VIVE LE TOUR
On Sunday, the 102nd edition of the Tour de France concluded. This year’s edition was one of the best editions I’ve watched in years. This endorsement doesn’t come lightly. For me, I’ve long maintained that my pro cycling calendar starts with the Spring Classics and ends after the Giro d’Italia. The Tour de France may be the “biggest” race of the year, but for me, the excitement rarely lived up to its premier billing. In recent years, the Tour de France had become a race where tactics prevailed over heart and it often felt like the narrative was more or less written as soon as the new parcours was unveiled, provided the protagonist(s) showed up to the start healthy. I don’t know about you, but predictability in sport is a major buzzkill.
When the parcours for this year’s Tour de France was unveiled, it felt as if someone had attended a storytelling class or had at a minimum, stolen a scene or two from the scripts of the Giro and the spring classics. The design of this year's course meant you couldn’t just skip ahead to week two and pick up the action as you might have been able to do in prior years. Do that and you’d have missed out on some key storyline and character developments.
When the route was unveiled, there was some vocal opposition to the route. Chris Froome (in case you missed it -- he won) was initially quoted as saying he might forego the Tour as it didn’t suit him. Others reportedly lamented about the inclusion of the cobbled roads again. There were complaints about the lack of time trialing, tough passages through the Pyrenees and Alps, as well as the weather and roads riders would likely encounter during that first week in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Northern France. But, what I saw was a route that would test everyone, including the general classification (GC) riders. This year’s route would tease out who was the best all-around rider. Okay, maybe that’s a bit idyllic. This year’s route would tease out who was stronger, luckier, and had a better supporting cast. Predictable this was not. On the route alone, the Tour delivered in my book. I watched more tour coverage this year than I think I ever have. In past years, I’d just DVR the day’s stage and fast forward until interesting parts like a hors categorie (HC) climb and then I’d fast forward until the last 10KM.
This year's Tour also featured a great cast of characters. While this was billed as a tour to be contended by the “Fab 4,” there was so much more going on outside the main GC contenders of Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, and Nairo Quintana.
Let’s start with some of my more memorable unlucky characters:
- There was Tony Martin who worked so hard to get the yellow jersey and then crashed out of the race before he could fully enjoy his time in the jersey.
There was “the” crash on stage 3. Fabian Cancellara, one of the unlucky ones, crashed spectacularly and sent his yellow bike cartwheeling across our screen. Yet, he got back on his bike to finish the stage (as if we expected anything else) only to abandon due to fractures in his back sustained in that crash. The drama of this crash was intensified thanks to the scenes we got from the GoPro cameras that were embedded with the “first-responders” AKA mechanics in the team cars. Hearing the riders groan while the mechanics sorted out their wounded warriors turned the dial to 11. Ouch.
- There was Geraint Thomas whose head got intimate with a telephone pole (thank goodness for helmets) but climbed up the embankment, remounted and finished the stage (and the Tour).
- And who could forget about Jean-Christophe Péraud who battled through a nasty crash to finish the Tour, bandaged and bruised, but pride intact. One report I read said it took 45 minutes to fully dress all his wounds on the morning after his crash on stage 13. His perseverance demonstrates how hard these guys work to get to the Tour de France – going home is not an option.
Then there were some of the unlikely heroes.
- Steve Cummings lifted a nation and an entire team with his victory on Stage 14. To say MTN-Quebeka had a successful tour would be a gross misstatement. They made an AMAZING Tour de France debut. Their first team victory was a long time coming, but man was it worth the wait. Cummings won in spectacular fashion.
- But Cummings was not the first to bring tour success to the MTN-Quebeka team. He was beat by teammate, Daniel Teklehaimanot, who claimed the King of the Mountains jersey in stage 6, a first for Africa and a major moment for his country, Eritrea. Seeing Teklehaimanot on the podium receiving that polka dot jersey, you could just feel how elated and proud he was; that was an awesome moment.
- Fast forward to Stage 17 and Simon Geschke showed some huevos grandes by attacking on the penultimate climb and then held off a hard charging, but tardy Andrew Talansky for his first Tour win.
- And of course there were all the other guys who got their first ever Tour de France wins: Rohan Dennis, Zdenek Stybar, Greg Van Avermaet, Rubén Plaza, and Romain Bardet in addition to Cummings and Geschke (wow, that's a good list. am I missing anyone else?).
Then there was Peter Sagan. The man deserves his own category, not that he can be neatly categorized though. And perhaps that’s the burden of being Peter Sagan – it’s impossible to typecast him. He defies classification other than the one thing we knew but this tour proved (again): the dude is STRONG and man can he go downhill SCARY FAST (see below). Also, call him Mr. Consistent. Sagan consistently places in the top 5 at the Tour de France. He racked up ten top five placings (excluding the TTT) in this year’s Tour de France (he had 9 in 2014, 8 in 2013, 8 in 2012).
I guess I can’t end without touching on the “Fab 4” but I’m going to intentionally keep this part short, not out of lack of respect for these guys, but because they were expected to drive the narrative. Here’s my brief take for each of the “Fab 4:”
- I honestly didn’t think Chris Froome would do it – I thought he’d be too delicate -- but he proved me wrong by throwing elbows, weathering a lot of stuff outside of riding, and being where he needed to be at nearly every point in the race. Chapeau.
- I don't love Alberto Contador all that much either but what I have come to respect over time about Contador is that he’s a fierce competitor. Sure the Giro-Tour double didn't pan out, but kudos for at least trying. Sometimes courage says as much (or more) as an outright win.
- While one can never count Vincenzo Nibali out, ultimately it was his mind that got the better of him, and it got the better of him early (though to be fair, I can’t imagine what it must be like to have Vino as a boss).
- Nairo Quintana is going places, but then you already knew that. Quintana went out guns blazing and he made sure everyone knew it days before it happened. Despite us all knowing, it was still beautiful to watch on Alpe d’Huez. We’ll be seeing more of that for years to come and that makes me excited.
There were other moments in this race that added to the overall drama. I think we know what those moments are but in all honesty, they’re just distractions and I don’t want feel the need to pen more words about these moments. I will say this, if after watching 3 weeks of racing, all you retained were these “distractions,” you missed out on a good race!
And that brings this post full circle on why I give such a strong endorsement to this year’s Tour de France. There was so much to talk about around the water cooler outside the “usual highlights.” This year's Tour felt like a cycling fan’s Tour. Let’s just hope it wasn’t a fluke because after this Tour, I’m wondering if I should reconsider the end date for my pro cycling calendar – it may need to be extended through July in the future if future versions are this exciting.
As they say, Vive le Tour.