Until a few days ago there was a commonly accepted refrain that the Tour de France course was exceptionally and unforgivably boring this year. There were some long marches to sprints, some slightly varied marches to sprints, and a transparently bullshit plan by the race jury to run off the race’s most interesting (if not fastest) sprinter. Where there were climbs, they weren’t terribly long and/or didn’t end the stage, yielding instead to a descent and maybe some flats too. Nothing much was happening, apart from Sky parking themselves on the front, and nothing seemed about to happen either.
Then things went... strange. Describe the current status of the Tour however you want, but it’s hard to dispute how unpredictable the race has become since last, oh, Thursday. That was the day Chris Froome blew up on the last ramp, the Peyragudes, and saw Fabio Aru take his maillot jaune, while Romain Bardet captured the stage win. Since then, it’s been day after day of tightly confined intrigue, contenders separated by next-to-nothing, coming to a head Saturday when Fabio Aru took a disliking to the classics-style bit of handling required to survive the run into Rodez and shipped a couple dozen seconds back to Froome.
So it would be easy enough to look back at the course and thank it for the excitement that has come and that lies ahead. And not just this year but the last several years as well. Team Sky’s era of prevalence may not be your cup of tea, but it’s far from the March of the Blood Bags from the Armstrong Era, and Froome has shown enough moments of humanity to keep us entertained, with possibly more of those on the way in the coming week. The course, at a minimum, has yet to kill the Tour.
But let’s back up a bit. Remember how every November/December, when the grand tours roll out their plans for the coming year, how we react? It’s nearly universal: we wait to see what sort of mountain stages we’re going to get. And if the plan is loaded with heroic mountain climbs, we cheer. Alpe d’Huez? Great! Mont Ventoux? Cool! A couple laps up Mont Ventoux into a triple-climb of Alpe d’Huez? Even better!
And if it isn’t, we grouse. Nobody comments during the Tour gala about how much they love the course’s balance. Nobody celebrates the idea that a course devoid of heroic climbs might actually make for a closer race. We want the climbs.
When we get them, they often result in a blowout race. The Tour hasn’t gone too big on heroic stages lately, with maybe 2011 and 2013 coming to mind as really heavy parcours. The latter was a blowout, with Froome holding off newcomer Nairo Quintana by more than four minutes. It’s been more dramatic at the Giro d’Italia, where some years have been incredibly loaded with iconic climbs, and led to decisive endings. For example, in 2011, Contador won by more than six minutes (before being defrocked) over a course that included Etna, Monte Zoncolan, the Colle delle Finestre, a mountain ITT, and plenty of others. 2010 was insane, with Monte Zoncolan followed by the Plan de Corones time trial, but Ivan Basso’s win hung in the balance far longer than expected thanks to an early and ill-advised time gift to David Arroyo. The 2008 Giro was another beast, and only Riccardo Ricco miraculously managed to stay close to Contador. But 2007 and 2009 were tight races with fewer major climbs.
So it’s not black and white, but in fact the hardest courses have been known to let us down, while the easier ones have encouraged more entertaining racing. And we just got done complaining of boredom. So are we hypocrites?
No, and here’s why: because we want to see heroes doing heroic things. Right now Froome is in the pole position for this year’s win, thanks to some decent time trialling and a sneaky little move Saturday when broke the unwritten rule that you’re not supposed to attack the yellow jersey when he sucks at positioning. [Checks Unwritten Rulebook... OK, scratch that.] Froome has done nothing this time around to convince us that he’s a hero of cycling, unlike last year when he could have milked another unimpressive parcours for a safe win but instead took control with a tremendous, detractor-silencing downhill attack in the Pyrenees. There are a couple stages remaining on which to do heroic things, and if someone does them, then we won’t remember our complaints about this course. But as it stands now we have a Tour that’s ZOMG SO EXCITING!!! LOOK AT THE TIME GAPS!!! and which is based entirely on last-km shenanigans that remind us not at all of the sport’s great moments.
Those moments include assaults on the highest mountains, like Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador taking swings at eventual winner Cadel Evans in 2011 over the Galibier and Alpe d’Huez. They include the memorable trips up Mont Ventoux and the joux-Plan and the Tourmalet and the Finistere and the nearly-mandatory Gavia-Mortirolo stage. Maybe even the mega-climb like the Zoncolan or the Angliru. Races aren’t always decided there, but the contenders show their worthiness by conquering the imaginations of fans. Even if they “take the win” in a time trial later on, the quality of that victory will have a lot to do with the winner’s ability to either dominate or at least hang on over the toughest challenges.
Oh, and it doesn’t need to end in a blowout either. The closest Tour in history remains 1989 (for now), and that Tour was loaded. The two Pyrenean stages were straight-up classics, including the Col d’Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin, Peyresourde and Superbagneres. There were five Alps stages, including another central-casting event over the Croix-de-Fer, Galibier and Alpe d’Huez. Laurent Fignon and Greg LeMond battled day after day on the highest summits, only to have it come down to a short ITT. The point is, if you have more than one worthy hero, the difficulty of the course need not ruin the suspense.
If long marches are bad for cycling’s health, promoting cheating and what not, then short stages are an acceptable solution. Take out the road furniture and dangerous descents, work in enough rest days and shorten the transfers. Give the riders what they need to stay safe. But if you want to call the Tour de France the greatest race and its winner the greatest champion, then give us a parcours we can dream on. Give us climbs that yield heroes. Balanced courses and sneaky last-km ramps might be enough to settle the general classification, but will never be an acceptable substitute for greatness. The Tour’s emphasis on trying new climbs is admirable and should continue, for there’s never any harm in taking risks and being creative. But within limits. The lack of red-meat ascents and high-mountain finishes may be nourishing headlines and “drama,” but not our imaginations. And cycling, of all sports, the one so many of us emulate from our earliest active days to maybe even this morning’s commute, is about feeding fans’ dreams about what can be done on something as simple as a bike, if you attach a hero to it.