The 105th edition of the Tour de France finished on the usual ramparts of the Champs-Elysees on Sunday. And as the trend has been in the past half decade, it was yet again the British Team Sky which proved dominant on French soil. In fact, they finished stronger this year as compared to their recent performances, with two riders on the podium (a feat they also achieved in 2012).
For the locals — who have not taken kindly to Chris Froome’s dominance in the past few years — the only relief was that it was not Froome, but his teammate Geraint Thomas who claimed the champion’s yellow jersey. Here we analyse the three action-packed weeks, in what was one of the most hard-fought Tour of recent years.
The main distinction of this year’s route was the intense climbing stages placed back to back and the relative lack of time trials. Also there was the much feared Stage 9, which went over 20-plus kilometers of the infamous cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. It was a tough, abrasive route, meant to challenge among all, a certain four-time winner of the race. It was a route which required nimble bike handling, explosive climbing and tactical race management and if you look at the top five riders, they perfectly match that description.
The abrasiveness began on the first day itself with Froome losing 51 seconds, putting him on the defensive from the beginning. Froome came to this Tour on the back of three consecutive Grand Tour victories, aiming to match the legendary Eddy Merckx by winning his fourth straight Grand Tour and a fifth Tour de France. There is a good reason nobody has been able to match Eddy “The Cannibal” Merckx, and so it proved for Froome. The exhaustion of a year plus of continuous racing takes its toll, and the tiredness showed in Froome’s performance who, unlike in the past, cracked multiple times this year when put under pressure.
His podium position is more of a reflection of the strengths of Team Sky than his solo performance in the race. Froome probably would have struggled to stay in the top five but for the Herculean efforts of Egan Bernal and Michal Kwiatkowski, who paced him back into contention every time the defending champion was in trouble. The only stage where Froome looked his old self was the Individual Time Trial (ITT) on Saturday, where he finished just one second behind stage winner Tom Dumoulin.
The Dutchman Dumoulin himself had bad moments, especially on Stage 6 where an ill-timed puncture made him lose over a minute to Thomas (including a 20-second penalty). In hindsight, that was a pivotal moment in Dumoulin’s race and had he not lost this time, his race strategy in the mountains would have been quite different. Dumoulin though was gracious to acknowledge that even without this mishap, he probably would have finished behind Thomas, whom Dumoulin credited as being the strongest rider this year, especially in the mountains. Still, there was a feeling among the non-Sky fans that had there been the traditional amount of ITTs, Tom would probably have made up for the time deficit.
No one though can take this win away from Thomas. The affable Welshman is probably one of the few popular riders in Team Sky, generally liked by the riders and fans alike. As indicated by Dumoulin, Thomas displayed his strength throughout the three weeks. Be it the cobbles, high climbs or the time trial, he was always at the head of the field, defending attacks, counter attacking and never let his challengers catch him at a weak moment. His race management was perfect as well, which ensured that he collected a total of 33 bonus seconds across various stages. It is a factor generally not considered by the top riders, but these bit-sized advantages garnered over the race gave him the buffer he needed over the ITT specialist Dumoulin going into the penultimate stage.
Thomas has been a sort of crash magnet over his career, with his long list of painful injuries including a broken pelvis, fractured collarbone and ruptured spleen. Hence, despite his immense talent, Thomas had never finished in the top ten in any Grand Tour, owing to ill-timed crashes. So, a fall over the cobbles or on a downhill sector was his biggest fear. He did have a scare on the penultimate stage, but clearly the Welshman has worked on his bike handling skills, which he displayed on the tricky final descent on Stage 19.
While Thomas stayed upright, none of his main challengers could achieve the same, which is one of the ironies of this Tour. We have already mentioned the troubles of Froome and Dumoulin, but the big-name crashes of Richie Porte, Rigoberto Uran and Vincenzo Nibali probably robbed this race of some of its sting. Quintana earned a gutsy victory on Stage 17, raising some interesting questions for the leaders, only to crash on a routine stage the very next day. The fall meant that the much anticipated attack from the Colombian on Stage 19 never materialised.
If the established climbers were being tested to their limits, then spare a thought for the sprinters, who were always going to struggle on this route. The toll on the fast men was so high, that the last nine winners of the final sprint in Paris were not even on the road on Sunday. Most of the high-profile sprinters could not survive the triple whammy of Stages 10, 11 and 12. No route though, seems capable of challenging the mercurial Peter Sagan, who was utterly dominant in the Green Jersey classification even before the mass withdrawals. His dominance in the race is established by the fact that he finished with almost double the points of second placed Alexander Kristoff.
Shockingly even Sagan, one of the best bike handlers in the peloton, fell on a routine descent, almost crashing out of the Tour (maybe he rubbed shoulders with Thomas during the daily jersey presentations, taking the Brit’s share of bad luck with him). When asked about his crash, Sagan replied in his usual nonchalant manner, “I flew into a forest and hit a rock with my arse.” But Sagan’s iron will came once again to the fore as he struggled through immense pain to complete the final four stages despite significant injuries. Especially on Stage 19, a massive mountain stage, when most expected him to succumb to his injuries, Sagan visually fought through the pain, to finish well within the time limit.
The French may have won this race more than any other country (36 wins overall, with Belgium a distant second at 18), but they last won it in 1985. That fact always irks the locals, who feel their national race has been taken over by foreign teams and riders. But as with every year, there is always something to celebrate for France. Though this year they do not have a rider on the podium, but French riders Julian Alaphilippe and Pierre Roger Latour won the Polka Dot and White Jerseys for the best climber and best young rider respectively. Will they go on to justify their talent, or yet again flatter to deceive, only time will tell.
The biggest shoutout probably goes to the American Lawson Craddock, who as the 145th rider overall, finished in the last position. What’s so special about finishing dead last you would ask. Well, for starters, it was a brutal race where 31 of the best riders in the world could not reach the finish. Secondly, consider the fact that Craddock crashed right on the first day, breaking his shoulder blade, and then chose to ride for 20 more days through the pain. The Tour should probably give the young American an award for sheer perseverance. To compete in the Tour is no mean feat, as the famous saying goes “You don’t finish last in Tour de France. You finish the Tour de France.”
This was a classic Tour, which produced a fresh winner in a very close-fought battle. The overall speeds of Thomas and Dumoulin were 40.18 and 40.17 kmph respectively! In Primoz Roglic and Egan Bernal it produced stars for the future, who may have missed the podium this time round, but are sure to visit it soon. And, as usual, it treated us to some stunning visuals of the tourist capital of the world. So till next year au revoir and Vive le Tour!
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Updated Date: Jul 30, 2018 12:00:24 IST