And so with yesterday’s retelling of the dramatic events of the final stage of the 1989 Tour we came to the end of this historical look at Le Tour de France. I’d like to thank all of you who have taken the time to read this blog, to comment, to like, and to share in recent days. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it. Your interest and interaction is gratefully acknowledged. Special thanks go out to Robert Horvat for writing his excellent piece on LeMond and Fignon to close the series. You can read more of his work at If It Happened Yesterday, It’s History and The History of the Byzantine Empire.
In the real world we have come to the end of another edition of Le Tour de France with Chris Froome resplendent in the yellow jersey on the streets of Paris. After the excitement of the stage finish yesterday the Champs-Élysées will be back to normal with somewhat in the region of 84,000 vehicles making their way along France’s most famous thoroughfare. It always seems to me to be a rather mundane postscript to three weeks of the best that cycling, and sport in the round has to offer.
But what a Tour it has been. With eight mountain stages that included five high altitude finishes, only one short individual time trial, a short team trial, and a course that offered little for the sprinters the 2015 Tour was always going to be interesting. As we saw, it exploded on day 2 when Ettix-Quickstep blew the race apart by taking advantage of the crosswinds that swept across the flattest stage in Le Tour’s history. The short but hard climb of the Mur de Huy at the end of stage 3 also had an impact, with Froome gapping Quintana by 11 seconds, which with time bonuses gave Froome a 1 minute 56 second over the Columbian.
Though Froome was to extend that lead to 3 minutes 10 seconds before the final two days in the Alps, Quintana’s impressive attacks on the slopes of La Toussuire and L’Alpe d’Huez saw the lead whittled back to 1 minute and 12 seconds by the end of the penultimate stage, less than the time Quintana had lost in the hectic days of the first week of racing.
Could Quintana have won in 2015. I think he could have, but ultimately in Froome and Team Sky he faced a rival and a team that had come to Le Tour in the best possible form and with a supporting set-up that is the gold standard of modern professional road racing. Froome and Sky did everything they needed to do, controlling the race when necessary and making decisive moves when required. If Quintana lost the race in the first week, Froome arguably won it in the second with his explosive attack on the climb to the stage finish at La-Pierre-Saint-Martin during stage 10 which left Quintana 1 minute and 4 seconds down the road as Froome crossed the finish line for the stage win. In many ways the 2015 Tour came down to the difference between a rider who rode himself into relative better form over three weeks, and a rider who started in top condition and then successfully managed his decline in form to ensure victory. One wonders how stage 20 would have panned out if landslides had not forced the organizers to reroute the race over the Croix du Fer instead of over the Galibier and Telegraphe as originally planned.
From a British, or perhaps I should say Welsh, point of view this year has also seen Geraint Thomas show his quality as he more than ably supported his team leader and threatened a podium finish before three weeks of hard work finally got the better of him. It was a superb effort by Thomas but I for one am not convinced that he has the Tour winning credentials that parts of the British press are bandying about. The fuss in Britain over Thomas reminds me of another British hope, David Millar. His brief tenure in yellow in 2000 led to much speculation that he could go on to be Britain’s first Tour winner. At the time I was categorically scathing of this. Millar was a good time-triallist and had the ability to do well in one-day and one-week races, but a Grand Tour winner he was not. My personal opinion is that if Millar had focused on shorter stage races and one-day racing rather than taking on the pressure of leading Cofidis at Le Tour he would have had a better palmares by the end of his racing career. He might also not have succumbed to the use of EPO. My hope for Thomas is that both he and Sky recognise both his strengths and weaknesses and now make him the leader for the races to which he is best suited.
As to be expected the issue of doping reared its head once more at this year’s Tour, with more or less veiled accusations and allegations aimed at Froome and Sky flying around. There’s been a certain amount of irony in British broadcaster ITV4’s Tour coverage as the pundits, journalists, and host have largely skipped around the issue. Guest pundit David Millar’s paean of praise to Alpe d’Huez, schmaltzy cover of Stairway to Heaven playing in the background and all, was particularly difficult to swallow bearing in mind his checkered history of EPO use.
Given the history of doping in cycling it’s difficult to categorically state that Froome, or indeed any rider, is riding clean. The Armstrong case tells us that it is possible to successfully dope and remain undetected for many years. My personal opinion is that Froome and Sky are both clean and at the forefront of the campaign against drugs in the sport. The foundation of the accusations this year seems to lie in the unauthorised release of some of Froome’s data which has been used to make the claim that his metrics are not within normal parameters. Sky’s release of in-race data during Le Tour has done little to quash speculation.
Understandably Sky, or any team for that matter, don’t want to release all their data as this would potentially give their rivals an advantage. Personally I think that if the UCI wants to be really serious about combating the scourge of doping they need to take more action. One thing they could do is establish a standard set of metrics to be used and recorded by all professional teams, and require that these are made publicly available no less than 72 hours after any formal training ride or race day. Rival teams would have a better idea of how their opponents are performing but the playing field would be level. By specifying standard metrics rather than equipment this would also allow manufacturers and software developers to continue to compete by bringing their own products to market.
All sponsors, whether directly of teams or of events, should also be required to pay a percentage of the money they spend in sponsorship into a central pot to be used for anti-doping programmes and testing. Sponsors do well out of sport for a relatively low financial investment and should be prepared to pay to protect the sport from which they hope to benefit. Any publicity is good publicity as they say, and the increase in sales of Festina watches following the scandal of their team during the 1998 Tour is evidence of that. As noted before on this blog Festina are still cashing in on the Festina Scandal with Richard Virenque the poster-boy of their latest advertising campaign.
I’d also like to see far more onerous penalties handed down to those found guilty of doping. Cycling is littered with too many instances of riders and other personnel who have taken drugs or actively promoted their use and who have gone on to continue their careers in the sport. Current bans are too short and financial penalties too low. In my opinion there should be a ban for life from professional participation, all race earnings should be repaid with interest, and fines should be swingeing. Make the risks so high that they act as a significant deterrent with clear career ending consequences.
Another lesson from the Armstrong case was the complicity of the majority of the media in creating an environment in which the hard questions weren’t being asked. The British press reaction to the allegations made against Sky has had a sense of déjà vu about it in this respect. Again, I think Froome is clean, but while I can sympathise with the argument that it is difficult to prove a negative this doesn’t mean that his performance, and Sky, shouldn’t come under scrutiny. Journalists should continue to ask the right questions and be prepared to ruffle some feathers. Riders and teams have to accept that this comes with the territory.
That said, this year’s Tour has been thoroughly entertaining with some great racing, a few surprises and some worthy winners. Peter Sagan has taken his fourth green jersey, testament to his consistency as a rider. I only have respect for the way he got himself into several breakaways to ensure he could take the points on offer for intermediate sprints and to be in at the hunt for the stage win. He’s also been good value for money in post-race interviews. Quintana thoroughly deserves the white of the best young rider jersey in addition to his second place overall, and I’m pleased to see Romain Bardet get the most aggressive rider award after his many attacks in the mountains. Froome ended in yellow, and also claimed the polka-dots as winner of the Mountain Classification, the first rider to do so since Eddy Merckx in 1970. Not only did he ride well but Froome has shown his ability to remain calm under pressure and to speak and act with humility and thoughtfulness. His winner’s speech on the podium was exemplary and worthy of a champion.
From a personal point of view I was sad to see one of my favourite riders, Fabian Cancellara, forced to withdraw after the horrendous crash on stage 3. Riding to the end of the stage with two fractured vertebrae is testament to his strength and courage. I wish him and the other riders, Simon Gerrans, Tom Dumoulin, Dmitriy Kozonchuk, William Bonnet, and Daryl Impey, that were injured in that crash a speedy recovery. Best wishes also to Ivan Basso who was forced to withdraw after the discovery of testicular cancer during the first rest day. The good news is that an operation was successful and the prognosis looks good for the future. And Chapeau to Tony Martin for completing stage 6 with a shattered collarbone and a piece of bone sticking through his skin.
Finally in all the excitement of Le Tour it’s easy to forget that yesterday Paris also hosted the second edition of La Course, the one day Women’s Professional road race associated with Le Tour, which saw Anna van der Breggen (Rabo Liv Woman Cycling Team) win by 1 second from a 6 kilometre breakaway as she held off the peloton on the Champs-Élysées. It’s been six years since the last multi-stage Women’s Tour de France. I can only hope that the increased popularity of women’s cycling leads to the reinstatement of ‘Le Tour Féminin’ soon. If the Women’s Tour of Britain is anything to go by the racing will be as exciting as any that the men have to offer.
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