Well, what makes for a good Tour? I’d say that a close GC race is always a bonus in that regard, so on paper this year’s event, won by a mere fifty-four seconds, is starting off pretty well. Obviously the lack of the separating factor that is summit finishes has an impact on that, but in all the articles about this sport that I’ve written and read, I can’t remember anyone ever complaining about a GC race being too tight. Fifty-four seconds is indeed the closest a Tour has been in the last five years, beating the previous record of 1:12 between Froome and Quintana in 2015, but what’s really notable is how close the rest of the top ten were. Romain Bardet, in third place at 2:20 down was two minutes closer to the winner than any other third-place finisher in the last five years. Then there’s Dan Martin, the closest sixth-placed finisher to the win since 1968. The two races aren’t exactly uncomparable — the race was won by less than a minute thanks to the overall winner’s skill in a time-trial.
What else must be had in an entertaining Tour? Some exciting stages always help even if the GC race is less than gripping. The example I like to cite for this category is the 2014 Tour. The GC for that race was over completely by stage ten, but individually, a good number of the stages were really quite exciting battles, in my estimation. How does this year’s race stack up here? It’s subjective of course, but I don’t think it really does very well. All the bunch sprints here were either a foregone conclusion or that one occasion of complete carnage. There was also a notable lack of hilly, not mountainous stages which, you’d think, would have fitted well into a Tour where time gaps were supposed to be kept close. The nearest thing to that sort of stage came on stage eight, one of the best days of the race.
Overall, I think the Jura experiment, if you will, was probably one of the successes of the race. A success marred by crash after crash, but putting those crashes down to the roads being used is surely a mistake. They were no narrower, wetter or in any way more dangerous than Pyrenean roads have been in the past. Blaming them for the crashes is very unlikely to be the correct idea. Certainly, I hope that the comments made after stage nine won’t discourage the organisers from using them again.
The high mountains of the Alps and Pyrenees, however, are how most Tours are remembered and those in this race must surely rank as a disappointment compared to recent years. Last year’s Pyrenean stages beat out the Skytrain pulling the peloton over the Peyresourde, while the stages to Le Bettex and Mont Ventoux were chaotic enough to be more exciting than much this year. Not to mention Quintana attacking Froome on La Toussuire and Alpe d’Huez in 2015.
Really, while the stage to Foix was exciting purely because it can never be boring to see the GC contenders isolated while team dynamics play out on the road, and it’s always nice to see the yellow jersey crack as Froome did on the stage to Peyragudes, the lack of attacking in the mountains really meant that the Alpine stages could hardly be classics. Not to blame the non-attackers, by the way. It’s hard to attack when Kwiatkowski is pushing eight million watts on the front, with Nieve and Landa stony-faced in his wheel.
The fact that Rigoberto Urán rode to second place whilst literally never putting his nose in the wind on a climb is something I applaud rather than detract from — there is no way the man could have won the race. Froome and Bardet were narrowly better than he was in the mountains and while he regained some of his old time-trialling skill, he’s never been in any kind of condition to take thirty seconds out of Froome on that day. Bardet’s strategy made perfect sense as well — two Tour second places really isn’t so different to one, and given how well he was climbing it’s not unreasonable for him to think he could crack Froome and win. The fact that his time-trial was a laborious, painful effort, doesn’t change the fact that Froome basically couldn’t hurt him in the mountains. He couldn’t have done anything more than he did to win the Tour.
Polemica, in moderation, can help give us a good Tour. Polemica certainly existed this July. Moderation? Less so. The expulsion of Sagan on the crash-torn stage four was really the (overused term alert) defining moment of this Tour de France. Then there was all the nonsense about the Supercombatif prize (De Gendt’s not definitely in the right and I defy you to name the 2015 Supercombatif rider without checking. Unless you are Romain Bardet. Actually, he might have to check as well. All that was said about people waiting for Froome is wasted column inches as well. Taking the race into your own hands is one thing, doing it when you can barely lift your arms is another.
What makes for a good Tour de France? Nobody can say for sure. This Tour wasn’t disappointing in every metric, nor was it amazing in pretty much any of them. But it was a Tour de France, and we can appreciate it for the spectacle that it was without putting impossible hopes for next year. I personally enjoyed it, a great deal. It wasn’t the best bike race I’ve had the fortune to see, but to complain about it, I think, would be a mistake. It was a good Tour de France.