The Villain

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: For an American cycling journalist, historic pieces on the Tour de France are our stock-in-trade. There’s nothing easier or more fun to write. And they are even easier to sell. Why? Because the story lines are all so straightforward. You’ve got LeMond vs. Hinault in 1986. Then you’ve got LeMond vs. Fignon in ’89. LeMond vs. Chiappucci in ’90. Armstrong vs. Ullrich in ’00, ’01 and ‘03, just for starters. They are almost boxing matches in their simplicity. Despite the other 190-odd riders present, those Tours were mano-a-mano matches.

The ’86 Tour is king is this regard because of the intra-team rivalry between Hinault and LeMond. On top of the interloping Yank, you’ve got broken promises, the pressure of the media and a team that wasn’t afraid to split along partisan lines. Most burgers aren’t this juicy.

I lay that before you as a backdrop to what I have to say about the ’12 Tour. It is, for me, the most disappointing Tour de France I’ve seen since perhaps ’94 and ’95, which had drama the way Congress has compromise. The most interesting thing happening on the road is Tejay Van Garderen for the simple fact that he’s the most unknown of quantities. And this isn’t just a jingoistic yearning for the next Hampsten, which is to say a climber of such aw-shucks sincerity and tremendous gifts he is realizing he doesn’t know the world before him.

The thing about Van Garderen is that the world is littered with riders who were flashes in the pan, young riders who showed flashes of greatness only to ride anonymously for the rest of their careers. But there are also the stories of LeMond, Fignon and Hinault who showed greatness early on and then delivered over and over and that’s why Van Garderen’s ascension to team leader for BMC is a much more interesting story line than Cadel Evans’ collapse. Did he never really get in shape this year? Has he been sick for most of the Tour and the team has played coy? Whatever. Who really cares enough to read beyond the possible headline: Evans Admits He’s Over the Hill.

Off the course, all the drama is to be found in the interviews with Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins. Poor Froome. He deserves credit for sticking to the game plan and pledging his support to Wiggins and his team to any microphone within range. That he has managed to keep his cool despite the obvious provocations from the media, invitations from the world’s biggest media outlets to go rogue isn’t Jesus-in-the-cinnamon-bun miraculous, but it’s as impressive as anything I saw in the recent X Games.

Having said that, let’s take a moment to parse the future, or even a couple of futures. First, once Wiggins wins this Tour, we all know he will start last and wear #1 at the start of next year’s Tour. It’s silly to suggest that he’ll be anything other than Sky’s captain, unless some calamity befalls him during the spring. Any suggestion that maybe next year would be Froome’s turn is laughable. Not if Wiggins is on-form. Now, could Froome leave and assume the leader’s role at another team? Sure. But unless that team has a history of properly supporting a grand tour champion (think Saxo Bank, not Omega Pharma-Quickstep), he shouldn’t buy that yellow watch just yet.

There. I think I’ve covered all the interesting story lines from this year’s Tour, unless you want to include all the message board chatter by American viewers who are tired of Scott Moninger’s interlaced-fingers-jabber and begging for Todd Gogulski.

Back in undergraduate school I wrote a paper for a history class in which I analyzed the rise of Moammar Gadhafi as American enemy #1. I noted that in 1985 he wasn’t much different or doing different things than he was in 1978. The big change was the end of the Iranian hostage crisis. Once Iran stopped being our biggest international problem, once the Ayatollah Khomeni stopped being the villain-at-large, we needed someone new. Qadaffi fit the bill.

What this Tour lacks is a villain. Froome is the best candidate, but it’s clear he doesn’t want to wear the black hat. And he’s smart to beg off. If he went off the res he’d be far less attractive to courting teams. The first question on everyone’s mind would be whether or not he was coachable—capable of sticking to the script. Hell, the Schlecks make it look like they are sticking to the script and they are difficult enough, Frank’s B sample notwithstanding.

Yes, we need a villain, but not everyone is up to the task. Alberto Contador has a thick skin, thick enough to play the villain and play it well. Hinault had an even thicker skin, which is saying something. To play the villain, one must understand that though you may lose the hearts of the fans, there’s a kind of satisfaction in infamy.

It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.


Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti

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  1. A Stray Velo

    Wow…I thought I was the only one who felt that this tour was a snooze fest.

    Van Garderen is a great rider and I hope he is able to progress in the coming years. I think he’s shown he has a lot of potential.

    Part of me wonders if the popularity of the tour is ruining it? There is so much emphasis and hype around the tour that it’s become more exciting for the headlines in the news than the actual racing. Yet even those headlines are pretty predictable.

    The Giro was a great race this year and I’m glad I watched it. Now I’m counting on the Vuelta to bring some excitement back to my tv screen.

  2. randomactsofcycling

    There certainly seem to be no villains this year. Of all candidates, Cavendish was the most obvious but even he has,rather admirably, towed the company line and pitched in to wrestle for the Yellow Jersey….But I am sure there is a big pay-off for him somewhere.

    I think the villain is again the UCI. I really hate to be the one to bring it up and I have been doing my best to believe, but a certain team has ridden on the front for the entire race. Really quickly. Some individuals for 40-50kms at one spell, over Cat. 1&2 climbs.

    Ironically they are wearing black.

  3. Doug Page

    The TDF organizers bet on Great Britain, and they delivered, with a huge TV audience on tap. The British have rediscovered cycling, and now cycling has discovered the British! There were some fireworks let off by the French, too. Now it looks like everybody is waiting for the Vuelta. Can Conto beat the Sky TGV? He won’t have near as much of a team, to state the obvious. I bet the Vuelta will be as rigged for him to win as the TDF was rigged for team Sky. The season may be waning, but it is far from over!

  4. Sophrosune

    This TdF was without suspense or drama. I suppose if I were English, or even British, I might be interested, but alas no. This was a boring TdF. I am relieved to see the short reign of another boring TdF rider: Cadel Evans. Watching him follow other riders wheels through most of last year’s TdF was boring, but at least that snooze fest had some suspense since it wasn’t decided until the final time trial. This paint-drying edition was finished after Stage 10. Padraig, you might think Contador adds a “villain” to the race, but I think it’s just interesting to watch someone who’s willing to attack in the mountains and has at least some hope in the GC. How many times did Contador attack Rasmussen in that final mountain stage before Rabobank withdrew Rasmussen from the race? Hopefully ASO comes up with a parcours next year that appears as though it wasn’t first vetted by Sky. Zzzzzz.

  5. scaredskinnydog

    My pick for villain is race radio. I’d love to see some of the young guns at the Tour cut loose to think and race for themselves. I understand the safety argument but sometimes I think multiple DS’s screaming “everyone go to the front!” causes accidents rather then prevents them.
    p.s. I’ve lost track of how many TDF’s I’ve watched and every single one has been interesting and compelling in its own way.

  6. Jon Savage

    The story of this year’s tour for me was all about the gregari. Froome, Tejay and Sagan are giving me hope for the future. But for stunningly bad luck I also think Ryder would have had a good shot as well.

    It is also a changing of the guard of sorts- Evans, Voigt and company will be done soon.

    I would also like to believe that some of the boredom is a direct result of a cleaner peleton.

  7. bigwagon

    Although there were some very exciting moments and stories in this year’s tour, I’d have to agree that overall it seemed somewhat boring. Highlights for me were watching Jens Voigt (and following him on Twitter) and Peter Sagan.

  8. peter lin

    After the first week, this year’s TDF was pretty boring. Every time I hoped an attack would take, it fizzled. It’s hard to get excited when Sky was so dominant. Were other teams that unprepared or out-of-shape? Did sky team really peak at the tour and stay at their peak the whole 3 weeks?

    Hopefully next year other teams will be more prepared.

  9. Big Mikey

    Randomactsofcycling. +1

    The villain might have to be the swimming coach that apparently “revolutionized” training for team sky’s cyclists. The sight of Porte decimating the peloton day after day left me incredulous.

  10. Souleur

    I must say I disagree. I thought this TdF was as beautiful as any, in its own way.

    It was a brilliant ride, pulled off by Wiggo (finally), and he did so with such strength, it is for some perhaps, boring. But he did ride with panache, and his own style, and he put some serious time in pulling up front for his team members and did alot of work to pay back, and Sky finally did reap benefits of alot of investments into them, monetarily and emotionally and the entirity of Britian.

    I was glad to Sagan come in to his own, perhaps with need to still refine some of his finishing touch, but young and spirited and a new contender.

    I was glad to see Tejay really complete a great tour, and to add something of American hope into the future.

    I was glad to see the Gorilla finally take a couple of stages in brute strength, and overcome his past weakness’s and complaining.

    The villian, i am not sure it ALWAYS has a villian, in terms of a plot, or story or if reality ALWAYS has to have that. We certianly do oftentimes have one, and for a writer I suppose it makes the job easier, but this TdF was like I said IMHO beautiful in its own way, on its own merits and one that will go down in the history books like others before it.

    So it was smooth, fine. Lets enjoy it. Cycling has enough drama already. Just because we caught an easy tailwind in July doesn’t necessarily mean we should look for something difficult. It beats shooting ourselves in the foot like we have done so many times already…

  11. Alex TC

    I guess we’re always looking to the past in a romantic, heroic view, and hoping of future drama-filled race action exploits. But we’re hardly ever satisfied with what’s going on at the Tour de France. Even during the EPO era I remember people complaining of boring, dull races quite often. Looking into history books we realize it was a common complaint in generations past too, so this must be some kind of Tour phenomenon or something. Not sure how or even if this happens in other races or sports. Funny thing.

    We even talk about extreaterrestrial feats with a touch of nostalgia (think Rassmussen attacking Contador or Ullrich fighting Lance or even The Cobra flying up a 23km hill in the big ring at warp speed). Look at what it did to cycling…

    Of course, the specialization the focus on the Tour and radios and power training and wind tunnel and smart tactics have all contributed to this perception, however we call it. But all it takes is a trip to France in July – preferably on a bike – to see how special it is, regardless of team or rider domination. It’s magical no matter what.

    As boring as it may look it’s never monotonous to me. I won’t say it was the best TdF I’ve seen since In the last years, but still I deeply enjoy it. And I find it cool that it is diverse.


  12. Mr Bad Example

    Was the contest for GC “boring”? Yeah, I suppose so – though it wasn’t as if Nibali/Evans weren’t WILLING to attack, it’s just that Sky covered every threat that arose.

    For me, Tom Voeckler might have been worth the price of admission all on his own – for his facial expressions, never mind his racing.

  13. WV Cycling

    Call me crazy, but:

    1.) Keep stages at a maximum length of 150km, but staying closer to 120km.
    2.) Race radios be partially or completely removed (ex: one rider per team, or something like that…)
    3.) Bring back time bonuses

    The first one will never happen, but we all know the pro cyclists could go full gas for 60-100 miles, and create a higher level of urgency and tension. With time bonuses, those seconds add up, and sprints, mountains, etc become so much more important.

    Think about it, Froome would have had the Yellow Jersey if there were time bonuses, solely on the fact that he crossed lines first.

    ***When is Prudhomme’s reign over?

  14. Diablo de Acero

    I thought the whole under current of the Tour was exciting (Voekler,Sagan,Van Garderen and others). I think money or sponsorship inequity might be the culprit here. Think N.Y. Yankees vs a small market team. Not fun very fun to watch. It would more exciting and harder to control if the squads were just smaller. A four man team would be good. Doubling the amount of teams would make for better racing. More sponsors. More geographical representation. More cheering! The whole controlling of GC would be tricker and more demanding. Also Time Trails are just lost on all of my non cycling friends. The goofy helmets and skin suits are not as appealing as you think.

  15. Jesus from Cancun

    I’m with Souleur and also WV Cycling. I have been a Wiggo fan for many years, and for the last 3 I was hoping to see him podium at the Tour sometime.

    But this Tour seemed to be taylor-made for him, and this combined with the strenght and discipline of every member of his team made for a bullyish domination of the GC. And most of us cheer for the David rather than the Golliath.

    I was also hoping to see more from Nibali in the mountains, but I think he realized he was not going to beat the Wiggo/Froome tandem, and sometimes he was just hanging on for dear life.

    Only one thing I didn’t like. Wiggo could have let Froome chase Valverde for that stage win. Froome was not going to take yellow from him with those few seconds, and the huge TT was coming up. That would have been fair, I think. I didn’t like, but I understand Froome’s gesturing to Wiggo during the last couple Ks. It was more for TV than for Wiggo, I am sure.

    It was a good Tour, with good sub-plots; Sagan’s crushing the competition for Green early on, Voeckler’s awakening from death to earn a hard fought mailloit a pois, Cav’ working for his team leader and getting paid back in the last two sprint stages… and the best of it, following through Charles Pelkey’s and Family live updates.

    Long Live Le Tour!!

  16. gmknobl

    It was boring this year because of the lack of attacks by favorites. Seeing someone a bit unexpected get a stage win was fun, as always. And Voeckler is always fun to watch.

    I’ve been thinking for a while, well, since the route for this year was announced, that the Tour was tailor made for Wiggins. As long as he was on form, he would win because of the time trialing. He upped his game to his best in climbing but still could have lost three minutes on the four big mountain stages and won, meaning he could have climbed like he did with garmin almost and won.

    But here’s the undercurrent I’ve been thinking about: the TdF organizers decided they would make a tour for Wiggins and company on purpose because of him and the London Olympics. Just as they have varied the route in the past to apparently favor one or two riders or make it unfavorable for some riders, they did this deliberately with an eye towards handing a victory to Wiggins, et. al.

    I don’t know how they’ll tack next year. One would hope the race would have some harder finishing climbs but not necessarily harder mountain stages overall. Certainly, they’ll reduce the miles of TTing but maybe put in a TTT. But who will this benefit? If they can put one more year together, and I’m not sure they can, Garmin would benefit from a TTT. If on form and make the focal point of the year the TdF, so could Liquigas. Both those teams have GT riders that can do well in the usually less hilly than the Giro and Vuelta TdF. I think we’ll see a route that won’t favor Wiggins so much but Froome is another matter. Make a longer, harder finishing climb and he’ll be equal to or better than Wiggins overall. If Sky is really about putting the best man forward for the route then Froome may well be the leader but Wiggins can’t be happy about being a support person, can he? We’ll see.

    So, there you have it. Though I haven’t said it, that make the ASO the villains, somewhat, this year. They pick and choose who they want to do well by tailoring a course for or against someone(s). This year was a perfect example of that.

  17. peter lin

    Seeing others comments, the most interesting/fun parts for me was Sagan, Cav and voeckler. Even though voeckler is seen as a wild man at times, he is fun to watch. You can never guess what he will do. Sagan’s youthful antics gave me a good laugh. Cav’s sprint the last week was impressive.

  18. Robot

    I think the villain this year was the Olympics. Too many guys racing the Tour with one eye on Olympic glory, so not burning too many matches. Would Sagan have taken the green jersey if Cavendish didn’t have a road race medal to think about? I doubt it.

    I also think Contador will make a great villain next year. Whether you think he was guilty or not, a rider returning from suspension will always play the black hat to the just-crowned victor. I’m looking forward to it, not to mention el Pisolero’s propensity for attacking on the steeps.

  19. Eto

    My interest in the Tour waivered after the first, maybe the second week. Fabian’s reign however short was based on a signature (and belivable) performance. Volkler’s and Segan’s, the same. Tejay, Froome and anyone else who clearly showed the talent for the future, were a highlight.

    I, like others, am suspect of how Team Sky rode so strong at the front for three weeks. Ten years ago when we saw that for the first time, it was exciting. The question remains… if the difference between winning and coming second is down to 1%, were the performances we witnessed within the realm of feasibility?

    I am not as faithful a believer these days.

  20. RUV

    I would have like to see Wiggins exert his presence in the Tour in more than two TTs. I find it hard to be enthused when the yellow jersey is towed up the mountains and doesn’t animate any portion of the race. Maybe it’s just me, but I like when the yellow jersey wins/dominates mountain stage(s) to show the others how it’s done. Perhaps it’s not possible in the era of race radios and power meters or whatever.

    I never watched Indurain win the Tours. Was this year’s tour similar to those years?

    Anyway, this year’s route seems tailor made for Wiggo and I can’t see him repeating his win in any race with more mountain top finishes and less kms of TT.

  21. Schmacchi

    Too many crashes, not enough summit finishes, and no real challengers. But my main issue is that, other than Bob Roll popping in to show that goofy smile and throw in a retort (complete with his unique hand jestures), the coverage would be much better if Phil and Paul did all of it. The US commentators are always superfluous.

  22. Diablo de Acero

    One good or interesting thing about Sky doing well at the tour, is the fact that they won bikes not made the big three. Hats off to Pinarello!

  23. Lachlan

    I guess a lot of people liked it when a certain american dominated the tour far more outrageously (against a since provenly doped field) but dont like it when someone from another country does). It seems odd that the charges are at the same time “too boring and not dominant enough” whilst also “clearly so dominant they must have doped” (although most people are too chicken to actually say so in the comments other than indirectly).

    I am a cyclist, and more so was a racer, purely because of Greg Lemond in 1989.. yet he did less well in the mountains than Brad did this year. (not a follower of any one but Froome)

    I cemented my love of bike racing in the Indurain era… when the domination and style was similar but without the interesting sub plots of this years tour.

    I enjoyed the crazy racing of the Lance and Virenque… but know that that was not “human” (as Brad so midly put-down Richard’s critique.

    What I saw were some of the best individual stages wins I’ve seen in years… Sagan over Cancellara. Froom over Evans… Wiggins in the ITT;s, Cancellara in the prologue… “Little Tommy” Voeckler in the mountains.

    One thing perhaps I missed seeing was a worthy challenger… but that’s on Nibali and Evans, not Wiggin’s to explain.

    The overall classification may have started to look obvious after P des BF, but to find to boring I fear means you either weren’t watching the actual racing (only reading the GC standings after each stage), still want the superhuman insanity of the 1990’s, or simply wanted Levi or some other favored rider to do well instead.

    If you think it was an easy tour… shame on you. If you think Wiggin’s and sky dominated like Lance… shame about your memory. And if you think it was boring… go rewatch some amazing finishes, including Sunday… and from pretty much every sprint ending to Froome on Pd BF, to killer TT performances to a some great breakaways (Voeckler, Miller, Sanchez Rolland incase you didn’t notice).

    There was plenty amazing racing there, like every year, so I’m not too sorry if the journalists weren’t given their real “villain” thanks to Froome’s better judgement. I guess some of us prefer to see great human riding rather than an easy story for the journalists.

  24. Lachlan

    Ps – I will always want more summit finishes… and though I loved seeing Wiggin’s win this year, I’d love to see a true mountain tour in 2013 for an in-form Froome, Contador, Schleck, Teejay etc to battle out.

    But even as a climber myself, and summit finish fan, I know that’s not exclusively what the tour has ever or will ever be about. Love it for what it is in every edition, there was loads to love this year from a racing point of view… if only you look.

  25. GoJad

    I’d like to see Sky/Wiggins race without powermeters. Without data, robots have no clue, and subsequently no hope. Tommy V – you’re the man.

  26. Bob

    This tour wasn’t missing a Villian. It was missing a Hero.
    It had a perfect villain in Team Sky/Wiggins. It was all there. Relentless efficiency and control, an elite 2ic defending the leader, all dressed in black, snuffing out any resistance without breaking a sweat. It was so cliche that its almost funny. Cycling without panache, romance or humanity.

    If Froome had attacked he wouldn’t have been the villain, it would be a turn from the dark side.

  27. Full Monte

    Cavendish wasn’t boring. His sprints were electrifying; he’s a once-in-a-generation sprinting talent and a joy to watch.

    Sagan wasn’t boring. He showed amazing poise and strength; as he matures and his power increases and he hones his instincts (and TT and climbing), he may become one of the greats.

    Team Sky wasn’t boring. They stuck to the plan, rode mercilessly, and efficiently; every attack was reeled in because the pace was kept so high, a rider was gassed after a few minutes just trying to break contact and/or stay away.

    The crashes weren’t boring. They were all too common, however. Too many riders on roads too narrow, too many directors barking the same orders into too many radios. I would rather see the favorites stay in the race and compete rather than crash out in early stages. Fix this.

    France isn’t boring. It just isn’t. Look at it!

    The drama at RadioShack-Nissan isn’t boring. It is distressing, however. Not sure what’s going on over there, but it doesn’t pass the smell test. That some of the guys on that team still had enough personal pride and mutual respect to fight for the team classification shows character.

    The simmering undercurrent of the Lance Armstrong USADA case wasn’t boring. That riders on this Tour would be coming home to possibly testify against their former teammate, receive their own punishments, forego the Olympics, and begin their own retirement is a subplot full of intrigue.

    The tacks were not boring. They were frightening, and a warning shot over the bow of how exposed the course, the riders, and the fans are during road racing events. It was despicable, cowardly, and a reminder for all of us to not take grand events like the TdF for granted. Idiots and radicals could someday make such events a thing of the past.

    Each stage had its own story arc. It’s own hero. Characters emerged again and again, popping up to enter the plot, and through it all, Sky was grinding away like robots – the unstoppable force.

    Boring? Many days, I watched both the stage then the recap that evening with my wife. We’re both in Tour withdrawal, two days later. I wish it was longer. I wish there were more stages. I wish I could go home tonight and watch another recap while I pedal on the trainer.

    Boring? That’s what summer TV becomes, once the Tour is over. At least we have the Olympics.

  28. Hammerhed

    My favorite part of each day was watching “Chris Horner’s Diary” to get his take on the action. The guy is so entertaining, so upbeat, so alive, that even if I had been bored while watching the stage, and sorry to say I frequently was bored, Horner forced me to rethink the action. Another highlight of the Tour for me was watching James Strait and Frankie Andreu analyze the day’s events. Unlike Horner, they seldom caused me to rethink what I had just seen, but they always made me laugh and provoked a little thought. I’m sorry to say that all of NBC’s guys (except for Roll and the “man on the street” whose name escapes me) put me to sleep.
    But was the race boring? Curiously, this year the sprint stages were interesting, way more that usual, thanks to Cav’s ambiguous role, Sagan’s ascendancy, and Griepels emergence as a true numero uno top stud Go-rilla mofo. For the first time ever, I actually liked Greipel, probably because he has quit whining and started winning. With the GC guys, I was most impressed with Froome’s (final) refusal to turn on Bradley. Actually, I think Wiggo, after some initial difficulty, would have/could have run down Froome and punished him severely for his treason. So, though it made for compelling TV to watch Froome struggle with his demons who were screaming for him to attack Bradley and to forget honor, loyalty, and obedience, I was very glad to see the honorable man prevail and the villain slain before he had a chance to materialize.

  29. Mark Schwitau

    All you guys who think the tour was boring should: …. Start training, make a continental team, switch to a pro team, move to Europe, race all year without injury, get chosen to ride the tour as part of your team …… Then attack every day or do something so you can make the tour less boring. Ill be waiting. If you think this past tour was boring, then you don’t really understand the beautiful subtleties of the race ….. I might imagine that you are just a GC headline watcher.

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