Real Racing

Real Racing

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

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  1. Zach M

    I couldn’t agree more, Padraig. I’ve always watched the Tour de France because I love cycling and the history and landscape that goes along with the Tour, but this year I’m watching because I love the racing. I’ve had multiple discussions with friends over the last couple weeks about how this tour is showing us who is the best all-around cyclist, not just a climbing specialist. I want to see all the strengths and weaknesses of the riders exposed – I want to see the best “athlete” win the race. I hope the Tour realizes how exciting this race has been and looks to bring in more cobbles and consistent variety of terrain from the start for the future.

  2. Tom in Albany

    This has been a fun year. Sad that ‘berto and Froome-y crashed out but, it’s blown the doors open on this one. Nibali certainly seems to have it down but, we’re not done yet.

    For those that don’t, or haven’t, c’mon over to live TdF updates with his patented non-race-related-blah-blah-blah (crucial in a flat stage with nothign going on for a while). IT’s entertaining and informative and, well, fun and silly as well!

  3. Full Monte

    With the absence of the Sky and Tinkoff Saxo GC narratives, what I’ve come to appreciate are riders who would usually be overlooked in the coverage, or given but a casual mention. With this year’s tour, we’ve met Jakob Fuglsang, and he’s got a new fan in me. Courage, effort, support — after leaving his skin all over the road, he showed up the next day and pulled harder than ever. Not a grimace. Not a complaint. A Danish hardman. And Jack Bauer: Who wasn’t on the edge of their seat, hoping for his break to stick all the way to the finish? You could see him riding for the whole organization, after the disappointment of Talansky abandoning, as Vaughters seeks to find a new sponsor to replace Garmin — here was Bauer carrying it all on his back. What an effort! His tears of exhaustion and disappointment immediately afterwards, his teammates gathering around him…as fans, how can we not be emotionally invested? Touched by such a heroic effort?

    Yes, Padraig, compared to the constant drone about (and from) Sky the past two years, this is the best Tour in recent memory.

  4. SusanJane

    Being under the waterline with this year’s Tour it’s a bit hard to remember my two favorite races from last year: the Giro and the Vuelta. The Tour this year has had something in each chapter which is both a good thing and a bad thing. I _hate_ watching crashes. The first time I can live with, but the same one over and over is not my idea of good watching. More rider and staff interviews is… not so good. Outside of Chris Honer and a few others they are all mouthing the party lines. If TJ says “consistent” one more time I’ll scream (however true). But Vande Velde is such a hurricane of fresh everything in commentary that I pay attention every time he opens his mouth. Bob Roll looks like a cutout in comparison. Vande Velde still has true _passion_ for the sport and everything that happens on the bike. It’s even good when he clamps his jaws shut to keep from saying something… it was obvious he had some wild stuff that didn’t make it out. I’d pay a lot to hear him commentate uncensored. As for the race itself? Nibali won the Tour a long time ago and keeps reinforcing it. The race for the podium is the race right now — not necessarily a bad thing but not as good as Talansky turning himself and his soul inside out, Porte’s wry smile after the stage he was dropped, and Jack Bauer’s heart break. This drama takes the Tour to a whole new depth. The winners forget how much they suffered when they get all the glory. The suffering for the rest is raw and real — this Tour is serving us the peloton this time.

    1. Quentin

      I agree on the commentary. I’m hoping NBC’s long term plan is for Vande Velde to move to a more prominent role and encourage certain older and less interesting commentators to consider retirement. I’d be very curious to hear Chris Horner try a career in broadcasting when he finally retires from racing.

  5. bwebel

    I’d be all with taking the Tour in the direction you suggesting. But while this year has had interesting individual stages, “most exciting in decades” I don’t really see. The current yellow jersey holder took it on stage 2, cemented a 2+ minute lead on stage 5, and both primary rivals crashed out less than halfway through. Since that point, there’s been no challenge to him at all that he didn’t snuff out rather quickly. If Nibali cracks and loses 6 minutes tomorrow, then things could get really interesting, but if that doesn’t happen then the overall this year will have really been a snoozefest. How can it be the most exciting in decades when the overall winner wasn’t in question for over half the race? And it isn’t like the green jersey has exactly been a contest, either.

    1. Full Monte


      Indeed, Nibali has clinched the yellow, and even Van Garderen and Vande Velde said this morning that barring crash or illness, he’s going to take the GC hands down. That’s okay, though. His commanding lead means every day is a new race. Astana isn’t chasing anyone but the closest GCs, and they’re letting each race develop (much different than the Sky Train of the past two years). This gives teams a real opportunity to get in the break and fight for stages, throwing every strategy and letting different riders fry themselves up for both TV exposure and a chance to end the day on the podium. So for me, it stopped being a “Tour” awhile back (after Talansky, Froome and Contador all abandoned) and Nibali secured the yellow. It’s now a new “Race” every single day and I’m really digging getting to see new faces mixing it up with a few familiar ones — wondering who will be champion for the day. We’re getting a chance to see what New Cycling and the New Generation looks like, post EPO generation. Good stuff. Really good stuff.

  6. randomactsofcycling

    I think this is a great Tour. The races that I like are the ones that prove that to be the best, a rider has to be more than just the fittest. Nibali has certainly proven to be the most intelligent this year and while a lot of fuss was made about Sky and Tinkov riding the cobbles in preparation, Nibali was also learning from one Peter Van Petegem about how to ride those rocks. He is an excellent student. For me, it’s really been a Tour with a different chapter every day and certainly not robotic at all.
    Oh and as an Aussie, I would like to point out that Richie Porte is ill, not lacking in leadership capability. If this happened to Tejay I am sure he would be receiving more sympathy.

  7. Scott

    I agree this is one of the most exciting Tours in years. I appreciate how the Tour organizers have been making the first week more exciting the last couple of years. That said, I would also like them to decrease the importance of the mountain top finishes. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying eliminate them, just continue to round out the three week race to improve the odds of the top all-arounders. The Tour de France should be a test to determine the best all around rider, one who can time trial, climb and handle their bikes on the cobbles. Not only would this make for exciting television, but it would also help promote the sport of cycling. Now, here is where I would love to hear readers thoughts. I feel strongly that by improving the odds for all-arounders, the Tour will help cycling better promote a more healthy view of cycling and cyclists. Would viewers better relate to a guy like Sagan, who is 165 lbs, vs. a 130 lbs guy like Froome?

    1. Randomactsofcycling

      I think that is fair comment. Though I do not think that the ‘general public’ would relate better to the heavier riders. Look at Swimming: to me, distance swimmers and sprint swimmers look pretty much the same. I can see subtle variations in physique but nothing mind-blowing.
      I think that there needs to be a way to better incorporate tactics, team work and bike handling into the racing. Certainly that is what I am seeing emphasised in this year’s Tour. And I do not think that one time trial is enough. A guy like Tony Martin, who has been quite animated throughout the race, could really benefit.

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