You cannot help but feel for Christian Prudhomme. In his 10 years at the head of the Tour de France the amiable Frenchman has set himself the mission of livening up the event, making it less predictable and processional, and, as far as possible, ensuring suspense is maintained to the end.
The route has been endlessly tweaked, with every sacred traditional cow apart from the finish on the Champs Élysées consigned to the abattoir. The Tour has been turned into a made-for-television sports event rather than a bike race that happens to be shown on the small screen.
Prudhomme cannot, however, have reckoned with Chris Froome and Sir Dave Brailsford. This year, in spite of his best efforts, they provided a race lacking in suspense for almost half its distance. The Tour was won after Froome opened decisive gaps in the Ardeche time trial on the second Thursday. Those stages in the Alps and Jura, carefully plotted by Prudhomme’s No2 Thierry Gouvenou, included new climbs, steep climbs, short climbs, long climbs, magnificent backdrops and insanely spectacular hairpins, but the same spectacle: Brailsford’s climbers chugging up and down the slopes with Froome sitting pretty in yellow in their wake.
Froome, Brailsford and Team Sky cannot be blamed for turning much of the mountain stages into a procession; that is the best way for them to race, the cycling equivalent of defence-based rugby where everyone yearns for the glorious insanity of running “French flair”. Historically, every Tour great has been criticised for making the race predictable, from the point in 1952 when the organisers put up extra prize money for the man who could finish second to Fausto Coppi.
Anquetil, Hinault, Merckx; all inspired grudging respect rather than admiration when they were at their most successful. Greg LeMond was venerated in 1989 for winning a Tour de France where neither he nor Laurent Fignon had perfect form or a strong team; a year later he was criticised for taking the 1990 race without a stage win.
Froome merits mention with those names because that is the company the Kenyan-born Briton is now keeping in the record books. There seems to be a spectrum of emotion that cycling goes through when confronted with someone who wins regularly and predictably, without making kooky videos on YouTube or emoting in public: Froome was initially greeted with surprise, last year he endured suspicion, but after this year’s coups de panache a measure of respect should come next. History suggests true affection will be born only when he endures defeat, gracefully accepted and bravely combated.
Respect and grace were particularly important this July given the particular context in which this Tour was run, on the roads of a France in a state of emergency, suffering a particularly bloody terrorist attack on Bastille Day, a nation in a state of shock, uncertainty and trauma, a race finishing under unprecedented security on the Champs Élysées. Froome taking to his feet on Mont Ventoux was a sideshow; in the real world, France is on its knees.
Froome and Tom Dumoulin deserve praise for the things they said on 15 July, so too Pierre Rolland of France when asked how upset he was about his crash on Friday: in the great scheme of things, the Cannondale rider said it was only a crash in a bike race. All their words should be noted when this Tour takes its place in the record books, so too the immense crowds on the roads of the Isère and Ain départements on Bastille Saturday, the endless ranks of tricolours making the point that this was more than just any usual July.
As far as the racing went, this was not a boring Tour, but a predictable Tour. The excitement came from events the organisers could not control. The crash on Mont Ventoux provided the most memorable image of the race, Froome on foot running up the mountain, but it stemmed from a failure of organisation: not enough barriers to contain a crowd that had doubled after the stage had been truncated due to high winds. Froome’s crash at Saint Gervais owed nothing to the organisers and everything to the weather; the reminder of what was at stake lent an extra frisson to the rain-soaked final Saturday.
There was much to savour, Mark Cavendish’s renaissance to win four stages and pass Hinault in the record books for starters. It is no coincidence that the last time the Manxman showed this form, it was in an Olympic year. Ironically, under Prudhomme the 21st-century Tour de France has moved away from the succession of bunch sprints that used to mark the event’s first week, but the mass finishes were of the highest quality, some of the closest the race has seen. New faces made the transition from smaller events to cycling’s greatest stage: Adam Yates, Jarlinson Pantano, Julian Alaphilippe, Dan McLay, Ilnur Zakarin. Peter Sagan confirmed that in cycling’s made-for-television age, he is the multimedia star of the sport worldwide par excellence.
The most exciting route can be devised, every opportunity provided, but the outcome can still be utterly predictable. Cycling’s eternal truth is that outside circumstances and the riders themselves are what count for most. The flattest stage in one of the most mountainous Tours of recent years, the road to Montpellier, provided 10 minutes of the most compelling racing that could be imagined, with the green jersey and yellow jersey in a four-rider escape fighting out the finish seconds ahead of the bunch.
The Tour closed with one of the nastiest and demanding descents in the Alps off the Col de Joux Plane; more dramatic by far was Froome’s attack on the wide, mainly straight plunge off the Peyresourde to Bagnères de Luchon, so benign that even a first-timer on a square-wheeled bike could gain some speed. Brailsford was correct when he said before the start that this Tour would come down to seconds. That was not the case, but the seconds Froome gained at Luchon and Montpellier were worth minutes.
If the Tour followed a different script from the one that might have been hoped for, that validates cycling’s lasting truth: this is a sport of the open road and there is only a certain extent to which it can be stage-managed and “made for television”. It was reasonable to predict that Nairo Quintana would be pressing Froome hard en route to Morzine on Saturday and that the pair would be nip-and-tuck through the final week. That this was not remotely the case and that a predictable Tour discovered excitement where it was least expected is the eternal joy of the world’s greatest bike race.
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