressure in spite of those snafus speaks to just how superior he was in this race. His winning margin of four minutes and 20 seconds is the largest since Lance Armstrong’s victory over Ivan Basso in 2005 (and the true margin is nearly a full minute faster as Sky gave away 53 seconds on the Champs Élysées to cruise in together after the peloton).
While Froome’s airtight win is impressive, so is the fact that Sky has won the race with two separate riders two years consecutively. Not only that, but like last year when Wiggins and Froome went one-two, Froome’s chief lieutenant Richie Porte was arguably the second strongest rider in the race. At only 28 years old, Froome is already talking about next year. Combined with Sky’s ease at churning out grand tour contenders (think: Wiggins, Froome, Porte, Rigoberto Úran, Sergio Henao), the rest of the peloton must surely wonder if we’re in for another US Postal-esque dynasty.
A New Climbing Sensation
Froome aside, the sensation of this Tour was the pint-size Colombian climber Nairo Quintana. While Froome easily dispatched high-profile GC contenders including Cadel Evans, Ryder Hesjedal, Alberto Contador, and Bauke Mollema as soon as the grades got steep, he couldn’t always shake Quintana.
On Stage 20’s final climb to the summit of Semnoz, the 23-year-old countered Froome’s late-race attack and then rode tempo right past him to win his first Tour de France stage. With the move, Quintana not only locked up the Young Rider classification but wrested the climber’s jersey off the shoulders of Froome to become the first racer in history to win both the white and polka jerseys.
The last closest feat came in 1969, when Eddy Merckx won the maillot jaune, polka dots, and green jersey at age 24—at the time there was no young rider’s white jersey. Quintana is no Merckx, but he showed a maturity and consistency that makes him the only rider in the race that looked capable of unseating Froome in the years to come.
A Weakened Spanish Armada
Before the race, it was thought that if anyone could dethrone Sky, it would be the one-two-three punch of the Spanish trio of Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde, and Joaquim Rodriguez. Each is known for producing searing accelerations that many thought could throw a pedal wrench into Sky’s steady, steam-engine approach. And yet when the road went up, it was Porte who left the Spaniards gasping and Froome that spun out attacks with such a fierce cadence that it often looked like he was pedaling downhill.
None of the Spaniards had bad races, per se. Valverde, in particular, was tracking well in second overall when an ill-timed puncture—he flatted as the echelons formed on Stage 9 with no access to neutral support—jettisoned his GC hopes. Rodriguez started out very slowly but produced an almost miraculous turnaround by race end to sneak into third overall. And while Contador showed his usual tactical shrewdness and fighting spirit and sat in second on GC until the penultimate stage, he fizzled to fourth overall on the Stage 20 climb to Semnoz.
More often than not in the mountains, El Pistolero looked leaden and slow, a shadow of the rider who once dispatched everyone with his bouncing, snappy style. And yet Contador has already said that Froome’s dominance gives him fresh motivation to reload for next year. But if one things clear after this Tour it’s that if the Spaniards hope to unseat Froome, they are going to have to find another gear or three.
Not Quite Swiss Perfection
BMC Racing gets the award for most abysmal Tour. They came into the race talking big about their overall chances with not one but two racers, but at the final tally Cadel Evans and Tejay Van Garderen finished 39th and 45th respectively, both over 90 minutes off the pace.
It was always doubtful that Evans could be recovered in time to realistically challenge for the podium after his surprise third place at the Giro d’Italia in May, but no one would have predicted such an implosion. Van Garderen’s underwhelming showing is even more startling on the heels of his victory at the Tour of California, though in his defense his near miss on Alpe d’Huez was a valiant effort.
Still, something is clearly amiss at BMC. Not only did they miss multiple opportunities for stage victories at the Tour, but several of their riders, including world champ Philippe Gilbert, have underperformed all year. Management at the team has apparently taken note as John Lelangue resigned from his post as sport director.
The Sprinting Scene
Mark Cavendish must be heading home envious of German Marcel Kittel, who upstaged him as the most prolific stage winner at this Tour. Kittel won four stages, including the prestigious final charge down the Champs Élysées, to Cav’s two. In fairness, it’s not like Cavendish did badly—the vast majority of riders in the peloton would be thrilled to win a single Tour stage in their entire career, while the Manxman logged his 25th stage victory during this centenary. However it does seem that the days when Cav could win whenever and however he pleased are over, at least until Omega Pharm-Quick Step sorts out his ideal lead-out train.
It’s all a moot point in terms of the Green Jersey, though, as Peter Sagan is likely to continue to collect the sprinter’s classification as long as he pleases. Not only can he invariably collect points on the hilly days that stymie the other fast men, but he’s surprisingly capable at mixing it up in the flat-out sprints as well. He was right up there in fourth on the Champs Élysées.
Tour de Doubt
Though no rider tested positive at this Tour—and let’s hope it stays that way—there was plenty of doping talk throughout. Sky almost begged for the skepticism given how bulletproof Froome appeared, especially early in the race, and how dominant the team has been for the entirety of the last two seasons.
When the Brit followed his mop-up in the Pyrenees by slaughtering everyone in the Mont Saint-Michel time trial on Stage 11, cynics immediately saw shadows of Lance Armstrong. Following on the innuendo of Antoine Vayer, armchair analysts came out of the woodwork with power and VAM estimates that they said “proved” that Froome must be doping.
Of course there is no such proof, meaning that by continually focusing on the specter of doping we could well be missing one of the greatest clean victories in Tour history. Then again, the skepticism is inevitable and warranted in light of the breach of trust of the Armstrong years and beyond.
Froome has taken the accusations in stride and insists that the public trust him. “[The scrutiny] is 100 percent understandable given the history of the sport. And I accept that,” Froome said at the winner’s press conference following Stage 20. And he concluded on the podium the following night, “This is one yellow jersey that will stand the test of time.”
That’s a line we’ve heard many times before. Hopefully this time it’s true.