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 by: Bill Oetinger  8/1/2017

Sky High at the Tour de France

I guess every Tour de France is going to be intriguing, each in its own way. But the 2017 edition seemed especially so, if only because the final gaps between the steps of the podium were relatively close. You know that Chris Froome won for the fourth time in five years and that Rigoberto Uran was second at :54, with Romain Bardet third at 2:20 and Froome’s Sky lieutenant Mikel Landa just one second off the podium at 2:21. That’s not the closest finish in a TdF. I’m sure there have been several others with closer finishes. But this one was a good bit tighter until the final time trial on Stage 20. The previous day it had been Froome first, Bardet at :23 and Uran at :29. And it had been more or less in that ballpark for most of the tour, with everything up in the air. So pretty much of a nail-biter.

As noted in my spring review a few months ago, Froome had accomplished a grand total of zilch in the assorted prep races leading up to the Tour. That record of non-success continued with all the other races since then. He was a player at the Dauphiné and finished fourth overall. That at least is respectable. But that was it. I think it was fair to speculate that he was not quite the dominant force he has been in some past Tours; that he might in fact be vulnerable. The results bear that out. But it’s also central to this story to note that his Sky team was by far the most dominant and best organized of all the teams in the Tour. The fact that they came within one second of placing two riders on the podium speaks to that strength.

Because it was so close—every second counts!—I will review the stages where those seconds were gained or lost. But before delving into that detail, I want to touch on a couple of particular topics that color the whole picture…

• Crashes

Crashing is a part of racing. Pushing the limits of what’s possible in a tightly-packed bunch of almost 200 amped up riders is always going to get sketchy. Last year I read a stat somewhere that said the riders average at least one crash apiece during the Tour. Some manage to esacape without any crashes while others hit the deck on numerous occasions. And of couse some hit it so hard they have to be hauled off in ambulances, their tours over. I don’t know if this year was worse than other years, but the crashes that took riders out of the Tour were certainly significant. 

Poor Alejandro Valverde! As documented in my spring review, he had the best spring campaign of his career and the best of any other rider this year. He may very well have been a podium contender in the Tour, especially after his team leader Nairo Quintana started to fade out of contention (more about that later). But within the first ten minutes of the tour, in the opening stage, he slid into the barriers in a slick corner and shattered his kneecap. He won’t even have the consolation of getting back on the bike and racing again later in the season. He’s done for the year, and at age 37, who knows how many more years he has at the top of his game?

Perhaps the most significant crash was the horrifying downhill disaster of Richie Porte on Stage 9. Off the left side of the road at 45 mph, slide across the road into a rock cliff, then have Dan Martin ride right over the top of you. Porte was BMC’s captain and considered one of the most likely favorites to unseat Froome. So much for that. Some people have criticized the organizers for including several long, technical descents near the ends of stages, but hey, a major stage race is a test of all the skill sets inherent in cycling, and descending well is certainly one of them. It has always been that way. I will concede that there are some downhills that might be too dangerous as a final challenge in a stage: something with sheer drops off the outsides of corners (although I have seen any number of those in past races). But that descent into Chambery, while certainly challenging, did not appear to be that nasty. Although Martin was able to continue after that crash, in which he did a front somersault, he was badly banged up. He actually crashed a second time on the same descent, racing frantically to close the gap to the leaders. Amazing that he only lost 1:15 that day after two crashes. But he could hardly walk for most of the tour so gets high marks for finishing sixth overall and for battling gamely on every stage that mattered.

Also taken out by crashes: Geraint Thomas, Rafal Majka (a former two-time KOM champion), and Jakob Fuglsang, in the best shape of his career, fresh off a convincing win at the Dauphiné, beating Porte and Froome and all the rest. Got to feel sorry for Thomas: taken out by someone else’s accident in the Giro—where he was Sky’s captain—and now wiped out in the Tour after wearing the yellow jersey for a few days. (That deprived Froome of one of his strongest support riders, by the way, but Team Sky never even blinked in its control of the race.)

Finally, the sprinters. They seem to crash more than anyone else. This year Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish left the tour due to crashes. Kittel was by far the fastest sprinter, winning five stages and making them all look easy. Reports were that he was suffering from all sorts of other ailments by the time he crashed, but the crash, almost at the end of the Tour, was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. Cavendish may be a bit past his sell-by date, but he is still a formidable sprinter and as aggressive as ever. That aggressiveness cost him when he tried to thread the needle along the barriers and got squeezed by Peter Sagan. Sagan was disqualified from the Tour for irregular riding, a very controversial decision. I’ve watched the replays of the incident many times from every available angle and at the slowest of slo-mo. I still can’t tell who was at fault. Looks to me like they both share the blame. In the end, they were both out of the race.

• Also rans

In addition to the various major players lost to crashes, there were some other top guns who turned in rather lackluster performances. Most notably, Nairo Quintana was trying for the ever-elusive Giro-Tour double. He hadn’t even won the Giro, finishing a disappointing second to Tom Dumoulin after flubbing the final time trial (always his achilles heel). Now, in the Tour, he just never got on the same level as the top riders. He lost time on almost every significant stage and finished a very worn out 12th at 15:48. Further proof that the Giro-Tour double is too hard these days comes from Thibaut Pinot. A frisky, animated fourth overall at the Giro, he was utterly irrelevant at the Tour, lying in 52nd place, an hour and a half back, when he abandoned on Stage 17. Even worse was Esteban Chaves. He didn’t try the double but he was a close second in last year’s Giro. At this year’s Tour he ended up almost two and a half hours back. Alberto Contador did better. In fact, a solid time trial on the penultimate stage moved him up to ninth overall at 8:49, a finish most riders would love. He had moments of dancing on the pedals that looked almost like his glory days from a few years ago, but when the going got tough, he usually cracked…not a lot but enough to not be the champion of old.

• Major players

Chris Froome needs no introduction. He is arguably the strongest rider of this era. He’s won four Tours and probably could have won another but for team orders requiring him to ride for Bradley Wiggins in 2012. Also second three times at the Vuelta…and he is planning to do the Spanish grand tour again this year. (Unlike the Giro-Tour double, the Tour-Vuelta double still appears very much in play.)

Rigoberto Uran was a bit of a surprise in second. I doubt too many people rated him a favorite ahead of time. I know I didn’t. But he’s not a nobody. He finished second in both the 2013 and 2014 Giros and won stages in each of those events, including the main time trial in 2014. But he hasn’t done much since.

Romain Bardet was a rather flukey second in last year’s Tour, thanks to a ballsy descent in the rain on Stage 19. Still can’t time trial worth beans so will have to improve on that if he ever hopes to get over the top in a grand tour.

Mikel Landa came to the Tour as one of Chris Froome’s super-domestiques but emerged as a major player in his own right. He may return to Sky next year but is equally likely to end up at Movistar, where he can be his own team leader at least some of the time.

Fabio Aru, wearing his new Italian Champion’s tricoloré jersey, was a force to be reckoned with early in the Tour but ran out of gas a bit at the end.

• How did they do what they did?

Stage 1. A short time trial in the rain in Dusseldorf: at 14 K, longer than a prologue but shorter than a classic ITT. This is where Valverde crashed out. Froome was the best of the big dogs, opening up gaps of between :35 (Porte) and :51 (Uran), with all the others contenders somewhere in between. Think about that for a second: Uran is typically good against the clock. Witness that win in the Giro or his good time trial at the end of this Tour, but on this little 14-K sprint (in the rain), he lost time almost equal to his final deficit of :54 for the full, three-week adventure.

Stage 5. Very early in a Tour for a Cat 1 mountain finish. Aru jumped off the front on the 20% final pitch and won by a handful of seconds, :20 ahead of Froome and more than that ahead of everyone else. Landa lost 1:07. That weeded out the pretenders from the first week and left Froome in yellow, a few seconds ahead of half a dozen rivals.

Stage 9. A big mountain stage with that long, treacherous descent to Chambery to finish. Porte, Geraint Thomas and Rafal Majka all crashed out and Dan Martin was badly banged up and lost time. Uran won a mini-sprint just ahead of the other hot shots. Except for those in the crashes, the standings stayed about the same.

Stage 12. A long climb to Peyragudes with a final pitch up around 20%. In the last, brutal 300 meters, on the steepest wall, Bardet jumped away to win by two seconds ahead of Uran and Aru. Froome cracked just a bit and came in :22 in arrears, handing the maillot jaune to Aru. 

Stage 13. A crazy little stage of only 101 K (63 miles), but with big climbs all day long. A break got away for the win: Warren Barguuil—the eventual KOM champ—Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador, and Mikel Landa. It was a smart move for Sky to put Landa in the break. It meant other teams had to take up the chase. Barguil won the stage and all four riders gained 1:48 on the main group. Contador, Barguil, and Quintana were a little too far back for this to matter much. (They finished 9th, 10th, and 12th.) But it vaulted Landa up to 5th, just 1:09 off the lead.

Stage 14. What might have been an otherwise uneventful stage to Rodez had a little stinger in its tail: a final 500 meters of uphill that maxed out around 9%. Although it was technically a sprinters’ stage, that uphill was going to bite hard. Froome and Team Sky had this one figured out ahead of time and were massed at the front, ready to pounce. Meanwhile, Aru and his Astana team were asleep, back in the peloton. They totally missed the boat. Bad planning. Froome sprinted and finished 7th with Uran right behind him, ahead of all the other GC hopefuls. All the others lost at least a few seconds and Aru coughed up :24 to Froome, along with the yellow jersey. 

Stage 16. If Stage 14 was a classic example of how every second counts, this one reinforced that theme. It was a day of crosswinds. Everyone knew it could be a problem and most teams protected their leaders and not much damage was done. But Dan Martin and Alberto Contador got caught in the second echelon and never got back to the front, losing :51 and 1:33 respectively. Neither was likely to win at this point, but the time lost today made it a certainty that they were toast.

Stage 17. The first of two big and possibly decisive stages in the Alps, this one crossed Col d’Ornon, Croix de Fer, Telegraphe, and Galibier before descending to a finish in the valley (another long descent after long climbs). Behind an impressive solo breakaway from Primoz Roglic, all of the other heads of state managed to cross the final summit of Galibier in a bunch…all except Aru, who was suffering like a dog: getting gapped, grappling back on, then getting gapped again. He eventually went over the summit just a bit behind the little bunch with Froome and his main rivals. That group worked together well, first on the hairball descent of Galibier and then on the much less technical descent of Lauteret, while behind them, Aru was getting some help from others who had missed the big move. Behind Roglic, Uran took second and Froome third, just pipping Bardet for the last bonus seconds. Aru lost 1:44 and his Tour was effectively over.

Stage 18. The dreaded Vars-Izoard double whammy. However, unlike all prior climbs over Izoard, which head downhill to Briançon or some other lowland finish, for the first time ever, they had the finish at the summit. In my write-up on our tour in the French Alps in 2009, I asserted that Izoard was the hardest climb I did…and we did a lot of major climbs, including all the ones on yesterday’s stage. It is truly a beast. Behind another breakaway—Barguil again—Bardet and Froome and Uran kept working each other over. Bardet in particular kept attacking, but Froome covered each move. Finally he threw down a little attack of his own, as if to let them know he wasn’t just playing it safe. They pulled that one back and then finished together. Landa had been sent up the road earlier to confound Sky’s enemies, but they eventually pulled him back too and he lost :10 to the leaders at the end. Landa lost little chunks of time here and there throughout the tour as he worked for Froome. He looked very strong almost every day and he will be looking for a way to be a numero uno next year, either on a different team or on a different grand tour.

Stage 20. Finally, there was the time trial. As was the case with Tom Dumoulin at the Giro, everyone knew Froome would kick ass in the ITT, so they had to break him ahead of time if they were to entertain any hope of winning the overall. Didn’t happen. He went into the time trial with the lead and although he didn’t win—he was thrid—he expanded his time gaps on all his rivals. In spite of almost crashing, Uran turned in a good performance and jumped over Bardet into second. Bardet stunk up the joint and lost tons of time. Landa did very well and came within that one single second of knocking Bardet off the podium.

Froome won the overall without winning a single stage. Some feel that shows a lack of true brilliance and panache. So be it. He had that one moment of fragility on Peyragudes where he lost a few seconds, but otherwise was in control from Stage 1 onward. And so was his team. Every day they were massed near the front, keeping him safe and rested and keeping the stages under control. Whenever the grades turned uphill, there were at least three support riders ahead of him, pulling endlessly. I call them the Three Mikes: Michal Kwiatkowski, Mikel Nieve, and Mikel Landa. Kwiatkowski reminded me of George Hincapie, another classics rider who can climb a little. He would pull on the front on the climbs so long and so hard that almost every other team had every single rider shelled out the back without anyone left to assist the few remaining team leaders who had not yet been shelled out the back themselves. He’d work his poor Polish butt off until he’d blow and just about topple over into the gutter. Then Nieve would take a turn and finally Landa would take over, looking as cool as could be. In prior years Sky had Vasil Kiryenka, Richie Porte, and Wout Pouls doing that work. This year, a new bunch of grunts were putting the hurt on all their rivals. They’re the New York Yankees of the pro peloton: love ‘em or hate ‘em, they get the job done.

There is a little bit of a fishy smell around the Sky operation, mostly because of their cranky jerk of a team manager, Dave Brailsford. Cycling journalists keep chasing him around with questions about shady doping deals, usually dating back to the Bradley Wiggins era. Braisford responds with a Trumpian disdain for the media. It has become something of a sideshow wherever the team goes. So far, and as far as I have been able to ascertain, Froome rises above the fray about as easily as he rises above his competitors on the big summits. He appears clean himself and he walks a tightrope in the diplomacy department, trying to distance himself from the turmoil around Brailsford without actually denouncing him. I certainly hope he’s clean and that the sport is at least mostly clean these days. Froome is a guy who’s easy to like. Win or lose, you can see he’s giving it his all. I hope history will show he did it the right way.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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