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 by: Bill Oetinger  8/1/2018

Tour de France Revisited

It’s August, 2018 and that can only mean one thing in this space: time for a review of the recently concluded Tour de France. If you’re interested enough in bike racing to be reading this column, you already know who won. You probably watched every stage on TV. So this won’t be a stage-by-stage recap but rather a Monday-morning rehash of some of the interesting tidbits that surfaced over the course of le Tour’s three-week meander around France.

But before getting into the race itself, let’s finally lay to rest, with all honors, the big asterisk that has been looming over this event and other bike races since last fall: Chris Froome’s over-the-limit test result from last year’s Vuelta. Bottom line is that the WADA and UCI finally absolved Froome of any wrongdoing. They decided not to pursue the matter any further. Froome always insisted he had the data to prove his innocence and given his day in court—which ended up stretching to several months—those sitting in judgment ultimately agreed.

I am not going to drill down into the gritty details of the case. The articles are out there in their dozens, examining the matter in exhaustive detail. You can read them if you want to (if you haven’t already). I have read as many as my tiny brain can absorb. I am not a chemist nor a doctor nor a lawyer nor one of the bureaucrats running the show. But I can read and follow along pretty well with all that has been published about this and I am satisfied that the matter has been settled and that the right decision has been reached. Not everyone agrees. Some people, having been burned by Lance Armstrong and all the other dopers out there, down the years, have become cynical beyond all reason. They are convinced the fix is in, somehow, some way. Froome and his Sky team were booed incessantly throughout the tour, were spit at and pelted with eggs and even pushed around by spectators as they tried to ride their bikes. I do understand the skepticism of some people but cannot accept such unsporting behavior. The case was dealt with fairly and carefully. Time to let it go.

Personally, I am hugely relieved they came to the conclusion they did. I am a big Froome fan and would have been sad to see him brought low, with his assorted laurels snatched away. Aside from his accomplishments on the bike, I find him an upstanding, classy person. How he comported himself in this most recent TdF only adds to that favorable impression.

As you know, he did not win. He finished third. He had some bad luck and was also not at his best, faltering just a bit in the mountains. He looked human out there, for a change. Geraint Thomas finished first…Froome’s Sky teammate. 

ThomasBefore parsing out the Tour’s crucial tipping points, let’s do a little bio on the previously rather unheralded Welshman, Geraint Thomas. Who dat? He’s 32—not a youngster by pro cycling standards—and is 6’0” and 154 pounds. Although he has always competed in road racing, his earliest success came on the track, setting world records in winning the Team Pursuit (for Great Britain) at both the World Championships and Olympics in 2008 and 2012. He has been with Team Sky since 2010 and as far as the TdF goes, has been a reliable and sturdy workhorse for Sky team leaders Bradley Wiggins, Richie Porte, and Chris Froome. He has had some good results in smaller stage races when given the team leader role, winning the Volta ao Algarve in 2015, Paris-Nice in 2016, and, significantly, the Dauphiné this year (last tune-up before the Tour). He started the 2017 Giro d’Italia as co-leader with Mikel Landa but in a mid-pack crash that was not his fault, he was taken out by another rider and ultimately had to abandon. He also crashed out of last year’s Tour.

Overall, his resumé has been good—a journeyman career, one might say—but not one to suggest such a well-played Tour de France victory.

One little bit of back story: Chris Froome and Dutchman Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), who finished first and second at the Giro d’Italia in May, were attempting the Giro-Tour double. Dumoulin finished second in the Tour as well, 1:51 behind Thomas. Could either of them have done better without the Giro in their legs this year? Who knows? Recall that Froome completed the Tour-Vuelta double last year, which, based on a number of factors, was probably a harder challenge than this Giro-Tour attempt. Perhaps because of the potential wear and tear of the Giro or perhaps because of the still unresolved doping case—only settled just prior to the start of the Tour—Team Sky hedged its bets and declared Froome and Thomas co-leaders. It looked more like Froome was Numero Uno and Thomas was the Plan B option should Froome falter…and that’s pretty much the way it played out.

Call it bad luck or attrition, there are other ways for riders to lose time than just by getting spanked on a hard stage. Crashes, injuries, and mechanicals can all factor into the final standings. (I list crashes and injuries as distinct problems because you can crash and lose time without significant injuries and you can also crash and catch back up to the leaders but then have the injuries catch up with you the next day, leading to an abandon.) This year’s Tour had its share of all those issues. Consider these assorted bad moments among riders who might have been considered contenders…

Stage 1: Chris Froome, Richie Porte, and Adam Yates all lost :51 after crashing. Nairo Quintana double flatted and lost 1:15. 

Stage 6: Just a couple of kilometers from the steep, uphill finish, Tom Dumoulin and Roman Bardet both broke spokes. Bardet lost :31 and Dumoulin 1:13.

Stage 8: Dan Martin crashed and lost 1:16.

Stage 9: Richie Porte crashed and had to abandon. Rigo Uran crashed and lost 1:55 and was never a factor again.

Stage 12: While contesting the lead on l’Alpe du Huez, Vincenzo Nibali collided with a motorcycle and crashed, suffering a compression fracture in his back. He finished the stage but did not start the next day.

That’s pretty much all the major players losing hefty chunks of time or abandoning. Meanwhile, Geraint Thomas stayed out of trouble and didn’t lose time anywhere. At the Stage 3 team time trial, BMC won, putting their best-placed rider—Greg Van Avermaet—into the maillot jaune. But Team Sky finished close behind and Thomas—as their best-placed rider—was only three seconds back.

Van Avermaet, a classics rider with some climbing chops—he won the gold medal at the Rio road race—defended the jersey with panache, holding onto it from Stage 3 through Stage 10, the first day in the real mountains. By dint of strong and clever riding, he actually managed to widen his lead over Thomas to 2:22 at the end of that first mountain stage. However, the next two big Alpine stages finally saw him out the back and out of yellow. But who among us would have predicted that Geraint Thomas—former domestique for Froome—would not only take over the leader’s jersey but that he would do it by winning both of those big mountaintop finishes? All the other big boys were there. They all took their shots at one point or another but his attacks were the last ones and the ones that stuck. After the dust had settled at the Alpe du Huez ski resort, he was first, with teammate Froome at 1:39 and Dumoulin at 1:50. Very impressive. 

As the race wore along and as Thomas stayed up front, Team Sky riders and directors had to field an endless barrage of questions about who was really the team leader. All the answers were diplomatic. Thomas said it’s too early to be considering that; Froome said as long as it’s someone in Sky kit, it’s all good. But in fact, Thomas really did look stronger than Froome and everyone else, and that was made even more evident after the next batch of mountainous stages in the Pyrenees. While Thomas was being attentive and covering every important move, Froome was struggling. On Stage 17 he lost :48 to Thomas and :43 to Dumoulin. Thomas didn’t win any more stages but he kept the pressure on and managed to pad his lead with little attacks here and there.

At the same time—at least after Stage 17—Froome appeared to accept the new reality. Chasing down a dangerous break by Primoz Roglic on Stage 19, Froome got on the front of the yellow jersey group and pulled like Thomas usually pulls for him. He had, at least for the moment, become the lieutenant instead of the captain.

In the only full time trial on Stage 20, Dumoulin won, just one second ahead of Froome. Thomas was fastest through the first two checkpoints but then slowed down at the end and cruised to the finish in third place, :14 down on Dumoulin but with almost two minutes of his lead intact. Dumoulin was 1:51 back and Froome was at 2:24, and that’s the way it stayed after the last, processional stage into Paris.

I wonder what sort of odds the London bookmakers were offering on Geraint Thomas winning the Tour de France ahead of such a powerhouse line-up: Chris Froome, Tom Dumoulin, Vinnie Nibali, Richie Porte, Nairo Quintana, Primoz Roglic, Alejandro Valverde, Dan Martin, Mikel Landa, etc, etc. This was no fluke. He rode hard and smart, stayed out of trouble, and took it to the competition every time it mattered. No question, he (and Froome) benefited from the once again dominant Sky team, who pretty much controlled the action on every important stage. But hey, it’s a  team sport, even if only one rider ends up in the yellow jersey. Sky has now won six out of the last seven Tours, not to mention a Vuelta and a Giro. They’re good. They’re stacked. That said, Thomas deserves the lion’s share of the credit. He earned it.

What’s next for Team Sky? Who will be their leader at the Vuelta? They have a young kid waiting in the wings: 21-year old Egan Bernal from Columbia, winner of this year’s Tour of California. Just about the time Froome and Thomas are thinking about retiring, he’ll be fully matured as a stage racer. I doubt it’s his time yet though. There are rumors floating around that Froome was thinking about doing the Vuelta. But after four grand tours in a row (three wins and a third) and after looking a little less than all-conquering at this one, is that still realistic? We’ll find out soon enough!

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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