As you may know, we didn't always have the commercial teams we do now in the Tour de France. No, Henri Desgrange wasn't happy with that, so he ditched them in favour of teams from different countries. Now, it wasn't always ironclad which team you rode for — France for example was split into lots of outfits, but for the most part, you rode for your country. So let's look at the 2016 Tour de France from that perspective.
Team GB: Britannia Rules the Race
Lineup: Chris Froome, Mark Cavendish, Steve Cummings, Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe, Dan McLay, Adam Yates
How they did: Absolutely ideally. With seven stage wins, on descents, in time-trials and in sprints, as well as the yellow and white jerseys, they were by far the top country of the Tour, with an arguably better performance than even 2012. Chris Froome was as assured as always, and youth is coming through to replace the top rides of Froome and Cavendish, in Yates and McLay. Yates particularly impressed with fourth overall, and looked one of the strongest in the Pyrenees and Alps. He just missed out on a podium due to a bad day on stage nineteen. McLay's best result was a third place on stage six, but in the company he was in, that's very impressive.
Why did they do that well? Froome's dominance was due to his team and his early aggression, but you've probably heard that already. Yates? Well, it's mostly because he didn't join Sky in 2014. Orica let him ride for himself, and reaped the benefits. They now have a fourth in the Tour to go with their second in the Giro, a GC return unheard of from the Australian outfit. Cavendish...well, it's been put down to the track cycling, and that's the only variable I see. He didn't have much of a leadout, but unbelievable awareness in the final metres was what got him his stage wins rather than pure speed. Awareness found on the boards.
How would they have done if they rode with their nation? Froome would have still won, his team isn't drastically different, and Cavendish would have kept his sprinting speed, but the real change would be to Yates and McLay. Yates would be made to slave on the front for Froome, and McLay would be demoted to leadouts. Cummings didn't do too well in the Sky setup, so I'd tentatively propose that he'd have lost his stage win. All in all, it's a good thing for British cycling that the trade teams are the way they are.
Team Netherlands: Oh, Bauke
Lineup: Bauke Mollema, Stef Clement, Wout Poels, Wilco Kelderman, Laurens ten Dam, Tom-Jelte Slagter, Dylan van Baarle, Dylan Groenewegen, Albert Timmer, Ramon Sinkeldam, Roy Curvers, Timo Roosen, Bert-Jan Lindeman, Tom Dumoulin, Sebastian Langeveld
How they did: So nearly so well. Tom Dumoulin ended up as their best rider as the stats will have it, taking two of the biggest stages of the Tour, the ITT and the opening summit finish with two powerful performances. Bauke Mollema climbed well and time-trialled just as well, staying in touch on Arcalis and riding up to Froome on Ventoux, but crashes, wet weather and demoralisation put paid to his hopes on stage 19. Poels worked like a trojan for Froome, Clement got in loads of breaks and ended up with a top twenty, Kelderman lost some of his spark after a crash on stage eight, Groenewegen had trouble with positioning and had trouble getting himself over the mountains, and there was barely a peep from anyone else.
Why did they do that well? I'm inclined to think Mollema mainly profited from other people's lack of form rather than improving much himself, but his time-trial was really where he moved up, only losing fifty seconds to Froome. And, well, Dumoulin is a machine in breakaways.
How would they have done if they rode with their nation? Maybe Mollema would have lost less time on stage 19, and maybe Dumoulin would still be heading to Rio intact. Hell, maybe Kelderman wouldn't have crashed so much either.
Team Australia: Close but no Cigar, Mate
Lineup: Richie Porte, Michael Matthews, Simon Gerrans, Mark Renshaw, Adam Hansen, Matthew Hayman, Leigh Howard, Rohan Dennis, Luke Durbridge
How they did: Porte wasn't dropped in the mountains until a few kilometres chasing on after a mechanical took their toll on stage nineteen, but even then he only lost thirty seconds. He had two time-trials to ride, a discipline that suits him. But somehow, he managed to lose five minutes in fifth place. The winds of Provence knocked his form askew in the first time-trial, and a tyre knocked him down the GC before a single mountain had been climbed. He avoided his jour sans in the mountains, and looked like the man most able to attack Froome, but it was another unlucky race for the Tasmanian. Michael Matthews took the only Aussie stage win of the Tour after a masterful performance to beat Sagan on stage 10. Everyone else was pretty quiet, really.
Why did they do that well? Porte has the climbing talent to be winning Grand Tours, he can't be held back every time. This is his first top five in a Grand Tour ever, despite being one of the world's top climbers and a very good time-triallist. Basically, this had to happen sometime. Matthews got his stage because he worked Sagan over, and used good team tactics to beat him in the sprint.
How would they have done if they rode with their nation? Not much would change, really. BMC didn't do too much work on the front for Porte, and Matthews probably would have done the same. The Orica riders would have behaved the same, just swapping to a different GC rider to work for.
That's one version. The other version is that Porte gets different tyres, rides in a different part of the peloton, and misses whatever made him puncture. Consequently, he's only twenty seconds behind Froome going into the time-trial, and puts in a better ride, challenging him for the race in the Alps.
Team France: Not Great, But...
Lineup: Romain Bardet, Bryan Coquard, Christophe Laporte, Thibaut Pinot, Tony Gallopin, Pierre Rolland, Warren Barguil, Arthur Vichot, Alexis Vuillermoz, Romain Sicard and so on.
How they did: Not very well, at least most of them. Thibaut Pinot was supposed to be their top challenger for GC, but sickness put paid to that on the Col d'Aspin. Romain Bardet stepped up to the plate though, avoiding misfortune and being scrappy on the Grand Colombier and the descent of the Côte de Domancy. That moved him up to second overall, France's second to finish there in two years, and third French podium finisher since Richard Virenque in 1997. That turned a bad Tour for France, stage nineteen was their first and only win, into a relative triumph. Bryan Coquard challenged for sprint wins, especially when he challenged Kittel sternly on stage four, but never quite managed it. Barguil looked his aggressive self but had nothing in the mountains, a crash put paid to Rolland, there was nothing from Vichot or Gallopin, Vuillermoz managed a third, and Laporte put up a fight in the sprints in the absence of team mate Bouhanni.
Why did they do that well? Pinot was a real disappointment having gone into the Tour de France after a season of consistency. He should have been France's top GC rider, but ended up as a KOM contender before dropping out. Coupled with that, France didn't have the climbing talent to win mountain stages from breakaways, with Vuillermoz and Alaphilippe coming closest.
How would they have done if they rode with their nation? Well, this is where this becomes slightly ridiculous, as there would be thirty-eight guys on the team and you'd have to split them up like what happened before. But I dunno, it's not like Bardet followed team orders the one time he did anything.
Team Colombia: Didn't Quite Happen
Lineup: Nairo Quintana, Sergio Henao, Jarlinson Pantano, Winner Anacona
How they did: A sick and/or allergic Nairo Quintana disappointed with an underwhelming, unaggressive third place. Henao was Froome's top guy in the Pyrenees, ending up in thirteenth place, Anacona did his best for Quintana, but was nowhere near his top form, and while I'm not superstitious, I think it's just the done thing to turn the number thirteen upside-down. Pantano was Colombia's star, aggressive on the late mountain stages, and being rewarded with a stage win. He also managed second and third on two Alpine days.
Why did they do that well? Quintana was never near Froome’s level anywhere for the first time, and he was lucky to make the podium, and that is presumably due to his allergy or sickness — I don't see another reason. Pantano's Tour was down to old-fashioned aggression, and his talents that make him ideal for stage hunting. A good sprint, climbing talents, and he's a great descender. He should win many more Grand Tour stages in his career.
How would they have done if they rode with their nation? There's only four of them! It's hardly fair! But no real difference, again.