Everyone is loving this Tour de France. It has been chock-full of suspense and action, with a (current) result that doesn’t match what we all expected. Each stage has been pretty-to-extremely intriguing. It’s gotten to the point where people are starting to ask if we need a break from all of the good times so fans and riders alike can catch their breath.
Is this the funnest Tour ever? Maybe if you’re under 30 you could think so — the 1980s were completely LIT though, so let’s not bother going there. And the 1990s aren’t the anythingest years for cycling, unless we want to do a corruption ranking, which I can assure you we do not. We don’t really want to get into the cross-off years either, which is all of the Lance Era, the Riis/Ullrich/Pantani Tours, and even the Landis Tour, though it still pains me to this day to dismiss what I saw. Anyway, let’s go from 2007 on, even though things were still problematic then. You have to start somewhere.
Before we get started, let’s parse through what makes for a fun Tour. I can think of a few things but feel free to add.
- A robust GC competition. We haven’t had a lot of really close competitions at the Tour in the last 15 years, but there’s usually at least one credible alternative contender. Multiple threats to win takes the intrigue up significantly, but those scenarios are pretty rare.
- A respectable winner. Usually just winning the Tour is enough to make you respectable, in the post-free-for-all-doping era, but there are a few levels to this.
- Lively racing. This is more subjective, and my memory of exactly how many attacks occurred at which Tour is not very reliable, so I’ll definitely rely on you guys to fill in some blanks. Generally, though, a close race isn’t fun if it’s just a series of dull marches up mountains. We want action and suspense!
- Some fun sub-plots. These come in all shapes and sizes, from yellow jersey surprises to charismatic stage wins or minor jersey campaigns. Is it mostly about yellow in the end? Maybe, but there is plenty of space to talk about other things.
- An appropriately magnificent route. The Tour has gotten pretty good at varying the route these days, so I am not sure how much of a distinction we can draw from year to year. There have been a couple duds though.
The Contenders — based on these criteria, I am eliminating just a few editions from consideration. 2009 — the moronic Lance/Astana stuff, I am confident that nobody is voting for that. 2012, the Wiggins Tour, was pretty bland for everyone not related to or named Bradley Wiggins. 2016, the Froome Tours all suffered a bit from monotony, but I don’t want to eliminate them all on that basis, so this is just the least remarkable one. 2021 is on shaky ground but I’ll leave it in there and let you guys decide.
Pros: Just a completely wild race from start to finish. In part because of, well, ethical issues (more on that in a sec), but also because there simply wasn’t a worthy winner to be found, except maybe Alberto Contador, who did end up winning, though not before emerging from the final time trial where he, Cadel Evans and Levi Leipheimer all got to within seconds of each other on the virtual standings for a very thrilling hour.
Oh, and the race featured the best Prologue I can remember, where Fabian Cancellara, just an all-time prologue legend, went so fast he practically rode up the back of the accompanying moto.
Cons: Hm, well the race was awash in doping, so there’s that, though they mostly caught the least likable dopers — Vinokourov, Sinkewicz, and of course Rasmussen. Who I mentioned in my Jumbo post and was chided for not dwelling more on the fact that he was known as The Chicken, for his resemblance to packaged boneless skinless chicken breasts you find at the grocery store.
Pros: I wrote an entire piece on this race too earlier this week about how it was the most exciting and well-executed team strategy in a long time that enabled Carlos Sastre to nab the win from Evans.
Cons: Sastre was a one-off winner and one of the subplots was Bernard Köhl winning the KOM jersey and a podium spot, which didn’t age well.
Pros: Fun or just weird? Well, if you like arguing, then this was a hoot. This race is best known for Alberto Contador gaining 39 seconds on stage 15 when Andy Schleck had a mechanical issue near the top of the Port de Balès. Apart from that moment, it was a razor-thin back and forth battle between the two which Contador ended up winning by... 39 seconds. Should he have waited like a gentleman for Schleck to unfuck his chain? Let’s not start that up again.
Thor Hushovd and Alessandro Petacchi had a terrific battle for the Points Comp where each rider had three separate stints in green before Petacchi pulled it back a fourth and final time. Mind you, super-prime Mark Cavendish was in attendance as well, and ended up sandwiched between the others in a final standings where the three were within a 21-point spread — basically it wasn’t decided til Paris. And yellow wasn’t really decided until the prior day when Schleck came out hot in the ITT to winnow his 8” gap down to 2” before Contador, the superior cronoman, inevitably widened the gap back out. Then you had Sylvain Chavanel in yellow early on and Anthony Charteau taking the KOM to Paris, giving French hopes a lift. Oh and Lance Armstrong’s final appearance was a total dud, where he dropped to 22nd overall after a winter of petty vindictive bullshit around the Astana/Radio Shack split with Contador. Everyone was a winner there.
Cons: About six weeks later the arguments shifted from “should Bert have waited?” to “did Bert eat a tainted steak?”, setting off a Dickensian legal proceeding that resulted in Schleck “winning” this Tour. Also Cadel Evans sauntered briefly into yellow on stage 9, but not til he’d fractured his elbow, which would take him out of contention a day later and ruin what might have been a nice triangulation drama at the top of the GC.
Pros: Australia — and for that matter the entire southern hemisphere — got its first Tour victory as Evans, at long last, holds it all together long enough to deliver the win. Oz joined its fellow “English”-speaking countries Ireland and the US in the winners’ club, furthering the expansion of the Tour’s reach, on the eve of English completely taking over the sport. Evans’ fans and even some of his detractors (hi!) were relieved to see him switch to BMC, get a bit more support in the climbs, and finally take home yellow. Anybody but Vino.
The best case for 2011 as a fun Tour, however, was the style of racing, particularly two days in the Alps. Sitting a minute behind Evans — which was really more like four minutes, considering how badly Evans was due to slaughter both the Schlecks in the final ITT — Andy lit up stage 18, going solo over a brilliantly designed stage from Pinerolo, Italy over the Col d’Agnel, Col d’Izoard, and ending halfway up the Galibier at Serre Chevalier. If you were there, you were among us wondering when the last time was that you had seen a rider of this caliber risk everything on a long solo attack in the highest mountains of the Tour. [The Col d’Agnel is one of the highest roads the Tour has ever visited.] Schleck reversed his deficit to a minute advantage, but the gambit sort of failed after maybe looking like he could take some four minutes and actually have a shot at the win.
Contador tried a similar attack the next day after about 12km, drawing Andy out for another heroic mountain jaunt, but it was too short a stage and the favorites ended up finishing together on Alpe d’Huez. Also Contador’s big attack was lame because a) he was just copying what Andy had already done, and b) Andy didn’t have a doping drama stuck to him like an STD. Evans survived all the madness and comfortably doodsmak’d the Schlecks in the ITT for the win.
Not to be forgotten was some very memorable stage action. Tyler Farrar won his only Tour stage sprint victory of his otherwise pretty illustrious career on day 3, capping off the effort by paying tribute to Wouter Weylandt, his good friend who had died during the Giro d’Italia two months earlier (which involved its own, even more memorable and touching tribute ride). Norwegians Thor Hushovd and Edvald Boasson Hagen, friendly rivals I think?, went on several stage winning attacks, including back to back medium mountain days to Gap and Pinerolo. And Mark Cavendish put it all together with five sprint victories, including Paris, to take the til-then-elusive green jersey.
Cons: Having Contador racing under a cloud of suspicion wasn’t super cool, although he had strategically done (and won) the Giro out of fear that he’d be prevented from riding the Tour, so when he was allowed to start, his form wasn’t great, and he barely registered as a factor in the overall. The Schlecks weren’t the stoutest competition either, and Bradley Wiggins — soon to join the champions circle — crashed out in week 2.
Pros: First of the Froome wins, which were often a bit short on charisma, given the power of his team which was expressed at its most dominant and boring in their 2012 triumph. For some stupid reason Wiggins decided he’d rather ride the Giro, effectively ducking a tense rematch with his own teammate Froome, who would have crushed Wiggo anyway. That left the Tour rounding up the usual suspects (Porte, Contador, Klöden, Kreuziger, J-Rod, Valverde) to get in Froome’s way, which they definitely did not do. Froome won on Mont Ventoux, Ax-3-Domaines, and the final ITT and the final result was rarely in doubt.
Still, it was amusing, and got a bit more exciting as a suddenly oncoming Nairo Quintana put time into Froome in two of the three Alps stages, winning solo at Semnoz which catapulted him into the KOM jersey and taking second overall. This performance set off Colombian cycling fans like never before, bridging the gap from the first small waves of Colombian mountain goats to the present, where they are everywhere and they win.
Marcel Kittel brought German cycling back into prominence after years of wrestling with the corrupt Telekom years, winning four stages, though that didn’t matter to Peter Sagan, who was created in a lab to win the Green Jersey and did so with little resistance.
Oh, and the start in Corsica made everyone want to move to Corsica. Except for whoever caused the Orica GreenEdge bus to get wedged under the finish line structure, which resulted in the opening stage stopping 3km sooner. That guy did not want to stay in Corsica any longer than necessary.
Cons: In hindsight, Froome is considered a top winner just a notch below the greatest of the great, so maybe that explains the lack of suspense, but it’s easy to think it could have been more exciting if the competition had been more robust. This version of Quintana came out of nowhere and wasn’t ready for a more serious challenge (which, yeah), and the rest of the lot didn’t fit the maillot jaune. This wasn’t one of the great battles in Tour history.
Pros: Two big things: Nibali and the Cobbles. Regarding the former, Vincenzo Nibali became the seventh rider in history to win all three grand tours, and with the usual combination of versatility and smarts that, more than pure talent, has defined his illustrious career. He got a big assist from Lady Luck, who shifted entirely away from Froome, leaving him lying on the ground three times in two days, eventually with matching fractures in each wrist/hand, and out of the Tour. Nibali, meanwhile, parlayed a stage 2 solo attack into capturing yellow by two seconds. Then on the cobbled stage to Arenberg, which skipped the Trench but caught seven hard secteurs along the way, Nibali rode a brilliant, aggressive race finishing just behind winner Lars Boom, putting major time into everyone else. Then, in case anyone had the slightest doubts about his brilliance, he won the first two and last mountain stages, sauntering into Paris with more than seven minutes’ advantage.
Italian cycling needed this. For a foundational cycling country, the paucity of Italian Tour winners can be a little shocking — Nibali was only the second Italian winner since Felice Gimondi in 1965, and the other was
Marco Pantani. It was also a win for canny racing over pure talent or monotonous time trialling power. Froome’s subsequent dominance makes this even more of a breath of fresh air.
French cycling got its first podium placements since 1997 in the persons of Jean-Christophe Peraud and exciting youngster Thibaut Pinot.
Cons: And that’s about it. Sagan bludgeoned the points competition out of existence before the race even reached France from the start in the UK. The course, apart from the UK, the cobbles, and the gimmicky Planche des Belles Filles, was relatively flat and unexciting. Quintana had skipped the Tour for the Giro, which he won, so once Froome crashed out, Nibali didn’t have a ton of resistance to overcome, holding yellow for 19 of 21 stages, so if you weren’t a Nibali fan, this was a pretty big dud.
Pros: I am tossing this in there because it was the tightest competition in the Froome years, and but for a landslide it might have been even tighter. Quintana started ominously by shipping a minute in the opening time trial in Utrecht, all of 13.8km, but then tossed away another minute-plus on a crosswind stage to an artificial island within the Oosterscheldedam complex. All of these chickens came home to roost when he began whittling away his deficit in the final week, but ran out of time to chop off all three-plus minutes in the final two stages before Paris. He got close though, ending up just 1.14 back following a pretty exciting escape to Alpe d’Huez, which might have been even more exciting had they not cut out the Galibier after a landslide messed up the road. Or maybe Nairo would have blown up and lost by three minutes. Anyway, that’s what counted for drama in the Froome years.
Cons: Lack of competition after Quintana. Nibali fell back early on and didn’t have Quintana’s climbing to haul himself back in. Contador was once again coming off a Giro d’Italia win and not in prime condition. The usual suspects had no response for Froome. It was left to Quintana, who bungled away what was probably his best chance on a course with just one individual time trial.
Pros: Skipping ahead, I’ll toss in the last Froome year, which was more of the same, only less so, as Froome was starting to come back down to Earth some and faced several credible challenges from seemingly all directions. Nibali wasn’t there and Quintana came in off a near-win at the Giro, so Froome’s chief competition seemed pretty questionable, but he ended up having to fend off blistering attacks from Romain Bardet, the steady challenges of Fabio Aru (who briefly even took yellow) and Rigoberto Uran (who finished second, 54 seconds back), and the odd bow-shot from Warren Barguil.
The green jersey comp got crazy when Peter Sagan was part of a crash that took out Mark Cavendish, and Sagan ended up tossed out of the race (a ruling few agreed with and which was overturned six months later). That left Marcel Kittel and Michael Matthews, with the latter taking the competition and the former settling for five stage victories.
Cons: Was it as suspenseful as it sounds? There was that stage 20 time trial in Marseille looming over the competition, so as long as Froome made it to the start in or near the lead, he was a presumptive victor-in-waiting.
Pros: Froome, coming off Vuelta and Giro wins since his last Tour, finally faltered. But into his shoes stepped, unexpectedly, his teammate Geraint Thomas, who secured the overall win with a pair of stage victories on consecutive days in the Alps, including a narrow win atop Alpe d’Huez while wearing the maillot jaune — a first.
Otherwise, I would say this was one of the better parcourses, from the Noirmoutier start to the cobbles to the trio of Alps stages and then novel Pyrenean ones, with a swing through French Basque Country en route back to Paris. Also Julian Alaphilippe took the polka dots after a strong win at Le Grand Bornand, while Peter Sagan got himself back into his customary green outfit along with three stage wins.
Cons: Froome’s run ended in part on the roads of the 2018 Tour, and in part in the courtrooms and boardrooms of pro cycling, in response to his adverse analytical finding that he had overdone his salbutamol, commonly associated with asthma inhalers but not without controversy. Even without this baggage, his Giro-Tour double effort was not likely to succeed, as a few other great riders have discovered.
Pros: Another first, this time for Colombia, which was every bit as exciting as it sounds. Egan Bernal won a tight competition for yellow with a late-race success, albeit of the strangest kind, when a mudslide blocked the final climb and left the race neutralized at the top of the Col de l’Iseran, where Bernal had opened up enough of a gap to take the jersey from a heroic Alaphilippe — denying us one of the least likely Tour wins in forever. Defending winner Thomas chugged along and got to a respectable second overall as stage 20 got chopped in half as well by the weather.
Not great times? Well there were numerous exciting stage wins, including two by Ala, consolation stages to Nibali, Pinot and Quintana, and a shock victory by debutante Wout Van Aert (who DNF’d with a nasty cut during a crash on the final ITT that put his career briefly in question).
Cons: The final GC had four riders within two minutes, the tightest competition in a while... so it royally sucked that the last two mountain stages got copped down severely.
Pros: A new superstar blasted his way into our collective consciousness at the very last moment (minus the final stage to Paris), as Tadej Pogačar rode the time trial of his life to La Planche des Belles Filles and snatched victory away from his Slovenian countryman Primož Roglič. Pogačar became the youngest Tour winner, at 21, since 1904, when everyone was super young, right?, and also took the white and polka dot jerseys, the first rider to win three jersey competitions at a Tour since Eddy Merckx. He also became the first rider to win in his initial Tour since Laurent Fignon. It was all a little head-spinning.
The final GC was a two-man affair, but the green jersey competition, won by Sam Bennett, featured lots of subplots, with Bennett kicking Sagan off the mountaintop for a change, plus some interesting performances by double stage winners Caleb Ewan, Van Aert and Soren Kragh Andersen.
Cons: Well, if you were a Roglič or Jumbo fan... Also this was the Covid Tour, held in September, so make of that what you will.
Pros: Pogačar confirms what we suspected, that he really is the next big thing in cycling and at the Tour in particular, with a fairly dominant win. Which is not all good news, but it’s cool to see a great champion come to fruition. He won three stages and repeated his capture of the three jerseys from 2020, yellow, white and spots, to underline his dominance.
In the wake of Roglič crashing out, Jumbo Visma promoted lieutenant Jonas Vingegaard to leadership, and the Dane did a decent job of matching Pogs through the mountains, suggesting good things ahead. Even more exciting was the performance of Van Aert, one for the ages, as he won a mountain stage that went up Mont Ventoux twice, then he won the final ITT, and lastly he took the sprint in Paris. Van Aert was committed to teamwork early on and Mark Cavendish walked away with the green jersey, tying Merckx for the record of 34 career stage wins.
Mathieu van der Poel took yellow for most of the opening week, winning stage 2 in a special kit designed to honor his grandfather Raymond Poulidor, a hero of French cycling who had recently passed away and who famously never wore the yellow jersey. When his grandson pulled it on that day... Niagara Falls. Matej Mohorič won a mountain stage, adding to the Slovenian delight, and Sepp Kuss gave the USA its first stage win in a while.
Cons: The GC was a blowout after the Roglič-Pogačar battle fizzled out. Which is a pretty big downer, that being the thing that people get most excited about at the Tour. But unless I am forgetting something, that is probably my only complaint.
Pros: Fascinating two-man chess match between the seemingly unbeatable Pogačar and the slim Dane super-climber who, as of this writing, is about to beat Pogs. And while it’s not as broad a competition as you’d maybe prefer (five-rider free-for-all, anyone?), it has been a matchup with some added dimensions involving Pogačar’s dwindling but not bereft team support versus Vingegaard’s Jumbo Visma team effort for the ages. Day after day, they have been prepared for strategies, weather, whatever challenges could be thrown their way. And if there were a prize for non-yellow MVP, Wout Van Aert’s lead in that competition would surpass even his smothering control of the green jersey, which he wrapped up so long ago I can’t even remember.
Along the way we have had, as discussed above, a steady onslaught of exciting, tactically fascinating, and highly varied stage competitions. We have seen Fabio Jakobsen and Dylan Groenewegen trade sprint victories in Denmark, followed by Danish riders going crazy back in France, from Vingegaard’s yellow campaign to Magnus Cort Nielsen in spots and winning a stage, to yet another stage win from former world champ Mads Pedersen. Pogačar himself leads the way with three stage wins, and career-defining moves from Tom Pidcock and Hugo Houle added to the stage drama.
Cons: Well, for starters, it’s not over. Also we got another two-rider battle, quite definitively, as Thomas was the only rider even vaguely threatening to insert himself into the discussion leading into the final week.
OK, my top five ranking...
I want to pick one of the Froome years, but they sort of split the vote and I can’t settle on just one. What’s your ranking?