I was watching a shot from a motorcycle as it sped from past a Sky riding getting dropped from the main group, past a dwindling peloton containing Alejandro Valverde, Tejay Van Garderen and two French kids, only one of whom was known to me before this year’s Tour: Thibaut Pinot. The other, Romain Bardet, was sitting on the wheel of a soon-to-be launched Vincenzo Nibali, who was busily surveying the remaining members of the group with the watchful of eye a school teacher, and yes, to my eye, he had the appearance and demeanor of someone in charge.
That Sky rider who was getting dropped? Richie Porte, proving he wasn’t ready for this leadership and that Brailsford knows how to develop talent, but not a team. In those moments I experienced a flash of appreciation, the excitement of the unknown, and the satisfaction that comes with hopes realized. A thought occurred to me.
This is the most exciting Tour de France I’ve seen in decades. It even eclipses 1999 and 1996. By that I mean watching a race where the outcome doesn’t seem assured, where each passing day could bring yet another surprise, a Tour where even the flat stages matter and no one team has the power to dictate the action.
This year’s race is the ideal antidote to last year’s race, which I don’t mind criticizing as the least exciting edition of the Tour since some time during Miguel Indurain’s reign.
Here again I must refer to Bill McGann’s amazing “Story of the Tour de France.” I’d love to watch a series of retrospectives on the Tours of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. What comes through in McGann’s accounts more than most that I’ve read is how those guys raced. They made far fewer strategic choices. Riders weren’t nearly as specialized, which is why you’d see the likes of Eddy Merckx and Cyrille Guimard contesting sprints.
I found myself thinking back on the mountain stages of those Tours dominated by Merckx after Van Garderen told an interviewer that they didn’t really race the descents. But that was more than a week ago, when Chris Froome was still in the race. Saturday I watched Jean Christophe Peraud drive the pace with teammate Bardet locked to his wheel. I watched him drive the pace down the Col d’Izoard.
I sat breathless as I watched some of the world’s finest riders use the whole width of the road to truly race downhill.
The Tour has changed rather significantly in the last 40 years, more than many people recognize. Not only were there more time trials in the days of Merckx and Jacques Anquetil, those races against the clock were often longer. Merckx’ win in ’69 came with the help of a prologue, a team time trial and three individual time trials. Anquetil pulled on the yellow jersey in the ’62 Tour only after conquering the 68-kilometer final time trial.
What I’m espousing isn’t a nostalgia for those riders or even that period, but a change to the way the Tour proceeds. Were we to see cobblestones every year, more time trialing and bigger, less fragile riders, the descents would matter more, the racing would be necessarily more dynamic and the climbing specialists less assured in overall victory.
Consider this: I submit that if we were to swap the eras of Andy Hampsten and Alberto Contador, Contador would have been less successful as a grand tour rider in the ’80s and ’90s, while Hampsten would have won more grand tours racing in the post-Armstrong era. What makes them different was Hampsten’s understanding of how a race may unfold on the down, the flat, as well as the up.
Of course, of the many surprises this year’s Tour has served, the sheer durability of Vincenzo Nibali has to be one of the biggest. I gave him credit for being a fine climber, but didn’t think he would prove to be so versatile. That was always the point to the grand tours, that their winners should be as all-encompassing as a multi-tool. And with the Pyrenees looming, we will soon find out who has the Torx driver.
Images: Fotoreporter Sirotti