As Chris Froome delivered his speech in Paris on Sunday, American golfer, Jordan Spieth was doing the same 646km away at Royal Birkdale Golf Club. He had won his first Open Championship at the same moment Froome had secured his fourth Tour de France. The pair are alike in many ways. Both winners, both focused and both committed. But all too rare in athletes in this century, both are also graceful and carry themselves with class.
And yet back in the US, Spieth can look forward to high praise and a warm reception in the media. In the UK, Froome is still striving for the same. It could be a cultural thing, but it could also be a cycling thing. On the day of his victory in Paris, several articles in the British press took a more negative slant on his win. It ought to have been a moment to savour and celebrate.
But people seem to like a plucky underdog or a wild entertainer when it comes to cycling. And because Froome doesn’t come second enough and because he does not have the personality of Peter Sagan, he’s in tough for love. He will never be an Andy Murray when it comes to public affection, but he’s no Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods either. He may be dominant on the field of play, but he isn’t hard to like off of it. As such, some of the criticism also stems from his style of racing by way of the approach of his team and thus the Tour as a whole.
Too conservative, too negative, not entertaining enough was the theme. Sky have too much money, too much talent and too much control over the race. The race was crap. Complaints that a course designed to stifle Froome only stifled the racing. We heard it all as it became clear he was going to win again. People are either fed up of Froome winning, or never warmed to him in the first place. But I can’t help but feel it’s a touch over played and a little undeserved.
It is in a way a product of the times we live in though. Everyone wants entertained right away and all the time. Attention spans are short in a ‘what have you done for me lately’ age. Once upon a time people learned about the Tour via days old news reports. Then it might have been snippets on the radio. When I grew up it was half hour highlight shows on Channel 4 in the UK. Eurosport then took on live coverage of the final couple of hours of each stage. Then this year for the first time, the Tour started broadcasting every stage from start to finish. People are getting more than ever, but they are also expecting more than ever.
There were fewer summit finishes this year, but also fewer time-trial kilometres. It created a tight standings to the point that four men were within one minute of yellow going into the final week. Had you offered that to even the most cynical of viewers, they’d have jumped at it. Of all his four wins, this was the hardest for Froome. It was the first time his margin of victory was less than one minute. Every stage seemed to matter. There was always something up for grabs. And this was no procession either. Froome lost yellow at one point; the first he has done that to a fellow contender. He cracked, though too late for the rest to capatalise as much as they might have. He then had to go out and get it back. On another stage he required a wheel change that left him scrambling to get back in contact with his rivals before the summit of the climb. And still he attacked throughout. And so did his rivals. The problem here was that when it came to the mountains, the margins between them were so fine.
Some said there wasn’t enough aggression in Froome’s rivals, but there’s a good side to that. If you believe we’re seeing a cleaner peloton than ever before, it might suggest why nobody is blowing the race to bits. We no longer have these wild long range attacks that puts minutes into others. At least, they’re not frequent. And you pay for it the next day.
You cannot have it both ways.
Beyond that, training, nutrition, diet and equipment have all tightened the margins. Riders specialise more than ever too. And the elite end of the field is more diverse than ever before. We had a European, an African and a South American on the final podium. An Englishman won the young rider contest with a South African in second. An Australian won the green jersey contest. Another Australian had been a pre-race favourite before crashing out. Another Colombian had attempted the Giro-Tour double before falling short. All that and the French are making a comeback.
The days of Merckx putting in long miles in winter, eating a steak the morning of a race are over. The days of Chiappucci or Pantani taking it to the yellow jersey with outlandish attacks are gone.
What you’re left with, on this kind of a course, is a group of contenders fighting for inches.
People criticise the power of Team Sky, but at times AG2R pushed the tempo too. On many flat stages the sprinters teams did the work and Sky got days off one after the other. You can talk about the budget of Sky, but BMC, Katusha and Movistar have a big budget too and where nowhere. (I get that BMC lost their main man in Richie Porte, but once gone, nobody stepped up for stages or GC). Quick-Step have a big budget and yet spent more time looking after Marcel Kittel than protecting Dan Martin in the cross-winds. It was the lower budget teams of Cannondale and AGR2, and their respective team leaders that pushed Froome closest. And this was the first time Team Sky has won the teams classification at the Tour. It’s less about the budget and more about the approach.
You could argue that more mountains would have weeded them out further, but at what cost? Every Tour cannot be the same. I applaud the organisation for trying something else. It wasn’t an epic, but it wasn’t half as bad as some are making out. And I can say without doubt that it wasn’t boring, like others are suggesting.
Indeed, to anyone who said the race was ‘boring’, well, the event is lost on them. They might be better sticking to WWE Wrestling. Twenty-one stages across all terrains will always serve up too much to talk about to make it boring.
Think of the Valverde crash on stage one. Nobody wanted to see anyone crash out, but it’s part of the narrative; it creates a talking point and it feeds the drama. Likewise when Sagan and Cavendish collided, and the fallout that followed it. And on stage 9 to Chambéry, there was more talking poinst than we knew what to do with. Aru attacking under the arm of Froome … Froome bumping Aru … Porte’s crash and abandonment … Astana helping Froome chase Bardet … Uran’s gear trouble … Uran out sprinting Bargil for the stage win. And so on and so on, stage after stage.
The hundreds of riders and all their personnel; the thousands of people linked in any way to the race and its journey. They all have a story to tell, twenty-one times over. You can never tell it all, but that is what the Tour is: A story. There is a reason a newspaper invented it in the days before television.
We may not know were this Tour ranks for months or years to come. We wait for the dust to settle and for more stories to come out in the wash. We wait for the riders to start telling their own stories, well clear from the battle field. Add a layer of time to the script and mix in hindsight and nostalgia and then weight it all up. Only then will we know how good this Tour was, or was not. But it is never boring.
And with that in mind, the story of Chris Froome’s Tour, and how he played it, will not become clear until we see how he does at the Vuelta. That is his next target in his two-pronged summer of racing.
This is his best shot at the double. He came into this Tour with the Vuelta more on his mind than ever before. It affected his results earlier this the season but meant he peaked for the third week of this Tour. That worked and should allow him to carry form towards the Vuelta to peak again. That and there is no Olympics in the middle this time either. The long time-trial will help him too. And also a lot of those looking to contend will also have ridden this Tour. As such they will also have the same disadvantages.
British Cycling is in the midst of a golden age right now. I remember oh-so-well the 1990s when a Chris Boardman prologue win and Sean Yates getting in the break was a successful British Tour. Then Cavendish came along winning sprint stages and Sky followed with Wiggins and now Froome. Five Tour wins for Sky and British cycling in six years. Which harkens back to the all-too-quick criticism of Froome and Sky. People can view it, or enjoy it how they please, but at some point it will end. These things always come and go. And when it does leave it will be interesting to see how those wavering in their praise now, will then react?
But these views appear to be in the minority, even if a vocal minority. The reality is that out on the roads, the crowds have never been bigger. The roadside criticism of Froome was more diluted than ever this year. (There was the booing, but that was in the context of him being the rival of the French hero). I suspect the majority of those watching quietly from the armchair, away from the complaint box of social media, will have enjoyed this Tour.
Or this could all be me. I am easy to entertain when it comes to the simple things that distract us from real life. Like sports; like cycling. It could be that I miss the point in all of this, though if that is the case then I’m fine with it. I enjoyed the Tour and it will be exciting come October when they unveil the route for 2018. When it is, no doubt some people will find, and pick, at the flaws and tell us all about them. But shy of it being three weeks of team-time-trials, I am more likely to look forward to it. How Froome reacts and how Sky approach it we will have to see. It will be up to the others to find a way to contend. One thing will be certain, there will be a lot more stories to tell.