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!