Lots has been said about the 2012 Tour de France. Lots. Lots has been said about the domination of Sky, about the design of the course, about the incredible season of Bradley Wiggins, and of how Wiggins was the first Tour winner from Britain.
Not so much has been said, however, about one smaller fact: Wiggins didn't win in 2011. Cadel Evans won in 2011; but Evans didn't win in 2010. Andy Schleck won in 2010 - ok, so some might argue with that, but given that the winner was busted for a failed dope test actually during the race, I find it hard to deny Schleck the victory, especially in the absence of any third candidate who might legitimately argue that they could have beaten Schleck had Contador not been present. This isn't a case of retroactively stripping a result from years ago on the presumption that the result was the consequence of doping; this is catching a guy at the race and throwing him out. It just took a ludicrously long time to do the throwing.
So, Schleck won in 2010, but he didn't win in 2009. Contador did. I mean, yes, let's face it, he was probably just as doped up in '09 as he was in '10, but for now the record books say Contador won. In 2009; but not in 2008. 2008's winner was Carlos Sastre. Sastre hadn't won in 2007, though - that was Contador again. And Contador wasn't the winner in 2006 - that was Oscar Pereiro. Unless you're a Flandis diehard, I guess, but again, thrown out of race for being caught cheating during the race. Anyway, neither Pereiro nor Landis won in 2005. Now, here there's some dissent - maybe Lance Armstrong won, maybe Ivan Basso; maybe even Jan Ullrich. Some might say than nobody won, or that "N/A" won, or that there was a winner but his (or her) identity is unknown, a sort of occluded champion, if you will, who maybe one day will return in our hour of need. Maybe someone did win AND didn't win, and they're trapped in a box somewhere filled, or not filled, with poison gas. Some hardliners will say that Cadel Evans won in 2005. But unless you're a hardliner AND you think that Evans doped, we can safely say that the 2005 winner didn't win in 2006 (at that point, we get to take our pick, since in '05 Evans was (or wasn't) followed by Landis and Pereiro...).
OK, this all looks like I'm stating the obvious. So what? Well let's take a moment to look at that again: in none of these years had the winner won the year before. There hasn't been a legal defense of the title (no pun intended) since at least 2005. That's 7 years. That ain't normal - not in a sport where a handful of big names win again and again and again. From 1960-1995, 26 out of 35 titles were won by only seven riders; 20 of them were won by only four riders! Seven consecutive non-defenses isn't normal. Not normal... but not a record.
We're already talking about 2013. We're talking about the course; we're talking about how the defending champion will probably be there but will, we're told, not actually be, you know, defending. Which makes it very, very probably that that streak will be extended to 8 consecutive non-defenses.
Now, that IS a record. Assuming that Wiggins is true to his word, and doesn't somehow manage to defend next year, 2013 will have seen the record-breaking year that makes this the longest streak of non-defenses at the Tour since WWII, and indeed the second-longest streak in history.
Currently, the streak is tied with three other post-war streaks, and arguably one pre-war - 1972-1978, 1955-1961, and 1947-1953, as well as 1914+1919-1924. [Arguably because having a four-year break in the middle due to war is sort of cheating when it comes to non-defending - many of the pre-war riders were dead or retired or long past their prime by the end of the war].
However, we're still a very long way off reaching the longest streak in history, which is either 19 or 12 - a run of twelve before WWII, followed by that '47-'53 run after it. Again, I would consider those distinct, making the record 12. I'm not sure we'll ever see that again, but getting the post-war record is still sort of exciting. In terms of winning, this has been the least predictable stretch of races since WWII.
That's backed up if we move from 'most consecutive years without a defence' to 'most consecutive years without a repeat winner'. We're currently at a streak of 5 on that score - only two other streaks are longer, those being 1964-1969, and 1955-1961, both with 6; before the war, 1903-1907 and 1908-1913 are also 6s, while 1932-1938 takes the all-time record with 7. Theoretically, we could tie the post-war record in 2013 and the all-time in 2014... but doing so would probably require some major drugs busts, as we'd need to avoid any of Contador, Evans, Wiggins and Schleck winning for the next two years.
What does all this mean? To be honest, probably not very much. Sports often cycle between periods of domination and periods of openness... and to a large extent this current period of openness is largely a result of Contador having more trouble with the doping authorities than previous dominators. There's a good argument that if it hadn't been for a couple of mistakes in his team's doping regimen, he would probably have won six consecutive Tours - '07 which he did win (officially), '08 which he almost certainly could have won if his team hadn't been banned, '09 which he won, '10 which he won but lost due to a doping cockup, '11 which he probably would have won if he hadn't ridden the Giro, which he probably wouldn't have done if he hadn't had a doping cloud over him that he thought might have disqualified him from the Tour but didn't, and '12, which he could probably have won if he hadn't been banned. So this one is less a period of genuine openness and more a period of total domination opened up by the patron's inability to get his shit together dopingwise (and/or greater vigilence by doping authorities, take your pick).
Nonetheless, however it's happened, I still think it's a remarkable streak, and a very entertaining one for us viewers. I know most of you prefer Contador to Wiggins... but would six consecutive victories really have been more fun than seven consecutive non-defenses?
P.S. What about 1999-2005? Well, I've chosen to assume that they were won by "Armstrong" - whether "Armstrong" is Lance Armstrong, N/A, or Unknown doesn't really matter. If we instead assume they were won by the highest non-stripped finisher, then 2012 just equalled the all-time non-defense streak and 2013 will break it. And 2002-2008 is the joint all-time record no-repeat-winners streak. Just shows what a difference having a dominant winner makes - take him off the top and it's chaos below.
P.P.S. For the sake of completeness and historical interest, here are the current record streaks:
All-Time: Frantz, De Waele, Leducq, Magne, Leducq, Speicher, Magne, R Maes, S Maes, Lapèbie, Bartali, S Maes
Post-War: 4-way tie
All-Time: Leducq, Speicher, Magne, R Maes, S MAes, Lapèbie, Bartali [Leducq and Magne had won before, but not within this streak]
Post-War: 1: Bobet, Walkowiak, Anquetil, Gaul, Bahamontes, Nencini. 2: Anquetil, Gimondi, Aimar, Pingeon, Janssen, Merckx
P.P.P.S. A clarification: I've measured non-defense streaks in terms of the same person winning twice consecutively within the period. Of course, if you think about it, the first in each of these streaks will have been a defense of the year before, so you could subtract 1 from all of these numbers. Except that you can't do that for the two post-war streaks and the original one. So what I've said above is true, strictly speaking, for "streak without consecutive victories", but technically for "non-defense streaks", the post-war record is the one immediately post-war [Robic, Bartali, Coppi, Kuebler, Koblet, Coppi, Bobet], and 2013 will only equal it, not break it.