So often the Tour de France is defined by the high mountains. All our memories are built around the big mountain stages when we think back to some of the most magical moments of the Tour. The Alps and the Pyrenees dominate the historic books just as they dominate the horizon when the race approaches. The obvious exception was, perhaps, last year when that epic stage on the cobbles became one of those stages for the ages. And maybe that’s fitting because it’s only in the most recent of Tours that the race organisation has tried to put more emphasis on stages away from just the mountains.
There’s too much love for the suffering and drama of those high Alpine and Pyrenean stages to remove them (though it would be fascinating to see a Tour with just one mountain stage and lots of others like what we seen in the first week or on the transition between the Alps and Pyrenees! Peter Sagan would surely fancy his chances!) but the race organisors have been looking for ways to spice up the first weeks racing in an attempt to make those stages count for something in the grand scheme of the three week race.
And now they have succeeded.
For the first time that I can remember, this Tour might well be remembered most for the first week of racing. Gone for sure are the days of sprinters dominating the first week of racing with the contenders doing little more than avoiding accidents on pan-flat stages while using them as glorified training sessions to find their form ahead of the real stuff in the later two weeks. Once upon a time only a time-trial could sort out the general classification before the mountains. But not this year.
No doubt, the Pyrenean stages were decent, and in the case of the first one to La Pierre-Saint-Martin, decisive as Froome took 1min 14sec (including the time-bonus) out of Nairo Quintana, a mere 2sec more than which he won the Tour by. Likewise the Alps, as two young Frenchman, as well as the reigning champion, took victories to salvage their respective Tours, before Quintana made a last ditch bid for glory and almost pulled it off as Froome began to struggle and we found ourselves on the edges of our seats for the first time in over a week.
All great moments, but lets not kid ourselves, the first week stole the show.
The short individual time-trial in Utrecht in the Netherlands did little to affect the contenders but it seen the fastest time-trial in Tour history, by Rohan Dennis, breaking the record set by Chris Boardman at the 1994 prologue. From there we had three distinctly different classic type stages — in cross-winds, on the Mur de Huy and on the cobbles — in which more time was won and lost in a way that twenty years ago would only have been seen on a long time-trial or on the side of an Alpine mountain.
We seen Cancellara take Yellow, then abandon. Then Froome lay down a psychological marker and take the race lead, only for the ever popular Tony Martin to win on the cobbles and overcame three days in which he had missed out on Yellow to three different men by five, then three, then a single second, to finally pull on his career first Maillot Jaune. It didn’t last long though, on stage six he too crashed out when he came down and brought three fifths of the ‘boy band’ of Quintana, Van Garderen and Froome with him. It caused a brief fallout between Nibali and Froome with the former blaming the later and the later storming the team-bus of the former. Their fued would ignite again on stage 19 when Nibali would attack to win the stage while Froome was suffering a mechanical.
There was also the traditional first week crashes, and none so serious as on stage 3 when several riders came down hard, consuming all medical personnel behind the race. The result was the sight of the race being stopped briefly. Several riders abandoned that day including Cancellara who rode the final 50km to the finish with a broken back, while others soldiered on. Adam Hansen separated his shoulder and Michael Matthews broke ribs and while both suffered greatly, both made it to Paris.
The sprinters got their bunch gallops, but only twice in those first nine days as Greipel won his second stage (having survived the cross-winds of stage 2 to win) and Cavendish took what would be his lone win of the Tour.
By the time they had rode up the tough Mûr-de-Bretagne and suffered through a team-time-trial that came so late into the Tour that many teams were already without riders and many riders were already suffering from tired legs, the GC had been blown to bits.
We had witnessed a magical first nine stages in which all the contenders looking to win the Tour in the mountains that still lay ahead had been active almost every day trying not to lose it. It had exhausted them before what they might have perceived as the ‘real racing’ had even begun. And, as we found out, it took its toll on many legs throughout those mountains.
Chris Froome, expected to spend the first week limiting his losses came out in Yellow, while Vincenzo Nibali, expected to make a lot of gains that first week, had been shedding time. And that only continued into the mountains as for a brief time his team management stripped him of team leadership. All before he finally found his legs in the final days in the Alps, though too late to win the Tour, but enough to vault himself back into the top 5.
Beyond that first rest day the race was split into three parts for me: Froome winning the Tour in the Pyranees, Sagan winning the points competition on the transition stages, and the young Frenchmen rescuing their Tours with wins in the Alps.
Sadly though there was a fourth part to this Tour that, along with the first week, done its best to steel who spotlight, and that was the treatment of Chris Froome in the (French) media, on back corners of social media and, worst of all, at the side of the road. The later was clearly influenced by what was said in the media as the likes of Laurent Jalabert began to doubt Froome and pseudo scientists on social media took up the baton with innuendos that led others to outright condemnation. We see this stuff every year now, things took a more sinister twist in 2015 when so-called fans at the side of the road spat at Froome and one so-called human threw a cup of urine in his face.
And all this for a man who has done little more than win. Win in the face of little hard or even circumstantial evidence of any wrong doing. It was fascinating to watch the likes of Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador get a free ride (and rightly so in the sense that no fan interference is warranted on any rider, whatever the situation), while Froome bore the brunt. Of course, this is the price to pay when you wear the Yellow jersey, it’s nothing new. Merckx seen it because he would dominate the event year-in year-out; Froome is seeing it because the generation before him that won, cheated. And only in the Tour. During his rider to Giro victory Contador got a virtual free ride by comparison to Froome and the later is without history here.
But unlike the generation before in Yellow, say Lance Armstrong seven times, there has been no covered up tests, no back-dated TUE and certainly no disgruntled ex-team-mate looking to sell his story, and we all know there’s some disgruntled ex-Sky employees out there.
And yet, Froome handled it with a class that not many could. He’d have been forgiven for losing it in a press conference, certainly with a fan at the side of the road, yet he kept his composure, he maintained his focus, he responded calmly and articulately when questioned and then he got on with racing his bicycle.
In the end, nobody knows 100% that Froome is clean except himself, but at some point in sport, just as in life, we need to give some people the benefit of the doubt. This is a bike race and there is going to be a winner; someone has to win. If the point comes at which I can no longer give anyone the benefit of the doubt by weighing up what I see and how I perceive them, then I wouldn’t watch anymore. Why be a hypocrite? Why waste your time watching, or tweeting, or waiting at the side of the road to throw urine when there’s so much else to do?
As things stand, Froome is deserving of that benefit of the doubt. I’d prefer to give him the chance and be let down than to condemn and abuse and later find out there was nothing in it. But maybe that’s the human being in me. The way in which Froome carries himself as a person on (riding style aside!) and in particular, off the bike is only to be admired. The way he faced the kind of adversity he did, the way he reacted to it, and the way he overcame it to remain on the moral high ground leaves him as the kind of athlete – the kind of person – I’d want my kid to look up to. Dangerous ground you might say, not just with athletes but cyclists too, but sometimes you have to be courageous enough to believe in someone.
Anyway, let not the final words on this years Tour be overshadowed by a subject and incidents that in the end failed to overshadow the race itself. Froome won it in the end and that’s what mattered.
And so there goes the 2015 Tour. That first week of winds, Murs, cobbles, grit and exhaustion; that second week of Froome on the first Pyrenean stage and Sagan attacking day after day but without reward of a win; and that third week of French wins, Nibali winning and Quintana making a go of it only to fall short as Froome stood victorious a-top the podium in Paris. Many came in hoping to make their mark on this years Tour, and some did. Some came in hoping to win it but one by one they fell by the wayside, and only one did. It wasn’t the greatest Tour ever, perhaps highlighted by the first week being so damn good, but no Tour is bad, none resigned to failure nor worth forgetting.