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Tour Stage 21: A Dire Ending

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Houilles – Paris (116km)

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The Stage

Sunday sees the final stage of the Tour, and we all know what happens when the Tour hits Paris. So, as we did with last year’s Vuelta, let’s rattle through the preview and get on with the reminiscing.

The race will roll in from a Parisian suburb at a crawl, with photos of the jerseys together, of the yellow with his team mates. There’ll be champagne, laughter, a sense of relief at completing the rough stuff. Most riders will just be looking to survive until the finish. Then we’ll hit the centre of Paris and the pace will ramp up, a doomed break will get thirty seconds, and we’ll see the sprinters’ teams come after them.

This year will follow the script, except the bulk of the sprinters have gone home. Of those who are left, Peter Sagan has green wrapped up but would love a win in Paris and would be favourite. However, he’s been suffering since a fall on the stage seventeen descent and is unlikely to be at his best. Arnaud Demare appears therefore to be the man to beat. John Degenkolb, Alexander Kristoff and Christophe Laporte will be among those trying to make a race of it. Just for one last twist, though, I’m going to predict a surprise win for Maximiliano Richeze, freed from leadout duty when Gaviria dropped out of the race. It is eleven years since his Giro wins, but he’ll never face a sprint line-up as weak as this in a Tour, and the late bend encourages a long kick that will suit him. He’ll need the help of a diminished Quick Step team, but this would be the Wolfpackiest win yet. A pipe dream, possibly, but stranger things have happened.

The Tour in Review

For those of you paying attention towards the end of stage 13, I mentioned that a Dire Straits lyric would feature as a terrible caption to one of my pictures in the next day’s preview. The sheer number of (logical) guesses as to the lyric I’d chosen gave me the idea for this piece. So, a few of my memories of this Tour as it wraps up, with some of the better Getty photos and some appropriate Dire Straits lyrics. You should probably listen to this while you read, though for my money Knopfler was better later, particularly with two superb film soundtracks.

Every victory has a taste that’s bittersweet

What is Chris Froome thinking? One of the dominant themes of this Tour has been the internecine struggle between an understandably tired Froome and a form-of-his-life Thomas. Sky will, of course, be delighted – a man brought through the track/British Cycling route winning is great PR, and it is notable that this is the first UK-born winner of the Tour. However, Froome was chasing a fifth win, and a Giro-Tour double, two astounding achievements, one of which is probably gone forever.

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He couldn’t win it, and it would be pretty hard to blame Thomas. Froome simply didn’t have the legs, and Thomas didn’t at any point ride to destroy his teammate – he was simply a better, and a luckier, rider. We’ll never get inside the politics of this squad, but I will be interested to see what leadership looks like in future races.

I’ve witnessed your suffering

As the battle raged high

A great lyric, and I had to find a way to shoehorn it into this piece. Dan Martin, the world’s most uncomfortable-looking elite climber, was a possibility, but I’ve chosen to award this to Julian Alaphilippe. We knew he was great, and two stage wins is not a surprise, but his willingness to go deep for the spotty jersey (as the battle raged high, you see) has been a background highlight of this race.

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Oh it’s a dangerous road

And a hazardous load

Too many guys went home early in this race. I’ve particularly missed the sprinters (and, indeed, we witnessed their suffering as the battle raged high) but the loss of Richie Porte, once again, before we hit the mountains, was an absolute bugger. Heal fast, Richie, the race would have been richer for you staying in it.

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Some people get a cheap laugh breaking up the speed limit

Scaring the pedestrians for a minute

Crossing up progress driving on the grass

Leaving just enough for room to pass

Sunday driver never took a test

Lots of nonsense in this Tour. Fans attempting to pull riders off bikes, policemen (accidentally) gassing riders, and pulling riders off bikes, fans causing crashes on mountain passes… bleurgh.

I don’t know how you fix this. Cycling’s joy is that you can get close to the action. The smartphone/photo obsession isn’t going away, and tempers fray. These things, I guess, happen. Still, we need to find a way to improve rider safety. Soon.

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If we can’t get along we oughta be apart

And I’m wondering where’d you get that cold, cold heart

Set me free - sign my release

I’m tired of being the villain of the peace

I could go several ways with Movistar. The villain is, of course, fairly obvious, but it was somewhat refreshing to see Valverde unable to stick in the biggest climbs. He may be undercooked ahead of a tilt at the Worlds, but at least he didn’t look unbreakable here.

I was on the side of “don’t even think about a three-leader strategy, send Landa to the Giro”, and despite Carapaz’s successes, the underperformance here leaves one of the sport’s biggest teams in a quandry. They’ve hollowed out their roster from the middle to allow the signing of stars, but it isn’t obvious where success is coming from. Landa needs a good Vuelta or 2019 will begin to look challenging.

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The signing of releases is an interesting thought, with Quintana not under contract for 2019 and no certainty over what will happen. He proved on stage 17 that he can still climb, but contention in the Tour should be a goal, and never looked realistic. He’s proof of my theory that electric climbing is the elite skill that peaks earliest in a career. Speaking of which…

Things are going great, and they’re only getting better

I’m doing all right, getting good grades

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades

Okay, so this isn’t a Dire Straits song (Timbuk3, if you’re keeping score at home). Still, I couldn’t settle for just any lyric for Egan Arley Bernal. He didn’t just look good in stage 17, he looked sensational, leading a truly elite group up the Portet, and then shepherding Froome home. He shipped some time early in the race, and will need to improve his race sense and abilities on the flat, but goodness me, the boy can climb. He can time trial, too, and despite the crowded house (another great band) at Sky, Grand Tour leadership needs to come sooner rather than later. I’ve talked about the Magnificent Seven. No more. There are now six possibly magnificent guys well positioned to become key domestiques for the dominant rider of the next generation.

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He sticks to his guns

He take the road as it comes

Tom Dumoulin’s a tough old so-and-so, and granted a few more time trial kms, could be sitting on a Giro-Tour double. I was hugely impressed by his ability to come back strongly after a tough month in Italy, and he’s in the conversation for every grand tour he enters, especially if we see a sensible amount of chrono time. Exceeded my expectations.

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One day you got the glory

One day you got none

One day you’re a diamond

And then you’re a stone

Everything can change

In the blink of an eye

So let the good times roll

Before we say goodbye

This hasn’t always been a thrilling tour, and there have been boring days and depressing days. Mostly, though, these have been good times. We’ve seen a GC that stayed competitive until the very end, we’ve seen new climbs, lots of cobbles, and a new champion. Geraint Thomas is a diamond.

Before we say goodbye to the Tour, congratulations to all the riders, all the winners of jerseys and stages, and to everyone who makes it to Paris, enjoy the glory. Thanks to all of our readers for sticking around and to all those who made the live threads and other columns so much fun.

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