It’s the curse of the commentator, political or sporting, that they are required to find drama where little exists. And this Tour promised so much. In the last major lead-up race, the Criterium du Dauphine, 2013 Tour winner Chris Froome and 2009 winner Alberto Contador fought a see-sawing battle over several mountain stages, only to have the race taken from under them by an enterprising, tactically astute and lucky attack on the last stage by young American rider Andrew Talansky. Vincenzo Nibali, meanwhile, looked a step below the two favourites. But, still, it looked like a closely-fought Tour was at hand. Meanwhile, the battle for the Tour’s flat stages was almost as tantalizing – could the diminuitive Mark Cavendish regain his ascendancy over
Ivan Drago Marcel Kittel?
By the half-way point of the Tour, crashes had taken out both of the yellow jersey favourites, the joker Talansky, and Mark Cavendish. Australia’s most opportunistic cyclist, Simon Gerrans, was also winged by a crash; he continues in the race but his best chances of a stage win are gone. The silver lining for Australian fans was that Froome’s teammate, Australian Richie Porte, became Sky’s designated team leader. But his chances have also been done in by bad luck and the crappy weather; he’s picked up “a chest infection” and has lost many minutes in last weekend’s Alpine stages.
Incidentally, Porte’s illness might sound like a lame excuse, but it’s all too believable. Riding as hard as they do on a sequence of rainy cold days doesn’t exactly do wonders for your immune system; and the effects on your performance if you do pick something up are variable, essentially unknowable in advance, and often only kick in when the hammer really goes down. I’m about as far away from Richie Porte’s capabilities as you can get, but I have raced a bike with a cold. Some days, it makes no difference whatsoever; on another day, you can feel perfectly fine until a sustained, hard effort is called for and you dissolve into a coughing, wheezing mess within a few seconds.
Nibali had already gained a lot of time over his major rivals before they crashed out, in a stage over the cobbles of northern France. The Tour goes over these bumpy roads every few years; each time it happens, there is a chorus of complaints from riders who think that cobbles and Grand Tours don’t mix. It’s worth noting, however, that the crash that took Froome out of the race happened on wet bitumen, long before he’d even reached the muddy, grassy, cobbled sections. In any case, Nibali’s ride on the cobbled stage was very impressive. While he didn’t win, he took over two minutes on Contador and even finished in front of famed cobbles specialist Fabian Cancellara, who has won the Paris-Roubaix race over many of the same cobbled roads on three occasions. He’s since gone on to thoroughly beat his rivals in the Vosges and Alps.
Whatever else you think of Contador (for what it’s worth, he was in my view a clear drug cheat and thoroughly deserved his suspension), the guy is plenty tough. His crash on stage 10 resulted in a fractured leg, with blood spurting But he rode for 20 more kilometres before finally pulling out. Yep, that’s right. With a broken leg.
Meanwhile, without Cavendish, Marcel Kittel had the early flat stages parcelled up, and Peter Sagan’s consistency and better climbing ability has sewn up the green jersey.
So the bad weather that has dogged the last two European cycling seasons has prematurely decided the major battles of the Tour, and robbed two Australians of their opportunities to shine. But there is still much to watch for in the last week of this Tour. While Nibali appears safe at the top of the podium, who stands next to him is still very much up in the air. And the French, as starved for Tour success as Australians are for an Aussie Open tennis champ, finally appear to have some genuine contenders with riders in third, fourth and sixth place. With a blanket over second to sixth, the minor places are still very much up for grabs in the Pyrenees and the concluding time trial on Saturday night. I can’t help but hope that the likes of Romain Bardet and Thibault Pinot can outclimb the second-placed Alejandro Valverde – another confirmed cheat – to take second and third.
On drug cheats, it’s not unreasonable to speculate given the sport’s history on how many of the competitors are cheating this year. Tiresome for those who follow the sport all year round, but not unreasonable. The short answer is “we don’t know”. In short, there are genuine reasons to think the sport is cleaner than it used to be. The climbing performances of the likes of Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani have not been matched since, and the “biological passport” testing program makes it harder to get away with using novel ways to manipulate the blood’s oxygen carrying capacity, as the tests look for the results of artificial manipulation, not the means of doing so. It’s caught a few riders in its short history so far, most notably the third placegetter from the 2010 Tour, Denis Menchov. There are still a few results here and there that make one suspicious – not least the return to form of known dopers like Contador and Valverde after mediocre periods after their suspension. And then there’s the Indian summer of Chris Horner. Horner won his first Grand Tour, the Vuelta a Espana, last year at the age of 41. Cycling is a sport that’s relatively kind to aging legs, but winning a Grand Tour at 41 was something that the likes of Merckx, Coppi, and Indurain never managed. So…I don’t know. Entirely clean? Almost certainly not. Clean enough that you can have a reasonable degree of confidence that the results won’t have asterisks next to them in a few years’ time? Fingers crossed, but no guarantees.
Based on the first week, the final stage around the Champs-Elysees looked like an upcoming exhibition for Marcel Kittel. But his form, and that of his team, has tailed off a little, and other sprinters have come back into the picture – and speaking of which, we’re starting to get on-bike camera footage, if not live which gives a sense of just how frenetic and aggressive those last few kilometres are. Look for Andre Greipel, Alexander Kristoff, Nacer Bouhanni, and Peter Sagan to give Kittel a hurry-up on the streets of Paris.
But even better, the curtain-raiser to that final stage is a women’s race on the Champs Elysees. La Course by Tour de France will feature most of the world’s top female road cyclists, including Marianne Vos. Vos will be among the top contenders in what will undoubtedly be a sprinter’s race. But she’s just come off a win at the Giro Rosa, the biggest women’s stage race in the world, where she won just about everything – on flat, hilly, and mountainous terrain – to completely dominate. She’s won the Olympic road race and the World Championships, multiple times. She’s won World Cup races on mountain bikes, and is currently the world cyclocross champion. But she’ll face stiff competition by another multiple world champion, Georgia Bronzini, and several other strong sprinters. Tune in early for that!