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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  8/1/2016

Sky King flies again

Being an avid fan of bike racing, I of course followed the latest Tour de France closely. And since it ended, I’ve read a few post-Tour wrap-ups that attempt to put the three weeks into some perspective. None of the writers I’ve read has claimed that the Tour was boring, but many of them say that other people have complained that it was.

Presumably, this second-hand reference to the “boring” canard carries the implication that whoever is writing the review is too savvy about racing to fail to see how intriguing the racing really was…that only ill-informed, superficial twits would fall into that category of having been bored.

TDFThe alleged complaint—if anyone will admit to making it—seems to be rooted in Team Sky’s total control over the stages that mattered for the GC…that is, the assorted mountain stages. Everyone who watched the race will agree on that point: that the boys in black and blue kept a stranglehold on pretty much every stage that went uphill, and they kept their captain—Chris Froome—mostly out of trouble everywhere else as well. It was pretty much routine to see three or four or even five Sky super-domestiques surrounding Froome well up into the hills each day, while the leaders of other teams had at most two or one or no helpers near them. 

It put me in mind of the best days of the US Postal team, when Lance would have that many lieutenants around him deep into a climb. I’m not suggesting any pharmaceutical hanky-panky on the part of Sky, as was the case back in the dark ages with the Postals. But it looked the same and had the same demoralizing, oppressive effect on the other hopefuls. Hey, give the credit to Sky manager Dave Brailsford, who has built the team into this powerhouse. Note that Sky had four riders in the top 20 at the end of the tour. No other team had more than two and only three teams had that many.

Note too that none of those four riders was either Wout Poels or Mikel Landa, two of Froome’s best mountain helpers. Or how about Vasil Kiryienka? He pulled the Sky train—and in fact the whole peloton—for hour after hour, down in the flats ahead of the mountains. When your chief engine room grunt is the current World Champion in the Individual Time Trial, you are enjoying an embarrassment of riches. And they did it without Richie Porte, last year’s number one support for Froome. He jumped ship to BMC in the off-season and Sky never missed a beat. They are one deep team…all killer, no filler.

Then too, you have to say that almost all of the other pre-Tour favorites kind of fizzled out, regardless of what the Sky boys were doing, or perhaps, in some cases, as a result of the relentless tempo set each day by that Sky juggernaut. Quintana was a quiet, non-threatening third. Aru was off the back. Rodriguez was never a factor. Van Garderen was a dismal flop. Contador might have done something good, but he crashed twice in the first few stages and was so dinged up he had to withdraw. (Will we now see a recovered and motivated Contador at the Vuelta? Probably. And the current word is that Froome will be there too, so we may be treated to another ding-dong battle between the two best riders of this era, like the one we had in 2014.)

Froome’s ex-teammate Porte looked strong and feisty, but he had bad luck with a flat 6 K from the finish of Stage 2 and lost most of two minutes before the tour really got cranking. Aside from Froome, the best rider turned out to be Frenchman Romain Bardet, who quietly hung around the front all through the tour and then parlayed a ballsy descent in the rain into a winning move on Stage 19, vaulting himself into second place overall. 

He ended the Tour 4:05 behind Froome. He lost 2:49 and :49 to Froome in the two time trials, so that accounts for all but 27 seconds of Froome’s winning margin right there. It was approximately the same for Quintana in third: he lost 3:15 of his final deficit of 4:21 in the two ITTs, so he only lost a bit over a minute anywhere else. Froome finished second in the flat time trial—behind ITT specialist Tom Dumoulin—and won the uphill time trial. Until some of these excellent climbers can also figure out how to ride against the clock, it hardly matters what else happens over the course of the other 19 stages. They’re simply giving away too much time in that discipline.

(For some historical perspective, look back at Froome’s other two TdF victories. Last year, the organizers created a stage race without a single full-length ITT, the first time in a long while, if ever, that they have done that. One could speculate that this was done precisely to negate Froome’s advantage in the time trials. Didn’t work. Back in 2013, they had the same approximate ITT offering as this year: a flat one and a hilly one. And the results were almost exactly what they were this year. Froome finished second in the flat time trial—behind ITT specialist Tony Martin—and won the hilly time trial. Quintana ended up second overall that year at 4:20. How much time did he lose to Froome in the two time trials? 4:25.)

So between Sky’s crushing superiority as a team and Froome’s crushing superiority in the time trials, you’d think there wouldn’t have been much excitement…that it was, in fact, boring. Well okay, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say that the result was a foregone conclusion. But it didn’t seem that way as the tour unfolded, and while it may have been a coronation for Froome from start to finish, he did not treat it as any sort of entitlement. He worked his ass off for that yellow jersey, and he showed us a lot of heart and a heaping platter of what the French love most: panache!

The first of Froome’s heroics, and to my mind the best of them, came on Stage 8, the middle of three hilly stages in the Pyrenees. Here again the organizers of the Tour had conspired to put a damper on Froome and Team Sky by laying out stages that—in theory at least—would thwart any chance they had for gaining an insurmountable, drama-killing lead in the first week of the event. Two of the three stages had downhills after their final summits, meaning the leaders were more likely to regroup on the descents, wiping out any gains that may have been made over the tops. The third stage had an uphill finish, but not too hard, and most of the major players finished together. So it was a good plan, as plans go…

But Froome is what happens while you’re making plans. On the final climb over Col de Peyresourde, a couple of Sky’s worker bees put in hard digs that whittled the lead group down to just a handful of riders. So far, so good. The much reduced group hit the summit together, but then Froome did the unexpected: he sprinted down the other side, immediately opening up a gap on the rest of the little group. He caught them all flat-footed, and before they really knew what hit them, he had a 10-second gap, then 15, then 20… It didn’t look like they took his move seriously at first. Finally they woke up and started to chase, but to no avail. With his gawky, gangly frame scrunched down onto his top tube, he descended like a crazy man, using every inch of the road. They had a nice little graphic on the TV screen showing the relative speed of him vs his pursuers, and he was consistently two or three miles-per-hour faster, most of the way down the hill. It was thrilling stuff! 

It was 15.5 K (9.6 miles) from the summit to the finish in Luchon, with the last couple of K being a flat run into the city. He maxxed out his gap at about :25 before the chasers finally got their mojo going and started reeling him back in. His margin at the line was :13 (plus the time bonus for the top placing). Not a huge number and not significant in the end, perhaps, but nevertheless, it was a brilliant bit of bike bravado, and it let the rest of the contenders know he was ready to rumble. It also put him into the yellow jersey…and he never gave it back.

He was at it again on Stage 11 with another cheeky attack on a day that was supposedly tailor-made for a sprint finish. This was a flat stage with nasty crosswinds, and Froome and the irrepressible Peter Sagan went off the front, each with a helpful teammate along for the ride. All four took their pulls and managed to stay away, stealing the stage from the sprinters and also padding Froome’s lead by a few more seconds. How often do you see the yellow jersey get into a break and not get caught? You have to love that kind of spontaneous spunk.

FroomeThen we had the are-you-kidding-me? mayhem on the road to Mont Ventoux. The image of Froome running up the hill on his cleats became an instant TdF classic. It was high drama in the moment, when no one really knew what the hell was happening, but it didn’t end up having much of an impact on the results, once the commissaires had sorted out the mess…pretty similar to the stage where the inflatable 1-K arch collapsed on top of poor Adam Yates and the riders on his tail. Good entertainment at the time, but not significant.

More significant and almost as dramatic was what happened on Stage 19, with the riders slipping and sliding down to Domancy in an atrocious, pelting rainstorm. Froome was once again descending with great gusto when he and Vincenzo Nibali both lost their front wheels crossing the same white road stripe in a corner…both on the ground instantly. (This at exactly the point where Bardet was making his nervy downhill attack.) With his bike busted, his whole tour was hanging by a thread, but his team came to the rescue again. No sooner had he regained his feet than teammate Geraint Thomas arrived on the scene and gave him his bike. (Fortunately, they’re about the same size, so the bike fit okay…not perfect, but good enough.) With his yellow jersey in tatters and much road rash on display, he carried on to the finish, looking thoroughly knackered but conceding very little time. (He’d begun the stage with a 3:52 lead over Bauke Mollema—who also crashed on that descent—and ended it with a lead of 4:11 over Bardet.) That was pretty much all she wrote. The final mountain stage in the Alps—also run under a terrible monsoon—produced only minor changes in the time gaps. Nothing important. 

Chris Froome has now joined an elite group of riders to have won le Tour three times. He’s still in his fightin’ prime and has that powerful team around him, and he says he wants to keep coming back and trying for more wins. Who would bet against him at this point?

It’s worth noting that he has finished second in three other grand tours: at the Vuelta in 2011 and 2014 and at the Tour in 2012. In that first Vuelta, he lost to Juan José Cobo by a skimpy 13 seconds (as chronicled in this column). They had a rather inflated set of time bonuses for top placings that year, and without them, or even with more conventional bonuses, Froome would have won. And in the 2012 Tour de France, he was riding in support of team leader Bradley Wiggins and almost certainly could have won the overall had he not followed team orders to ride for Wiggins. He finished second to Contador in the 2014 Vuelta. It would be great to see them go at it again this year in what might be Contador’s final grand tour.

The French were of course in raptures over Bardet’s second place. They’ve been so starved for cycling excellence for so long that even second seems like a victory. Bardet was 6th in 2014 and 9th last year, so not a flash in the pan and still only 26. But he’ll need to develop some time-trialing chops if he expects to get on an even footing with Froome. Ditto for Quintana.

FroomeSo…boring? Not for this fan. I loved it. Something interesting every day and often several somethings. I could write a column twice this long and still only scratch the surface of everything that was noteworthy. But I have to assume you watched all of it or most of it and pored over the results. You’re a fan too. You will have your own favorite moments to recall and rehash. I’m just sorry it’s over. Bring on Rio and then the Vuelta!

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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