2014 Tour de France—Bravo Nibali!

2014 Tour de France—Bravo Nibali!

This weekend brought to an end what has been one of the most dramatic and exciting Tours in recent years. Due to all of the crashes, crazy weather, and insanity within the peloton, each day proved to be an adventure. With the departures of both Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali’s dominance of the race was that much more obvious.

Saturday’s one and only time trial proved to be one of the most pivotal stages of this Tour. It didn’t have any impact on who was crowned the champion of the Tour, as Nibali had it solidly buttoned up (and outshone all of the other GC rivals anyway), but it did change the order of who stood on the final podium in Paris, as well as the lesser GC placings.

Sunday’s parade lap along the Champs-Élysées crowned the virtual Best Sprinter in the World®, as the final stage of the Tour has been dubbed “the Sprinter’s World Championship” for a number of years. Kittel continued his dominance and bookended the Tour with opening and closing stage wins for a second year in a row.

Here are a few of the things we learned and revelations;

  • Vincenzo Nibali and Astana went to the Tour to win, not just compete. There were questions prior to the Tour about Nibali’s form, after he’d had a quietly lackluster Spring. Other questions existed about the strength of the team supporting him. Winning the Giro last year against a field of GC contenders that did not have quiet the same firepower as the Tour (Team SKY especially), was not seen as quite the same thing as trying to win the Tour. Both Nibali and Astana answered the critics; Nibali wore yellow on all but three stages and won four stages. Many have already compared his dominance of the race to the way Eddy Merckx dominated Tours in the past. Nibali took yellow on stage two and only surrendered it for one day to Tony Gallopin of Lotto, before taking it back the next day with his second stage win. There have been critics who have suggested this victory is somehow “hollow” without Contador or Froome to challenge him, but Nibail was already in yellow before either departed the race. Nibali rode the closest to flawless race as possible, answering the attacks of his rivals with ease. Whether on mountain stages, flat transitional stages, or even cobbles- Nibali and Astana proved to be the strongest. Period.
  • The French finally have a crop of riders who might one day actually win the Tour. Not yet, but one day soon, riders like Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet, Pierre Rolland could become Tour winners. Not only that, but riders like Bryan Coquard and Arnaud Démare are now coming up through the sprinters ranks to become contenders for wins in the crazy sprints of the Tour. Nacer Bouhanni, who was left off the FDJ roster this year, will certainly be among those fighting for the fast finishes. The rebirth of French cycling is finally here. Raise a glass of pinot, eat some stinky cheese, and rejoice! Allez!
  • US riders are among the best in the Tour peloton, even if they have problems staying on their bikes sometimes. Tejay Van Garderen was sitting in 6th place heading into the TT and finished in 5th after a strong ride in the final TT. Barring his early crashes and his “bad day” on stage 16, Tejay rode a consistently good Tour, even if a bit conservative. BMC rode well in their support of his aspirations and showed they can be a threat to the podium. Andrew Talansky and Garmin had a rough Tour, with the great exception of Ramunas Navardauskas’ stage 19 win (and his 3rd place finish in Paris). Talanksy began the Tour very well and was an aggressive rider, but crashes ultimately brought an end to his Tour campaign and put Garmin into stage hunting mode. Talansky did show that he has the legs to contend, even if he lacks a little of the calm maturity needed to finish off the deal. That said, he’s going to be back to contend, along with van Garderen, in the future. #murica
  • It’s fair to say that Mark Cavendish is one of the fastest sprinters in the world, but he’s no longer alone as the dominant sprinter in the world. And, for that matter, as impressive as his four wins were, Marcel Kittel is not alone either. Alexander Kristoff has joined the ranks of top-tier sprinters this year, crowding the already hectic sprints. Andre Greipel is not giving up either, and the young French sprinters Démare and Coquard are getting closer to making their marks. Kittel’s teammate John Degenkolb is also an outside threat at all times. In this Tour, Peter Sagan lead the points classification since stage 2 and never relinquished it. He didn’t win a stage, but was the Tour’s most consistent finisher. Though not a “pure sprinter”, the Slovakian kid with crazy eyebrows sure kept things interesting.
  • Thanks to the departures of Froome and Contador, the Tour was a more interesting battle for GC scraps. The previous two Tours were convincingly dominated by SKY, but this year saw the “marginal gains” juggernaut implode upon itself. Richie Porte was thrust prematurely into the leader’s role, and his lack of experience showed, as well as a possible lack of form. After sitting nicely on Nibali’s wheels for the first few stages as SKY’s “Plan B”, the speedy plummet from the podium was spectacular. Alejandro Valverde fought gamely, though finishing off of the final podium yet again. Thibaut Pinot was one of the GC revelations, now that he’s conquered his fear of descending. Romain Bardet finished off the podium as well, but showed great potential and a hint of aggressiveness. Jean Christophe Peraud, the 37 year old former mountainbiker and Bardet’s teammate, finished 2nd overall thanks to his TT skills. Van Garderen began as a true threat but slipped out of contention, but showed great maturity by riding the time trial of his life, and moved up to 5th. After spending the first week of the Tour with a two second lead over Sagan, and then his teammate Jakob Fuglsang, Nibali began to steadily build his lead to more than seven minutes. It’s hard to see how either Froome or Contador would have been able to fight such a strong Nibali, but we’ll obviously never know. Until next year.

Saturday was the Tour’s lone TT and the 54km test showed that NIbali was truly the dominant GC rider of the race with his strong 4th place finish behind Tony Martin. Peraud rode himself into 2nd and Pinot put in the TT performance of his life to salvage 3rd on GC. Both Frenchmen made it onto the podium, giving France something to truly celebrate this year. Sunday’s sprint finish on the Champs-Élysées was another showcase for the fastest finishers in the world, brilliantly won by Kittel (again) ahead of the impressive Kristoff.

After groaning about the Tour becoming too boring, robotic, lacking passion, and generally “predictable” in recent years, this year’s race proved that bicycle racing is anything but predictable. The weather, the riders, and the course itself all combined to give us one of the most interestingly entertaining races in years. Many will question SKY’s decision to leave Wiggins at home, given the departure of Froome and Porte’s sputtering performance. Others will continue to suggest that Nibali’s win is less impressive without Contador in the race, whose aggressive and attacking style surely would’ve been interesting to contrast with Nibali’s equally aggressive style. But, the fact is that Nibali simply managed his race better than either Froome or Contador, and also brilliantly won four stages along the way. Not since Pantani in 1998 has an Italian won the Tour, which Nibali was all too aware of, and that historic fact weighed on him. An Italian, riding on a team sponsored by the government of Kazakhstan, on a US bike brand’s bicycles, and with riders from numerous countries won the Tour. Cycling is truly global and the Tour showcased that as well, including the first ever rider from China (Cheng Ji/ Giant-Shimano) to start and finish the race. In the aftermath of innumerable doping scandals in recent years, creating the darkest period in professional cycling, the Tour emerged into the light of day seemingly reborn. Yes, fears still exist about unknown doping positives waiting to be discovered, but the peloton and the cycling world gave a relaxed sigh of relief as the Tour closed elegantly on the Champs-Élysées.
Vive le Tour!

 

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21 comments

  1. MCH

    This was one of the best Tours in many, many years. I think one of the key elements in making it a great edition of the race was the brilliant route. It was so refreshing to see something different than the traditional flat-climbs-transition-climbs-time trial route. All that’s missing is a really difficult final stage rather than the boring procession into Paris.
    I just saw a interview with Froomey where he states that Nibali was never really challenged. Exactly wrong. He was challenged, and the challengers (Froome and Contador) were found wanting. Rather than whining, perhaps Froome should add some Spring classics to his race calendar.
    Great route, great race. Here’s hoping they do it again next year.


    1. Author
      Tim Jackson

      I’d agree that Nibali was given multiple tests throughout the Tour. Not just form the other riders, but from the course and conditions as well. Unlike Froome and Contador, he made it out unscathed. Again, he managed his race much better than they did. You can’t complain about the winner if you weren’t there to challenge him.

      The race felt a lot more like the Giro, aside from the usual spastic amount of crashes that only the Tour seems able to provide. There was much more randomness and each day provided surprises, more or less. Add in the fact that the French riders showed up to race, not roll over, and things were pretty awesome all around.

  2. Gary

    Good summary. It was indeed interesting every day. Sadly, critics will always say Nibali won but with an asterik next to it because of Froome and Contador not being there. Seems you have to survive the crashes and finish the race to win.


    1. Author
      Tim Jackson

      Thanks. It was an intriguing Tour to watch this year, which it made it more fun to “cover.”

      Nibali won. Froome and Cantador were already NOT in yellow when Nibali was. Nibs deserves to hold his head proudly high. He’s now won all three Grand Tours. Rare accomplishment. Now, let’s see if he’s able to pull off the Giro/Tour double he’s hinted to.


    1. Author
      Tim Jackson

      Damn, YOU went and made my day again. Thanks! I really enjoyed the race, for a change. It’s been such a snooze-fest the past few years. It was great to watch SKY implode, not out of spite, but because it showed that dominance is not as possible now as it was during the dope-fueled past. Sure, I have no delusions that nobody was on the sauce this year, but it sure looks like fewer of them are. I hope anyway.

      It was an awesome three weeks with many great stories and plenty of nuance to decipher. I enjoyed it. Maybe Padraig will let me chirp in during the Vuelta too … looks like it might be a barnburner this year with Horner looking to defend and Talansky, Froome, AND Contador possibly there to finish out their seasons. Lordy… I want some paella now!

    2. Fuzz

      Can I also toss in kudos for whoever took and/or chose the photo above. Just brilliant. A truly perfect bookend to a great race.

  3. Champs

    If Nibali’s win was against thin competition, then at least it was with panache, a word oddly missing from this piece.

    He took time early and started hot. When the favorites took a day off, he could have let someone else defend. Instead, he reclaimed yellow with a stage win and never looked back, bagging even more stages and building on his lead. As icing on the cake, finishing just off-podium in the time trial proves that it was never about insurance.

    Few, if any, could have predicted this Tour. So many favorites were lost. Nibali probably wasn’t the prime pick for most. The time trial looked so much more decisive on paper. Shall we try a similar course next year?


    1. Author
      Tim Jackson

      It was a beaut! Nibali earned it. No taking anything away from him at all. And yes, panache was a big part of his race, but “dominance” and “calm” seemed even stronger. Nobody since Luis Ocana has worn yellow as long in one Tour as Nibali did. If Nibali is guilty of anything, it’s having to wear that terrible Italian champion version of the Astana kit. Thankfully it was replaced by the maillot jaune for nearly the entire three weeks. Man, that thing is ugly.

  4. Paul

    I enjoyed this summary.
    It was great watching AG2R , FDJ and Europcar so competitive and involved. What did you think of the wildcard teams?

    Netapp: contended for some stages and animated.
    IAM: crashed Greipel out and got yelled at
    MTN – were they there?


    1. Author
      Tim Jackson

      Agreed- the French teams came out to play, even Cofidis!

      Wild card teams did great;
      NetApp- no stage wins, but Leopold Konig finished in the top ten and his teammate Jan Barta finished 3rd in the TT.
      IAM Cycling- no stage wins, but they had Elmiger on the attack constantly it seemed, Chavanel was always active, and Haussler got a 3rd on one of the stages.
      Bretagne-Seche- no stage wins either, but they were almost always in the breakaways. I had hopes for them in particular, since they had little to lose and plenty of scrappy talent. I hope they get another invite next year.

      The Tour always produces great stories about teams punching above their weight, or falling on their faces. To paraphrase- “on any given Sunday”- on any given day in July.

  5. SusanJane

    I don’t know about all of you, but I’m tired. It was not exciting enough for me to be glad it was over. Wet blanket aside, it was a good tour. Much more then I expected. I was over-prepared to be bored by Sky stamped on everything. But that lack of boredom came with a high price. Everyone talks about the favorites that crashed out, forgetting about all the other blood donors that went out with them. My highlight was Garmin winning their stage as team strategy. It was fabulous to see the small team get the win. It was also great that it was old fashioned and hard won. NetApp is way up my list of favorite teams now. Well and good, but I’m still pissy about Nibali. I despise arrogance. I had no problem with his Italian attitude when he won the Giro. But this is beyond that now. He won fair and square, but my heroes don’t do arrogant sound bites and press conferences moaning about the lack of opponents and not having to try to win stages. I’ll quote Bill the Cat in reply: Ack! Thbbft!


    1. Author
      Tim Jackson

      It had plenty of plot twists, and even though Nibali and Astana controlled things well, they had challenges- Nibali was just that much stronger. The battle for 2-10th places was very fun to watch. The French were amazing, as was Rafal Majka, Alexander Kristoff stepped up, Garmin and their gutsy attacks by Bauer and then Navardauskas just showed heart. Lots to bite into. And I’m totally with you and the NetApp thing. Leopold Konig is somebody to keep an eye on. And, being that I’m a knuckle-dragging sprinter, I loved watching Kittel do what he does. There were plenty of other highlights for sure.

      And I forgive Nibali for a bit of arrogance, given that he had been all but written off because of a lackluster Spring campaign. Then he quietly built up for the Tour and arrived prepared and confident. He earned it.

  6. Full Monte

    Very nice recap. Loved this year’s Tour. I get up, put on coffee, feed the cats, start breakfast, then turn on the NBCSports at 7:00 am and watch till it’s time to run off to work (where I run a European feed of the Tour, catching bits and pieces between calls, meetings, etc). Then I come home, attend to any chores, get in a ride, then pick up the race where I left off earlier in the morning.

    For three straight weeks.

    And every year, I have the same problem, and it leads me to ask: How do you overcome Tour letdown? How do you begin to fill the habit, the ritual, that becomes near obsession for three weeks in the middle of summer?

    Seriously, for a week afterwards, I get up, go downstairs, and just wish for a minute Phil and Paul were doing my morning news. “Yes, and here we have a massive pile-up on the Eisenhower.” “Right you are, Phil, it’s interesting to note that this highway, 290, used to be called the Congress Expressway, and now it’s affectionally called the Ike by locals.” “Thanks for that, Paul, and now our helo has a spectacular shot of the Loop area and I do believe it’s focusing in now on the Bean…”

    Serious Tour withdrawals here. Happens every year.


    1. Author
      Tim Jackson

      This is the first year in a long time that I can say I developed “feelings” for the Tour again. Happily, I might add. The Vuelta is not far off now, and it should be a great race with injured riders returning to save their seasons and Horner cranking things up to defend his win last year. September is gonna be much more awesome than usual, me thinks.

  7. Larry T.

    Where are (were) these so-called displays of arrogance from Nibali? I’ve been following his career for awhile now and somehow have missed them. To me the comparison in many ways is to one of the classiest champions of all time, Felice Gimondi. I watched the first two weeks of LeTour on Italian TV, then followed the final week online…how did I miss this “arrogance”?

    1. Grego

      I tried to link this graphic the first time, but missed.
      It’s a graphical representation of the stage 20 ITT finishing times.
      #panzerwagen indeed!

  8. thelastbard

    I think it’s worth noting that Richie Porte was also suffering from the 2014 bane of the peleton du jour, the bronchial infection. The reports I read neglected to mention if he was taking an antibiotic regiment like van Garderen did to fight it. While Porte had a rough build up to the Tour (remember, he was down to ride the Giro as an outright leader until illness and injury forced him to take a break and wasn’t even on Sky’s list for France), he was still situated well for a run for the win. We might never know if his form was good enough to stay in second or even win.

    Having said that, I think this has been one of the best Tours in recent memory. The battles for the podium, the weather, the cobbles, the Vosges, the Panzerwagen, Sagan’s eternal second places on stages – all of it was amazing in the way it made the terrain of France an even more important character in the outcome of the race.

    Even though Nibali led the race in a dominant fashion, a lot of the intrigue and drama surrounded how he marshaled his forces to control the race for so long and if his team could deliver Nibali to Paris. Could he ride this well for the whole Tour? When will he crack? When will his team crack? Who would become the wildcard, spoiling the coronation of Nibali? When will that odd supernatural luck that often wraps a Tour hopeful as he doses his efforts toward yellow in Paris fall away?

    For the later, it never fell away. While hard work, training and a good team are givens to winning in France, luck will always be an important part of becoming Tour champion.


    1. Author
      Tim Jackson

      Porte fought gamely. He just wasn’t ready- physically and possibly mentally- at *that* moment. I have no doubt he’ll step into the role when he’s given better prep and time to get his head into it. It’s a totally different kettle of fish to prepare for the Tour as a Super Domestique versus Team Leader. He did his best, but failed- through zero fault of his own. And he put on a great show in Paris, going off the front late in the stage. Gamer.

      The podium battle was great. Nibali was calmly dominant. He answered every attack without showing any fear or worry. Even when isolated, he was able to defend himself. The lower steps of the podium provided the best entertainment value. It was an awesome battle between the French and Valverde. Tejay made a go of it- as did Talansky. I look forward to watching them both continue their trajectories.

      Each of the Grand Tours have become very specialized and the crop of GC contenders varies a lot. Each has riders dedicated to trying to win the race, and others there for non-winning objectives. We’ll likely never see all the best GC riders show up to the same race in their best shape again- the reality of racing has just changed too much. That said, the major tours have become a bit more interesting, starting with the rebirth of the Vuelta about a decade ago, then the Giro, and now the Tour.

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