It’s the Tuesday after the Tour De France. Time to hang my mankini up and stop running up mountains alongside riders. It’s also time to start analyzing what we’ve just been watching for the last 3 weeks.
The overriding thought seems to be that 2016’s was not a vintage tour, a lot of writers that I respect have been discussing whether it was boring or not. Most seem to have gone for the former. Are they right?
First up we have to look at the context of the 2016 tour. It came after 2 incredible Grand Tours, the 2015 Vuelta, and the Giro of a couple of months ago. The General Classification of both was not decided until the last possible stage. In the Vuelta this was down to Tom Dumoulin finally cracking in the Mountains, in the Giro it owed a lot to Steven Kruijswijk riding into an ice bank, and then Esteban Chaves cracking. The difference between those events and the tour, though, is the quality of the field. None of those three riders that I just mentioned have ever won a Grand Tour before, and so they were all in unchartered territory. I don’t doubt that 1 or maybe 2 of them will go on to stand on top of a podium at the end of a 3 week race, but they’ll do so by building on their experiences in the events where they didn’t quite make it. The Tour, with it’s much stronger field, has fewer of these question marks won a three week race. In fact in the Tour, the question marks tend to be over those whose place on the podium would be a big step forward in their careers, Mollema and Yates in particular this year.
That the genuine contenders are all building on established foundations means that the last minute drama, that we crave for the Tour, rarely materializes.
The Tour is not like other events. It is a bespoke design each year, aimed at exploiting the talents of that year’s riders. If a rider becomes too dominant then the course will be designed to expose their weaknesses. In terms of the subjective design of the arena, it’s the closest thing we have to an actual Hunger Games.
This year the race was back-loaded with brutal mountain stages, right up until the penultimate day of the race. Team Sky and Chris Froome have been dominant for the last few years but in 2015 it was Quintana who finished the stronger rider, he just ran out of mountain stages. So for 2016 the course was designed to suit him. We shouldn’t blame Chris Froome for anticipating this and training to overcome it, or for Quintana’s subtle lack of form.
The designers did all they could to create an exciting race, and if we treat the individual stages as races in isolation, then they often succeeded. The thing is that a 3 week race is always going to magnify the differences in the strength of its leading protagonists. A week-long race might create gaps that can be measured in a handful of seconds, but expand that to 3 weeks and the gaps will grow exponentially, becoming several minutes. It’s like the expanding universe. If you were to draw the time gaps, in a week long race, on a balloon, and then inflate that balloon, the gaps would just get bigger and bigger. I’m not sure if this helps illustrate either the inflating universe, or the power of a Grand Tour to amplify differences in ability, but balloons are fun and so I’m not apologizing.
So unreasonable expectations are a problem when it comes to defining whether a tour was boring or not, but you didn’t come here to have your expectations attacked did you? Rest assured I think your expectations are fine. You shouldn’t be ashamed of your expectations. You’ re beautiful.
One of the main problems when it comes to being entertained by the Tour stem from the personality, or lack of it, of the winner, Chris Froome. Again I wonder if we expect too much of him? Sorry if you feel your expectations are under attack again. Maybe go and read the previous paragraph again if you’re feeling upset.
In the olden days, which I believe are the days before you could have whatever you want whenever you want it, the race had an air of mystery to it. Much of it wasn’t caught on camera, let alone broadcast on live TV around the world. In the olden days you might have to wait until your newsagent got a copy of Cycling Weekly in before you found out who won the Tour. Those are the days that get journalists and smokers all misty eyed. Smoking was good for you back then, and we really needed journalists to write about what we weren’t seeing. In those days the colour, and the personality, was added by the writers and the storytellers. They created the myths and the legends that sold their newspapers. They created the nicknames of the riders, and their poetic prose made them as much a part of the race as the riders themselves. These days if a writer was to write that Chris Froome soared up a mountain seemingly on the back of an invisible winged chariot pulled by the ghosts of long since deceased tour legends, then we’d just say “no mate, he went up like a boney alien who’s just trying to work out what a bike does. I saw it on telly.” The journalists embellishment has been negated. Any colour has to come from the rider alone, and we demand that they provide it.
We’re not satisfied that Froome was without doubt the strongest man in the race, or that he gained time with two of the most surprising and daring attacks, that we’ve seen from a GC leader in years. We watched him pedal away from his rivals, on his top tube, and attack with Peter Sagan into the crosswinds, and yet that still isn’t enough for us. Even when he crashed on the wet descent into Domancy he couldn’t be bothered to hurt himself properly. Who’s writing this thing? Oh yeah, no one, we watched it on repeat on youtube
Froome’s apparent lack of personality isn’t helped by the fact that the previous British winner of the Tour is the relatively cool, and actually pretty weird Bradley Wiggins. Wiggins who sometimes would definitely rather be having a few drinks than riding a bike. Wiggins who you think could give it all up tomorrow. Wiggins who was never a skybot, despite his love of numbers and control of variables. Wiggins is a constant conflict of juxtaposing forces. He’s the anti-Froome. It’s a shame that we forget one of the most interesting things that Froome has done, one which perhaps reveals more about him than anything else he’s done on the bike, that was to attack Wiggo, his team leader, in the 2012 tour. Like I said, it’s our own fault if we don’t find Froome interesting.
It definitely doesn’t help that Froome isn’t really British. He wasn’t born in Britain. He’s never lived in Britain. He’s barely even raced in Britain. A backstory that we could relate to, one in which he grew up in a deprived northern town before going on to win the Tour would be a much more engrossing story. He did grow up in rural Kenya where a lion attack is a genuine means of dying, though. Seriously we should be ashamed for not being able to find him interesting.
If only he were French. Or Italian. Or Belgian. Or from anywhere where he might have grown up not speaking English. Imagine a Froome whose press conferences and winner’s speeches had to be translated before we could understand them. How exotic and interesting a creature would he be then? It would add another layer to the mystery of how he’s even able to pedal given that he rides a bike like a haunted marionette. Froome’s ability to communicate with us is handy if he wants to pop round to borrow a power sander, but does nothing to stop us finding him boring.
Finally there’s the winning. The tour loves tragedy and near misses. There’s a reason that Raymond ‘Poupou’ Poulidor is so adored by the French public, and that’s because he was never quite strong/lucky/smart enough to win their race.
Froome did give us the iconic moment of this year’s tour, when he ran up part of Mont Ventoux after his bike had been destroyed after he crashed into a halting race motorbike. The ASO’s common sense approach to dealing with the incident, giving riders their time at the moment of the crash, avoided what would have been a fascinating polemic. Tragically the events in Nice, later that evening, would ensure that the events of the race became insignificant in comparison. These two factors meant Froome never really got to tell the story of what happened and what was going through his mind. A chance to be something other than dull was taken away from him.
That we can’t find Froome interesting is our own fault. Either through his narrative not matching the one that we demand of our Tour winners; his association with a team whose dominance is often seen as being bad for the sport; or the way we view the sport’s past through rose tinted spectacles. Froome’s story isn’t finished, though, and there will be plenty of chances for him to capture the public’s imagination. Just yesterday he was pictured wearing a pirate’s hat at an after tour criterium. It might not make him as charismatic as Wiggo, but it’s definitely a marginal gain in the right direction. He’s also got the chance to emulate Wiggo by following a tour win with an Olympic Time Trial win. Dare I say it? he’s also a contender for the Olympic Road Race. Surely a win in either would elevate him to legendary status, and a legend pretty much has to be interesting. Froome’s record of success in one day races is pretty much non-existent, but you get the feeling that he believes that he can win in Rio. Most likely Froome’s best chance at changing public opinion will coincide with the emergence of a genuine rival at the Tour. If someone can just stop him winning then a new, more compelling story might emerge.