With the route of the 2015 Tour de France just announced, it’s timely to reflect on what we got this year, and what it may tell us about next July.
Was it good for you?
No, this isn’t a When Harry Met Sally moment. I’m referring to this year’s Tour de France, and whether you felt like you got bang for your buck. Were you duly compensated for three-and-a-half weeks’ worth of sleepless nights?
With the Grand Tour triumvirate done and dusted for another season it’s easy to forget, but with the route of next year’s course announced just recently, it’s worth revisiting Tour de France Edition 101.
The obvious talking point is the overall winner, Vincenzo Nibali. We have to go back fourteen years, the year Jan Ullrich won, to find a winner who won by so much. Ullrich, in the 1997 Tour, bested Richard Virenque and Marco Pantani by 9’09 and 14’03, respectively; similarly, Nibali trounced Frenchmen Jean-Christophe Péraud and Thibaut Pinot by 7’37 and 8’15 this year.
Off the back of a stint racing in Northern Europe, 1997 was the first year I went to see La Grande Boucle up close, and my golly, was it ever a sight to behold… bigger and better than I imagined, and subconsciously or otherwise, it cemented my love affair with the sport and my desire to derive an income from it. (Though judging from my results, or rather lack of, and witnessing the speeds the pro’s were going up the climbs during Generation EPO, I knew it wasn’t going to come from riding a bike unless I too began to dance with le diable du dopage…)
Notable was that Nibali was questioned about his performances much less than his Tour-winning predecessors Christopher Froome and Bradley Wiggins. It is perhaps, though, a consequence of the steady progression he’s shown over the dozen Grand Tours he’s done to date: from 19th overall in his first three-week tour at the 2007 Giro d’Italia; to three years and five Grand Tours later winning the Vuelta a España; three years after that dominating his home tour at the 2013 Giro; then one year and two months after that, being crowned champion on the Champs-Élysées.
Rather, the majority of speculation revolved not so much around his physical performance per se, but whether he would have won in the presence of Froome and Alberto Contador.
It’s true that Froome was in fine fettle coming into the race, as evidenced by his sixth place on the first stage to Harrogate and briefly distancing his GC companions the next day on the run into Sheffield, before Nibali countered two kilometres out and won, thereby assuming the maillot jaune. However he had not ridden enough of the race to say with any real authority what may have happened, and the fact is that while Nibali avoided the opening week melee Froome found himself part of it on no less than three occasions, even if his initial spill on Stage 4 was not of his doing.
Contador lasted twice as long and for my mind looked like a man who came to win. His little test on Stage 8 to Gérardmer La Mauselaine, where, although he gained just three seconds on Nibali, was nevertheless a psychological success – setting the scene for a thrilling tenth stage to La Planche des Belles Filles. We still don’t know exactly what happened, though if the accounts by some riders around him at the time of his crash are correct, it appeared Bertie was taking unnecessary risks in attempting to move up on the treacherous descent of the Petit Ballon when he was already near the front, and reaching for the back-pocket is never a good idea on a patchy piece of pavement…
However, again it’s impossible to say Contador would’ve done this or that. While a degree of luck is involved, most riders will also tell you that one makes their own luck – and through fate or circumstance neither Froome nor Contador managed to do that. Their actions, in part or whole, compromised their propensity to make said luck. Nibali, on the other hand, through meticulous preparation and innate racecraft, already enjoyed two-and-a-half minutes on Contador after the cobblestoned fifth stage and had Froome stayed upright probably would have had at least that on him, too. Against the imperious Sicilian, would either of them have got that back on the subsequent four mountaintop finishes in the Alps and Pyrenees?
It’s worth noting Nibali conceded not a single second – not even one! – to any of his GC rivals on any stage. I’m sure ‘Lo Squalo di Messina‘, or the Shark of Messina as he’s nicknamed, wouldn’t take kindly to the comparison and would soon show his teeth, but you have to go back to the Armstrong/Postal years to find another Tour like it.
Also of note is that the top six placegetters from the stage to La Planche des Belles Filles ended up being the top six riders in the final classification almost two weeks later, albeit in different order. As in 2012 it proved that the Vosges is worthy of its place as the third massif of Le Tour, and rather than save all the suspense or have the race contingent on the Alps and/or Pyrenees, organisers ASO will continue to employ this series of short but sharp mountains within this verdant region of eastern France every few years to maintain interest throughout the race.
After the ’97 Tour, most pundits, myself included, predicted we would bear witness to an era where Ullrich would dominate not unlike Miguel Indurain before him – but then along came Pantani and some guy called Lance…
I do wonder if Nibali will be a one-Tour wonder, since he’s already talking about attempting the Giro-Tour double next year. In this highly specialised age of Grand Tour riding, I reckon two’s a bit too much; riding two, yes, winning two, no. After all, the last guy to achieve such a feat was his own compatriot Pantani, and we now all know it wasn’t accomplished on bread and water alone. To beat Froome, Contador and Nairo Quintana next July will require the same singularly focused dedication from ‘Nibbles’ – but here we have a man who likes to buck tradition and set new challenges for himself even if it means finishing second, as he did last year when he rode the Vuelta on the back of his Giro win.
You may have noticed I didn’t say ‘to beat Péraud and Pinot’, second and third in this year’s Tour, nor did I mention Alejandro Valverde, Tejay van Garderen or Romain Bardet, occupants of places fourth to sixth. Seventh-placed Leopold König? He’s an interesting one; put him in the right team, offer the right support, and it could be Czech-mate. Haimar Zubeldia, eighth? Nah. Did nothing except suck wheels. Laurens ten Dam and Bauke Mollema, ninth and tenth? You only need to refer to the final time trial to see it was a case of Belkin Meltin’… (My SBS Television colleague Mike Tomalaris has a better chance of making the podium than these guys.)
While it’s fantastic we’ve seen a renaissance in French cycling, don’t expect to see them occupy the top step in Paris anytime soon. Péraud, at 37, is on his last legs, while Pinot and Bardet have a long way to go before being truly competitive with the likes of Nibali, Froome and Contador. Similarly, Valverde’s time as a three-week stage racer is effectively over since in Quintana his Movistar team have a bona fide winner-in-waiting. As for van Garderen the young American was no better than Pinot or Bardet in the mountains though I did like his mental fortitude in hanging tough after his opening week crashes, when he could easily have thrown the game away; that said, I’m still not convinced he’ll one day win the Tour. Out of this year’s top ten, and aside from Nibali, of course, I think Bardet’s got the best chance of going all the way.
Don’t forget, Nibali and Froome are still only 29 years old and have plenty of Grand Tours left in them. Contador is 31; Quintana and his Colombian counterpart Rigoberto Uran are 24 and 27 – then you have a new breed of superstars like König, Rafal Majka, Wilco Kelderman, Peter Kennaugh, the Yates twins…
You only have so many years as ‘the next big thing’ before you either become that person or get pushed aside. I’m sure one day a book will be written about it with the headline: ‘Origin of Tour de France Species: Survival of the Fittest’.