It seems Tour de France wins, if you’re British at least, are like our beloved red buses. You wait around a hundred years then a whole bunch of them turn up at once. Sir Dave Brailsford’s Team Sky project has delivered, in swashbuckling fashion, a Tour win that was as dominating as it was dramatic. Sky’s was a team performance that accepted every challenge the punishing hundredth Tour could throw at it, and then some. Chris Froome’s individual performance is certainly to be praised, but at the same time the team Brailsford built around him functioned perfectly, taking the brunt of the early climbing in the key stages and distributing not-really-allowed energy gels where necessary. Although the team looked under threat at times as Froome’s lieutenant Richie Porte flaked, once Froome was in yellow it looked very unlikely that anyone was going to shake him out of it. Oddly enough, Froome’s victory this year answers one of the much-discussed questions of last year’s Tour: the imponderable “who would have won if Froome hadn’t had to ride for Wiggins?”. This year, Froome displayed unequivocally that he could ride Wiggins into the tarmac if he wanted to.
On the other side of the coin, Team Saxo-Bank’s travails this year were plain for all to see. Alberto Contador’s return to France after serving a doping suspension didn’t go according to plan at all. Aside from a ballsy attack on Stage 13 to take a minute out of Froome’s impressive lead, El Pistolero was firing blanks time after time in the mountains. His collapse on the final mountain stage to crash out of the podium places perfectly summed up the race he’d been having. The light, dance-like pedalling style we’ve got used to seeing in the mountains never got off the ground this year, with Contador more often than not being seen labouring up hills with his hands on the tops and his jaw gurning.
The explosive appearance of Nairo Quintana this year heralds the start of a very exciting career in the Tour de France which may last for years to come. While he never really got close enough to stretch Chris Froome, Quintana still managed to make many of his older, more experienced rivals look decidedly amateur on the road to Paris. His marionettish performances at the podium make him look like a lycra-clad Pinocchio off the bike, but give him a mountain and Quintana is as dangerous as any climber in the professional peloton. There’s no doubt that he’s established himself as one to watch for the future.
Another new emerger from the Tour is Argos-Shimano’s Marcel Kittel. With a few slices of luck, notably his survival of the mass crash on Stage 1 that took out all of his competitors, Kittel amassed a very handy four stage wins to outmuscle both Andre Greipel and Mark Cavendish on several occasions. His strong, bulky appearance might not be the most aerodynamic; but in the same way as a fridge can get up to speed when dropped from the Empire State Building, once Kittel is charging there seems to be little that can stop him. Despite that, though, it’s incredibly premature to talk of a changing of the guardamong the top sprinters, however much of a good story that might make.
Mark Cavendish simply wasn’t good enough this year. His bout of bronchitis on the eve of the Tour can’t have helped matters and it’s possible that dragging himself around Italy in May (where he took five stages and the points classification, remember) could have left his legs heavy. Add this to a sub-standard lead-out train from his Omega Pharma teammates and two stages seems a fair haul. What certainly isn’t fair is the fact that didn’t end up winning the points classification. Its eventual victor, the always-entertaining Peter Sagan, claimed just one stage before the Tour arrived in Paris. Since the points classification is supposed to reward the best sprinter, Sagan’s consistently average performance in the bunch sprints begs questions for the race organisers as to how to distribute sprint points.
All in all, this year has left the 101st edition of the Tour a very hefty pair of cycling shoes to fill next year. With a Grand Depart in Yorkshire and Chris Froome leading out the peloton when the race does begin, one thing is for certain: the British are at the top of the Tour de France, and they’re damn well staying there.