If I had been cynical/skeptical/jaded about this Tour de France over the first two weeks, yesterday’s stage with its double ascent of Alpe d’Huez cured me. With riders leaping off the front and dropping off the back, there was so much going on, so much chaos, that I found myself riveted. I have always been a fan of the epic climbing stages, and this one delivered enough thrills to qualify for the four-ticket bounty at the state fair.
And though Chris Froome and his Sky minions have controlled the race with well-calculated and muscular performances whenever and wherever it’s been necessary, so too have his rivals taken ample opportunity to attack. The race has been anything but a stately promenade to Paris.
I was wrong in my initial belief that the green jersey competition would be more interesting than the GC. Peter Sagan is riding away with the points competition, despite not dominating either in the intermediate or finishing sprints. On the other hand, once you look past Froome, the next four GC riders are within 47 seconds of each other. With one last mountain stage to ride, podium spots are anything but assured.
The preeminence of Team Sky in three-week races seems confirmed now, though Bradley Wiggins failed to impress (or finish) the Giro. Still, the short reign of Alberto Contador is clearly over, and it remains to be seen whether racers like Vincenzo Nibali and Joaquim Rodriguez can translate Giro and Vuelta performances into French success.
Sagan has stolen Mark Cavendish’s thunder, and even Andre Greipel is finding ways to win stages. The lack of real dominance is good for the sport, both from a fan’s perspective and from a credibility standpoint. It says something powerful that Froome’s ride in France has drawn so many questions, while the seeming parity of his rivals speaks volumes about the possible cleanliness of the top tier competitors. Maybe, just maybe, this has been a good Tour de France for cycling.
This week’s Group Ride asks, what have you enjoyed about this 100th Tour de France? Did it live up to your expectations? What were the surprises? And what does it say about the current state of Grand Tour racing?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Bradley Wiggins is Tour de France champion. Let that echo for a minute, as if from a carnival loudspeaker. Let it doppler out to the outer reaches of the crowd and then come rippling back in whispers and muted applause, building to a crescendo. Let Wiggins have his moment.
Because he earned it.
Even when winning the Tour de France appears easy, a branded group ride with prize caravan and soigneurs in tow. Even with your team sitting on the front day-after-day, your rivals cowed into submission, a couple of monster time trials sealing the deal, winning the Tour de France is not easy.
First of all, it is hard to ride on the front for three weeks, even in the slipstream of an able teammate. The simple concentration necessary to hold the wheel for hours on end, staying out of trouble, always being in the right place, makes the winner worthy. It is a Chinese water torture of a task. To succeed you must not crack.
There is a tremendous amount of calculation that goes into grand tour strategy. It is one thing to say, we will ride conservatively, cover attacks and then let Bradley win the time trials, but Bradley has still got to win the time trials. Timing the effort and then producing it is a feat beyond imagining, and this too makes the winner worthy.
When the road turns up, things get unpredictable quickly (including the disposition of certain climbing domestiques). When you are a diesel engine, like Wiggins, and the stop/start of sudden attacks doesn’t suit your style, you’ve still got to hold your nerve. The man who can watch Cadel Evans go up the road, bridging to a teammate, and slowly grind out the gap deserves to win the Tour de France. It is a bluff with no aces in the blind, unless there are aces, but who knows? That is the nature of the bluff. That is the power of it.
Every day the yellow jersey performs the ceremony with podium girls and flowers, kisses on cheeks, autographing one hundred versions of the same shirt for sponsors and charities and posterity, submitting to interviews and drug tests. This is a labor on top of the labor, both physically and mentally draining. The longer you hold the jersey, the more of this you must do. Any man who can wear the jersey, perform its duties and ride into Paris still in yellow deserves to win the Tour de France.
That Wiggins had the temerity to lead teammate Mark Cavendish out for the final, winning sprint was a display of pure class. It is necessary to have class to claim the jersey.
There is more, though. First, he was a champion on the track. He rode right to the pinnacle of that discipline and had the audacity to think there was something more. Then, he remade his body in the image of a grand tour champion, beginning with that track racer’s power and then stripping away kilograms of weight and muscle to build an entirely new kind of machine.
There is finishing fourth, just off the podium, and learning that not only has the change worked, but the podium is a possibility. But then there’s still so much more. More work and more calculation, an early season of stellar form, holding, holding, holding that form for the big moment, and then executing, pulling it off and standing there while people tell you it was boring.
A true champion will always bear insults.
This Tour win was not boring, but neither did it happen in a flash. It is not easily digestible in highlight reel or in the nut graph of a newspaper story in French. It’s an epic poem in a stilted meter, a wandering tale like the Odyssey or the Aeniad, with contrived beasts and long stretches where not much transpires, but make no mistake, it is not boring.
No. Bradley Wiggins is Tour de France champion. He earned it. For the sake of the man and the sake of the sport, let’s let him enjoy it.
I was very fortunate during last year’s Tour to be unemployed. I am able to say that now, in retrospect, because after quitting a job on principle, I got the job I most wanted. At the time of course, I was nervous. Who quits a job on principle in an economy like this one?
My emergency job search turned up three good prospects, two of which I thought would be easy to get based on my qualifications and connections, the third was the job I have now, the one I really wanted. It was the long shot, and it came through. I was lucky, and as cycling teaches us over and over again, it’s better to be lucky than good.
As it turns out, I didn’t get either of the jobs I thought I was a shoe-in, because I was “overqualified.” I was too good. It’s nice to hear people think you’re good at what you do, but when you need a paycheck it’s less than cold comfort. It’s insult, and injury on top.
I bring all this up because, as I watch this year’s Tour, I see Chris Froome going through the same thing. Asked to be Bradley Wiggins’ chief lieutenant on the road, Froome has shown himself to be, on some days, even better than his boss.
First he was asked to sit up on Stage 11 when off the front with Wiggins grinding along behind. Then again today, as the Sky pair sought to overhaul a solo breakaway by Alejandro Valverde up a steep Pyrenean slope, Froome gapped his leader and had to wait.
The press have tried desperately to stir conflict within the Sky team by suggesting that Froome is resentful of having to maintain loyalty to Wiggins, while the rider’s own responses have been well measured. Clearly, Froome is doing his job, all the while reminding his bosses and everyone else that he might just be the strongest rider in France at the moment.
Without hauling out the baggage of the Hinault/LeMond intrasquad rivalry that is the template for just this situation, it should be said that pro cycling has little if any room for mutiny. Until a team leader shows himself unable to lead, as Cadel Evans has over the last few days, then a team’s total loyalty must always remain with him. The margin between victory and defeat is too fine to make any real space for freelance ambition.
So that leaves Chris Froome, quite possibly the strongest rider in the race, headed for the second step of the podium. His loyalty is admirable, but he must feel crushed not to be able to fulfill every rider’s ultimate dream, to wear yellow on the Champs Élysées.
Oh, he’ll be roundly praised, and Wiggins will pay lip service to the effort of the team. He has already made a Hinault-esque promise to help Froome win a future Tour, but it’s a bit early for the side-burned Sky captain to start playing kingmaker. Next year’s Tour promises to feature one Alberto Contador, not to mention a possibly resurgent Andy Schleck and a more-experienced Vincenzo Nibali.
On the face of it, Wiggins’ promise is generous. Beneath the surface, it is more or less worthless, almost an insult.
Chris Froome is lucky. He has a job, a good one, and a steady paycheck. He’ll be a hot property for next season as genuine grand tour GC contenders are perhaps the rarest talents in the pro peloton. Unfortunately, he’s overqualified for the job he’s got now.
His reward will be finding a new job and hoping against hope that he can arrive in France, at some point in the future, with the form it takes to win cycling’s top prize, a prize he is currently watching slip between his fingers.
Follow me on Twitter: @thebicyclerobot
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Back in July, Team Astana was clearly not only the strongest team in the 2009 Tour de France peloton, but also one of the most powerful teams that had been put together in recent years. La Gazzetta dello Sport called it “Fortress Astana”. This caused Padraig to ponder about which team might be the best Tour de France squad of all time. He suggested the 1986 La Vie Claire team of Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond, Andy Hampsten, Steve Bauer and Jean-François Bernard as the greatest.
I offered the 1908 Peugeot squad, which won all 14 stages in the 1908 Tour and took the top four GC places as the finest Tour de France team ever. I still hold by that view.
So who is number two on my list? Team France between 1930 and 1934.
Until 1930, the Tour as contested by trade teams, as it is today. Alcyon-Dunlop, Alleluia-Wolber and Lucifer-Hutchinson were the Cofidis’, Columbia-HTCs and Garmin-Transitions of their time. But, not surprisingly, loyalties could cross trade team lines and riders from a country could unite to help a fellow compatriot. Also, trade teams could combine to try to bring about an outcome that had been decided in a hotel room. Of course, this still goes on today.
At that time the Tour was run by its founder, an iron-fisted dictator named Henri Desgrange, who wanted his race to be a pure test of an athlete’s will and power. He made the race stupefyingly hard, even forcing the riders to perform their own repairs. As late as 1929 riders still had to fix their own flat tires. Desgrange loathed trade teams and felt they corrupted his race. Since the race’s inception he had tried to negate the effect of teams and domestiques (a term Desgrange invented) but in the end he had to surrender to the fact that massed-start bicycle road racing is a sport contested by teams and won by individuals.
It all came to a head in the 1929 Tour. Maurice Dewaele took the Yellow Jersey after the 323-kilometer stage 10 trip through the Pyrenees. His lead of nearly 15 minutes looked nearly unassailable. But as the Alps loomed, Dewaele fell ill. He was so sick that at one point he couldn’t eat solid food. He was pushed and dragged over the remaining stages by his teammates. More importantly, it seemed that a fix was in. Dewaele in his fragile state was extremely vulnerable to the attacks that never came. Astonishingly, he arrived in Paris still in yellow.
“A corpse has won,” lamented a miserable Desgrange who was convinced that something had to be done to protect the fundamental honesty of the Tour.
What he did was extraordinary. He dispensed with the detested trade teams and instead, put the riders in national squads. There was a French team, an Italian team, one for Belgium, etc. Since the bike makers had a 3-week publicity blackout, they refused to pay the substantial expenses of housing, feeding and transporting the riders. Again, Desgrange did the unexpected. He came up with the publicity caravan. Companies would pay the Tour for the privilege of driving their logo’d trucks and cars in front of the race. The national teams are gone, but the publicity caravan remains.
The effect of this realignment was huge. Instead of being scattered among many teams, the best French riders were now on one team. In 1930, the best stage racers in the world were the French, with the Belgians and Italians formidable but on a slightly lower level.
The early 1930s Team France has to be considered one of the greatest sports dynasties in history. They won 5 straight Tours with 3 different riders. That is a bench with depth. In 1930, the national team format’s first year, they not only won the Tour, they put 6 riders in the top ten in the overall, and team member Charles Pélissier won 8 stages.
Here’s the core of the team:
André Leducq: He won 5 stages in the 1929 Tour and went on to win a total of 25 stages. That remained the record until Merckx won 34. He won the Tour in 1930 and 1932. This was a man with talent. He had been world amateur champion and had won Paris-Roubaix in 1928 and would take Paris-Tours in 1931.
Antonin Magne: He won the tour in 1931 and 1934. Magne was the world pro road champion in 1936 and won the Grand Prix des Nations, then the unofficial world time trial championship, in 1934, ’35, an ’36.
Charles Pélissier: Charles was brother to 1923 Tour winner Henri and the capable but not outstanding Francis (who found later that he was a far better team manager than racer). Pélissier won those 8 stages in the 1930 Tour, which included the final 4 legs of the race. In 1931 he won 4 stages. Pélissier wasn’t part of the 1932 team (he would return in 1933) but Georges Speicher was. Speicher won the Tour and the world road championship in 1933 as well as the 1936 Paris-Roubaix. Also a member of the 1932 squad was Roger Lapébie. He won 5 stages in the 1934 Tour before going of to win the 1937 edition.
We can’t forget some of the other French team members:
Maurice Archambaud: magnificent against the clock but too heavy to win the Tour. He wore yellow but could never seal the deal, losing too much time in the high mountains. Nevertheless, he was an important contributor to the team’s success.
René Vietto: His story of giving up his wheel to allow Magne to win in 1934 when Vietto might very well have won the race himself is one of the legends of the Tour. This was a team that acted as one for a common goal. Vietto ended up wearing Yellow more than any man who didn’t win the Tour. He was one of the greatest climbers in the history of the sport, but both his knees and his time trialing would let him down when it mattered.
The French team was not only talented, it had a magnificent esprit de corps. When Leducq crashed descending the Galibier and thought his chances of winning the 1930 Tour were over, they rallied his spirits and dragged him up to the leaders and led him out for the stage win.
1934 was Team France’s last year of glory when it won 19 of the 23 stages. That is dominance writ large.
Cycling historian Jean-Paul Ollivier thinks the 1933 French team was the greatest assemblage of pre-war cycling talent ever. I think one could pick any or all of the 1930’s Tour teams as the best, and with the exception of the 1908 Peugeot team, one could hardly go wrong.
And then the magic ended. In 1935 Magne crashed out of the Tour and although Pélissier raced the 1935 edition, it was as an independent rider, not part of Team France. With the absence of the leadership these two riders gave the team, the magnificent cohesion that had allowed the French to steamroller their opposition evaporated. Romain Maes of Belgium mercilessly took the French and the rest of the peloton apart. Second-place Ambrogio Morelli of Italy finished almost 18 minutes behind. The best-placed French rider was Speicher, at 54 minutes and 29 seconds.
The only time the French would win the Tour again before the war was in 1937, and the tainted officiating in favor of the French and Lapébie still smells.
The French would come back to dominate the Tour de France during golden age of racing, the 1950s (and beyond), with Louison Bobet ( winner in 1953, ’54, ’55), Roger Walkowiak (1956) and Jacques Anquetil (1957, ’61, ’62, ’63 and ’64).
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
ASO has a dilemma. Cycling fans all over the world don’t much like the course for the 2009 Tour de France. The criticism of the course has been consistent: No fireworks. It’s a shame, really. The Tour’s technical director created a course that was intended to make stage 20 up Mt. Ventoux pivotal.
It’s easy to make the case for ASO’s decision: They wanted the outcome of the race to remain in play for as long as possible. It was a response to what they considered conservative racing on previous mountain stages when the leaders would ride tempo marking each other and rarely attacking. They wanted a worthy victor to be found at the last possible moment—on the slopes of Mt. Ventoux.
It’s an interesting idea, but the dissatisfaction the public feels illustrates the problem. You follow the Tour de France to see dramatic racing on a daily basis. If ASO wants a winner-take-all race decided on hors categorie climbs, then they should revive the Classique des Alpes.
Any one stage would have been acceptable in another year’s course. A mountain stage without a mountain finish isn’t a problem, but when there are so many of them they become a pattern, we’re deprived of the detonations that are so thrilling.
Further, had the GC been more thoroughly clarified, if not decided, then George Hincapie would not have been in a position to take the yellow jersey, if only for a day. Garmin had their reason to chase—to avoid a split—but as an example of negative racing, what they did was minor compared to Columbia’s efforts to disrupt the sprint. Chases get disrupted all the time, but everyone expects a sprint to unfold with all possible haste.
To be utterly fair to the ASO, if their goal was drama, then they did, in fact, succeed. In movie making, the worst thing that a director can allow to happen is for the audience to become bored and tune out. In “Psycho,” that Janet Leigh takes a shower isn’t interesting, but our anticipation keeps us riveted. Our expectation for drama has kept us tuning in.
The sense of relief at the mountaintop finish on Verbiers elicited world-wide Twitters of “fireworks.” The shame for ASO is that while the audience is happy, Verbiers provided exactly the thing they wanted to avoid—a GC selection so clear as to determine the final victor.
But that’s the score isn’t it? Contador is almost unquestionably the finest rider in the race. It’s unlikely any GC contender can put even a minute into him in the final TT.
The question remains: Did ASO really miss the mark? After all, you, I, and the rest of the world have been on the edge of our seats waiting for Anthony Perkins to pull back the shower curtain. However, the course does have a significant flaw. By awarding double points to the final climb of each stage, rather than just those final climbs placed at the end of the stage and used for an uphill finish, the organizer has allowed the polka-dot jersey of the King of the Mountains to be held by the least deserving leader of the classification since Laurent Jalabert won it in 2002 (as likable as Jalabert is, he wasn’t the best climber that year, not by a longshot), after finishing the race in 42nd place overall, more than 1:17 down on Lance Armstrong. Franco Pellizotti sits in 46th place, 24.26 down on Contador.
Jalabert’s win was the reason the ASO elected to double points on the final climb of each stage. Had the organizer awarded double points only on Arcalis and Verbiers, Pellizotti would not be in the polka-dot jersey and Alberto Contador would be within striking distance of it, if not already in possession of the famed maillot pois.
We’re more than two weeks into the Tour and the first real shakeout in the GC has just taken place. The ASO rarely makes the same mistake twice, so we’re not likely to see another Tour take this long to separate the gold from the ore.
Contador’s performance on Verbier puts his muscle-flexing on Arcalis in a new light. While his attack on Arcalis did nothing to dispel the leadership tension within the team, he did the team a huge favor by not taking the yellow jersey in the Pyrenees. Astana would have been worked by now if they had spent the last week defending the jersey.
Contador may be possessed of more self-confidence than one might otherwise guess. And though Cadel Evans told the AFP that Bradley Wiggins could still win the Tour, it seems more than likely the only podium spot that’s still in play is that lowest spot. It could go to either Wiggins or Andy Schleck … or maybe Andreas Kloden.
Provided Contador doesn’t lose time in the Annecy time trial, his lead should allow him to ride conservatively on Mont Ventoux. He may be the only rider who won’t have to worry about attacks. Perhaps the most interesting question remaining is if Bruyneel will try to sweep the podium with Contador, Armstrong and Kloden. It would be an historic performance.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.