Stage wins, yellow jerseys and top 10s
As mentioned before, the Tour began with 198 riders, of which there where three previous winners of the race, as well as five other Grand Tour winners. There were also 36 previous stage winners, who had won 106 stages between them, as well as eleven previous wearers of the malliot jaune.
By the end of the race, Rohan Dennis, Zdenek Stybar, Alexis Vulliermoz, Greg Van Avermaet, Steve Cummings, Ruben Plaza, Simon Geschke and Romain Bardet had all added their names for the first time to the list of riders who have won a stage at the Tour de France, with Dennis, Vulliermoz, Geschke and Bardet all winning their first ever Grand Tour stage at the event.
As for yellow jersey wearers, there were only four, with two having worn it before: Fabian Cancellara and Chris Froome. Froome is now 11th in all time official yellow jersey wearers list, on 30 days, 1 day more than Fabian Cancellara. Rohan Dennis and Tony Martin’s brief stints in yellow meant that the number of people to have worn yellow (although this makes the incorrect assumption that the jersey has always been awarded) to 210.
Only one rider who had never previously been in the top 10 of the Tour managed to break into that ranking, which was IAM Cycling’s Matthias Frank.
If you happen to read this blog often enough, you’ll be familiar with the above graphs and its many companions, which shows how the top 10 finishers progressed over time and how far off the yellow jersey they were at any particular stage in the race.
What it shows is that built a big lead over all his closest rivals aside from Alberto Contador on stage 2 to Zeeland, with Contador his closest competitor (aside from Tejay Van Garderen, who we’ll come to) even up to the stage 9 TTT, where Tinkoff lost 27 seconds, before everyone bar Quintana collapsed off the graph on the now infamous stage 10 to La Pierre Saint-Martin. Quintana only lost 64 seconds, and from there, he was the only man bar Nibali who was a realistic challenger to make time back up on Froome.
Indeed, the graph suggests thats Froome should be glad the Tour did not continue for another 24 hours in the mountains, as the rate that Quintana was gaining time was increasing to the point that it suggests that the Colombian would have overtaken the Brit.
As for the Podium, this graph makes Alejandro Valverde’s ascent to that lofty perch seem easier that it was, predominately because it only shows Valverde and not Tejay Van Garderen or Geraint Thomas, who abandoned and fell out of the top 10 respectively.
This graph of the podium contenders shows that Van Garderen was in the best position before his abandon, although he was losing time to Valverde on uphill finishes. By stage 17, Valverde looked pretty secure, even if Nibali closed to just over a minute after stage 19, and was unfortunately denied a shot at trying to make that up by his puncture at the foot of Alpe d’Huez.
Was Froome’s La Pierre Saint-Martin really that absurd?
When Chris Froome put 1’04, 2’51 and 4’25 into the other members of the “Fab Four” on the first summit finish to La Pierre Saint-Martin, the shouting campaign that he as doping (whispering campaign didn’t quite seem correct) began to become louder. People couldn’t comprehend that, as Michael Rasmussen would later put it, “a track rider” (Geraint Thomas) could compete with “a Colombian climber” such as Nairo Quintana, and especially after Thomas put 50 seconds into Contador.
Now, I’ve written about the whole idea of diagnosing doping by performance metrics before (Indeed, I wrote an MA dissertation on it), but basically, the whole cod-scientific idea ignores the fact that cycling is not a medically defined, number proven clinical trial, but a multi-faceted sport, which by its very nature is meant to be unpredictable. Road surfaces, temperatures, humidity and weather can all have huge affects on speeds, and that’s before we even get to the tactics of how the stages are ridden and differing (presumably improving) training techniques.
It is worth pointing out that stage 10 was the first mountain stage of the race, was positioned after a rest day, and featured no climbs of note before the monster Hors Categorie climb to the finish. Purveyors of the Tour will know that there are three things riders say they find make their legs feel weird and susceptible to a Jours Sans – the first mountain stage of the race, the first day after a rest day, and the first real climb of the race. Add in blisteringly hot temperatures, and the idea that relatively fresh Thomas could beat the still-knackered-from-the-Giro Contador doesn’t become so crazy. But the people who disagree have aready made up their minds, so there’s little point trying to be objective. It shows what the ultimate yellow jersey gained over the man who was ultimately in second place.
But let’s try and be objective anyway, and look at how Froome’s performance compares to other gains on the first mountain stage of a Tour. I’ve only included stages that finished on 1st or HC category climbs, as other stages, well, aren’t really that hard. It shows the time gain by the ultimate yellow jersey over the ultimate second place, plus highlights them in purple if they happened to be the stage winner.
Now, firstly it’s worth noting that La Pierre Saint-Martin is the second hardest of all the climbs in the last 17 years that have featured as the first summit finish in terms of length and gradient, bested only by Alpe d’Huez. It is thus logical that you would expect there to be a greater time gain on it, as it is a harder climb, and that is borne out by the statistics.
It is not worth delving into these too much however, as the time gain is hugely dependent on how the stage is ridden. This stage, like the 2013 Ax3 Domaine one, was ridden almost like a time trial from the bottom, with riders dropping off the high pace. By contrast, 2010 was ridden at a relatively pedestrian pace with attacks only in the last kilometre. It is true that Froome is like Armstrong, only in that he shares a common tactic – he attacks the first mountain stage of the race hard. It is the extrapolation of shared tactics to shared “methods of enhancement” that is flawed, and another black mark against the whole performance data/doping argument.
Just who are the Fab Four?
Contador. Froome. Quintana. Nibali. We’d spent the last year having those four names being drilled repeatedly into our heads ever since they were grouped together by Oleg Tinkov as part of his ever more ridiculous sounding “Grand Tour Challenge” to make them all ride the three Grand Tours, and not just ride to finish, ride to win them all. His proposal was to put up $1million from Tinkoff bank if those four riders agreed to take part in his challenge, and so the idea of a “Fab Four” was born.
It made sense as well – between them, they held all the Grand Tour titles (he proposed the idea in October 2014, and had a combined haul of 11 Grand Tours, consisting of 4 Tours, 3 Giros and 4 Vueltas, between them. Since then, getting the “Fab Four” to race against each other more often has seemingly been the life’s work of many armchair commentators who don’t quite seem to appreciate that there are such things as fatigue, differing priorities, and training that need to be factored in.
By the time the Tour came around however, things looked good for the “Fab Four showdown” – none of the competitors had been injured, and they had an intriguing route to play with. The problem was, the “Fab four” was arguably a club that needed opening up.
It was clear fairly quickly (well, by stage 10) that Alberto Contador was not on his top form, which was why Tinkov ended up whining at the end that the other riders hadn’t ridden the Giro to be equally tired. Odd logic. Still, Alejandro Valverde and Tejay Van Garderen were also putting up a decent bid to finish on the podium, and then there are other riders such as Fabio Aru, Mikel Landa, and, in his own mind, Chris Horner, who would love to be included in the club of elite riders.
In essence, the “Fab Four” isn’t so much about the best riders as the riders who have accomplished the most. There is a good host of top riders who could genuinely challenge for overall honours now, which would seem to be composed of the following (and in no particular order)
Grand Tour winners
Chris Froome (Tour de France 2013, 2015, runner up 2012, runner up Vuelta a Espana 2011, 2014)
Nairo Quintana (Giro d’Italia 2014, Runner up Tour de France 2013, 2015)
Alberto Contador (Tour de France 2007, 2009, Giro d’Italia 2008, 2015, Vuelta a Espana 2008, 2012, 2014)
Vincenzo Nibali (Tour de France 2014, 3rd 2012, Giro d’Italia 2013, runner up 2011, 3rd 2010, Vuelta a Espana 2010, runner up 2013)
Alejandro Valverde (Vuelta a Espana 2009, runner up 2006, 2012, 3rd 2003, 2013. 2014, 3rd 2015 Tour de France
Fabio Aru (2nd, 2015 Giro d’Italia, 3rd, 2014)
Mikel Landa (3rd, 2015 Giro d’Italia)
Tejay Van Garderen could probably also make it on there based on his 2015 performance, whilst men like Joaquim Rodriguez, Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet are probably either slipping off or needing to show improvement. So what are we left with? A Fab Four? A Fantastic Five? A Sumptuous Six? Superb Seven? Er…Exciting Eight?!
Ultimately, the only three of the Fab Four lived up to their billing, and some would probably kick Nibali out of that, despite him being the only other member of the club besides Froome to win a stage. The dream of seeing them all compete at the top of their form is probably just that – a dream, given the various permeation of form, targets and injury, but hey, it was a nice idea.
The Top 10 in the points competition had a mix of riders that matched the variety of the course – a break away specialist, the overall winner, pure sprinters, hilly sprinters, climbers, a former track specialist…with only 5 sprint stages, it was never going to be a contest between the fast men. The new weighting of points couldn’t help Andre Greipel end Peter Sagan’s reign at the top of the pile either, despite winning 4 of the 5 sprints laden with the super 50 point premium for a triumph.
Nevertheless, for two weeks at least, it looked as though Greipel would probably be the man to end the Slovakian rider’s hot streak of wins in the points competition, with the two leaping over one another in the ranking and trading blows in the intermediate sprints. After Greipel’s stage 15 triumph however, which, after a couple of days of Sagan only point scoring, had made it look as though the competition was over, Sagan simply waltzed away in the break to build an impregnable lead. He could have let Greipel win both the intermediate and final sprint into Paris and still had 34 points to spare.
No one can complain that the intermediate sprints meant Greipel lost however. He actually lost both in the intermediate sprints…
…and in the end of stage sprints…
…to Sagan anyway, which suggests the course was more inclined to the lumpy sprinters that the pure ones, given the latter’s limited opportunities. As every year at the Tour, it sets up an intriguing contest for next year, with the return of the revenge seeking Kittel, a simmering Cavendish and an ever improving Coquard and Kristoff keen to overturn the Sagan monopoly on a course that should give them more opportunities to strut their stuff. In an era which seems to be pretty excellent for sprinters, this was an appalling Tour for them – the few stages they did get where scattered and detached, leaving few chances of getting instant revenge or drilling a train correctly, so hopefully that will be rectified in 2016.
Greipel’s mighty streak, Cavendish’s obituary?
The first thought that springs to mind after Andre Greipel’s storming success at the Tour is whether or not he should go to the Vuelta to attempt to capture the stage win that would give him a win in all three Grand Tours in a calendar year, a feat achieved only by Miguel Poblet, Pierrino Baffi and Alessandro Petacchi. Sure, he’ll likely have to face off against Marcel Kittel, but Greipel must be brimming with self confidence after four stage wins at the Tour.
Greipel is now also one win off equaling Thor Hushovd and Mark Cavendish’s runs of 6 tours in a row with at least a stage win, and given how evergreen he seems to be as he moves into his mid thirties, you wouldn’t put it past him surpassing them to equal Lance Armstrong’s seven years on the bounce.
“The Gorilla” is now equal with “The Tashkent Terror” for the number of stage wins in grand Tours they have recorded, with 17 to his name, and is also equal 7th on the all time Tour de France winners list along side Thor Hushovd and Walter Godefroot. Mario Cippolini, on 12, is the next name up on the list.
Meanwhile, the man with the most road stage wins in the history of the race (26) and 44 grand tour stage wins to his name, Mark Cavendish, will come out of the Tour wondering both what might have been and perhaps quite what to do with himself. Whilst he did get the stage win he always says is his target, Cavendish has been such a glorious success in the past that, as he says, it is news when he doesn’t win, and so 2015 pales in comparison to his 2009-2011 period where he seemed to basically win at will.
Nostalgia seems to be be Cavendish’s biggest problem in more ways then one. First, there is the nostalgia for his past deeds, where multiple stage wins where the rule rather than the exception, and the question was always “how many” rather than “will he”. More notably, it is his own nostalgia for the HTC team of those glory years and attachment to those riders that seems to be holding him back. Etixx has resembled an attempt to reassemble the disbanded HTC team in the last couple of years, with Mark Renshaw and Tony Martin the notable returnees to Cavendish’s side.
But leadouts have moved on since 2010: no longer can one team be on the front for 50km, or even 10km, as Etixx often try, and now multiple powerful teams try and blast each other off in the last 5km or so. Renshaw no longer seems to be able to cope with that maelstrom and as such Cavendish is often dumped in terrible positions. You cant help thinking he would be better off adopting the Robbie McEwen tactic of surfing other teams leadouts, and say, sticking on the wheel of Greipel then using his acceleration to try and jump around him at the end.
Is that acceleration still there though? Ever since Cavendish went on slimming campaign to try and get in the form he required to have a shot at the 2012 Olympic road race, he has lacked the punch and raw speed he used to have. Being able to get over hills is all well and good, and you can’t scold him for trying to win an Olympic Gold, but you cant help thinking with the joys of hindsight that staying a pure sprinter would have kept him in better stead for to compete with the behemothic sprinters of today.
So, is it finally time to write Cavendish’s obituary? Well, no – he still won a stage in the world’s hardest race, so he’s obviosl still got it, but even he would surely admit privately that he is now on the wane. Everyone has been keen to write him off for some time, but the criteria for doing so have not yet been met – and that is getting through and finishing a Grand Tour without winning a stage. As it is, with 26 stages to his name, it would be wiser to appreciate his achievements rather than trying to belittle them.
Sagan’s near misses
Since his last win on stage 7 of the 2013 Tour, Peter Sagan has managed to come second nine times without recording a win, and been beaten by seven different riders.
2013, Stage 13 – beaten by Mark Cavendish
2014, Stage 1 – beaten by Marcel Kittel
2014, Stage 3 – beaten by Marcel Kittel
2014, Stage 7 – beaten by Matteo Trentin
2014, Stage 12 – beaten by Alexander Kristoff
2015, Stage 2 – beaten by Andre Greipel
2015, Stage 5 – beaten by Andre Greipel
2015, Stage 13 – beaten by Greg Van Avermaet
2015, Stage 16 – beaten by Ruben Plaza
Despite improving on his record points haul by one (he scored 432 points in 2015, compared to 431 in 2015, Peter Sagan now has the unenviable record of recording a second green jersey win without a stage win. He isn’t the first man to do this – Erik Zabel recorded no stage wins for both his 1998 and 1999 Green jersey successes, whilst 3 of Sean Kelly’s 4 wins also drew up blanks. In fact, in the 63 points competitions there have been, 14 have been won without winning a stage (a not insignificant 22.2%), so Sagan’s inability, not through the lack of trying, to win a stage, isn’t really all that bad.
Still, at least he can take pride in having the biggest winning margin in the competition ever, right? Er, no, sorry Peter. Because the points competition originally worked by trying to get the smallest number of points by getting the highest finishing positions across the race (ie 1st gets you 1 point, 7th 7 points etc), Jean Forestier’s 317 point margin of victory is unlikely to ever be beaten, especially as he scored 301, making the margin of victory expressed as a percentage of his points a staggering 105%. Sagan is 6th in terms of winning margins thanks to his 149 point gap in 2014, whilst his 2015 triumph comes in at 26th.
Sagan’s dominance is also not quite as strong as some other riders as seen by the points margin as a percentage of his points, where his best result, 2014, only places him 15th out of 63, with 2015 37th. Not that anyone’s arguing the Slovakian doesn’t deserve it. The average number of stage wins won by a green jersey winner is exactly 2 per year, so Sagan is 50% there given he has 4 wins in 4 years.
The King of the Mountains competition only really came alive in the last week, as expected, and it was somewhat poetic that Chris Froome won considering not only that he won overall, but also that he was one of two men to have had points from the first day they were avaliable (the other being Joaquim Rodriguez). The competition was somewhat blunted by teams being keen to let breaks go in the, well, last two weeks, which mopped up many of the points and prevented the main contenders competing for them. So whilst the lead changed hands four times in the last five days, the fact it was riders who had been in breaks grabbing it meant you could pretty much tell Froome was going to win as long as he didn’t crack.
Still, in the 40th year of the competition, it was nice to have the overall winner take the crown. It is also novel that Quintana, who seemed the weaker climber in 2013 but won the polka dot jersey, looked the stronger this time around but came second. Just the universe balancing itself out I suppose.
Contador’s Giro/Tour attempts: 2011 v 2015
Alberto Contador has now made two attempts at the Giro/Tour double, and both have had fairly similar results, even if the performances behind them were dissimilar. The 2015 Tour showed the most muted Contador performance of his career, with his few attacks feeling essentially like an ego-boosting move so that he could tell himself (and the media) that he had tried. They never looked particularly convincing, and more often then not it was Michael Rogers and Rafa Majka who looked the stronger of the Tinkoff-Saxo riders in the field.
Whilst Contador was also 5th in the 2011 Tour de France, also on the back of a very hard Giro (albeit made hard by the absurdly difficult course rather than the furious pace of Astana), but he was very much the aggressor in 2011, which many argue he should never have been at due to his then ongoing clenbuterol case, arguably influencing the race enough that Andy Schleck lost it, given the Madrista’s attacks on Schleck’s unfavoured downhill terrain and 11th hour assault on the Galibier and Alpe d’Huez.
The 2015 route even shared the Col de Manse finale and short Alpe stage that had given Contador the platform to shine on in 2011, but this time around, he made now move on the Manse and did little on Alpe d’Huez either. For a man who had turned the Col de Manse into a veritable home descent, given he also kicked (and almost fell) off in 2013 on it as well, it was disappointing to see him going so poorly by comparison.
Is the Giro/Tour double possible?
Yes, but not with such a wealth of competition. Contador equalled his 2011 attempt (before that awkward disqualification buisness) despite not looking anywhere near as sprightly. Could he have done it earlier in his career? You wouldn’t have bet against it. But Quintana, Nibali and Froome are an altogether different proposition to Andy Schleck and Michele Scarponi (and that’s not a dig at them), and as much as Oleg Tinkov is a douche, his point about Contador being tired and the others being fresh was pertinent, although the moaning about it wasnt.
With such a wealth of top GC riders and ever more attacking, unpredictable racing and courses being introduced, it is tricky to see the double being done in the near future, and that’s before we even get onto the issue of recovery between them. Frankly, the courses, with the seemingly obligatory classics flavour first week, seem too hard to allow riders to be at their best for an almost 3 month period. Still, with every passing year, the mystique of the double grows, and it has only been enhanced by the failure of Contador, the preeminent stage racer of the last decade, to achieve it.
Froome v Quintana: 2013 v 2015
Looking at how Quintana and Froome went in 2013 and 2015 shows a striking similarity. On both occasions, Quintana lost time at around a third of the way into the race, before recovering a significant chunk in the final days.
Both Tours shared similar characteristics – they had relatively low amounts of time trialling, a hard first summit finish, and a packed final week of mountains ending with an 8% + gradient summit finish the day before Paris. I suggested in my contenders round up that Chris Froome seemed to die off in the last week of Grand Tours, and the 2015 route suggests that this is indeed the case, even if he did seem to be suffering from bronchitis.
Despite lowering his losing defecit from 4’20 to just 72 seconds, Quintana must be concerned that this may turn out to be a once in a life time course for him, much in the way that the 2012 Tour route was beyond the wildest dreams of what Bradley Wiggins could have dreamt of. Unless Prudhomme and co keep up the low TT, high mountain experiment, Quintana may be frustrated by Froome a while longer.
This table, comparing where Froome gained time on Quintana in both 2013 and 2015, does show that Quintana’s climbing was better this time around, especially given that Froome actually out climbed him in 2013. Oddly, the “worse” of the two climbers each year has won the King of the Mountains competition, so that has balanced out neatly. Alpe d’Huez has also been kind to Quintana, where he has gained a total of 2’26 on Froome over the years, although only gaining 14 more seconds than he did in 2013, when Froome had a bad case of the hunger knocks, shows how the pair have progressed.
The much focused on figure is the 88 seconds that Froome gained in the crosswinds of stage 2, with everyone keen to point out that that is a larger number that the 72 seconds he ultimately won by. This has led to the accusation that Froome “only” won the Tour because of that gain, and that this somehow devalues his achievement. This is frankly nonsense, as it ignores the psychological blows inflicted on stage 10 that put Quintana over 3 minutes behind that was arguably more important than those 88 Dutch seconds. Furthermore, the Tour cannot be diluted down to a single moment – it is a three week race, not a 1 day one. Just as Andy Schleck didn’t lose the 2010 Tour because of “Chaingate“, Chris Froome didn’t win the 2015 Tour because of a windy day.
Nibali: The defending Champion
Being a previous winner of the Tour has always seemed like a bit of a downer. Whilst you’ve just won the world’s biggest and richest race, the publicity, media attention and endorsement schedule means that you get little time off to actually do the training and often end up turning up to defend your title not quite where you want to be.
Perhaps this is why successfully defending the Tour is officially a task that was last achieved before Marco Pantani’s Giro/Tour double, given that we being told to forget 1999-2005 ever happened (which means Miguel Indurain in 1995 is officially the last time someone defended their title). Of the 102 editions of the Tour, 74 riders turned up to defend their titles (72.55%, more than the Giro which has 69.39% and certainly more that the Vuelta’s paltry 44.93% defence ratio), of which 26 have won, 11 managed the lower steps of the podium and a staggering 18 (24% withdrew). With these odds, plus the influx of Quintana, Froome and Contador into the mix, Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali wouldn’t have been blamed for suffering a crisis of confidence as to whether he would end up in amongst the many riders who failed to put up a meaningful defence of the Tour crown. Fourth place is the average of riders who manage to finish when defending their title (the median, thanks to various winning defences, is 2nd), so Nibali did pretty well really.
And whilst Nibali “only” came fourth, it wasn’t through want of trying, and even his harshest critics would have to give it to him that he did a good job of being aggressive enough to salvage the wreck of a race he had created by stage 10. After being trapped behind a crash on stage 2, he was the aggressor to the last on the cobbles, being the only GC contender to actually try and take it on. Even after the stage 10 debacle, he still kept plugging away with attacks seemingly hoping his legs wouldn’t fail, even though they did.
By the last week, Nibali was arguably the strongest rider in the race (not the strongest climber, note), and his attack to win the La Toussuire stage was only soured by the storm in a teacup over his supposed attack on a mechanically disadvantaged Froome. Unlike “Chaingate”, where Alberto Contador had to swing around a prone and physically stationary Andy Schleck, Nibali’s excuse seemed considerably more watertight, and more pertinently, is supported by the fact that photos show him and Tangert actually talking. More over, how was he supposed to tell that Froome had a rock in his back brake? Of course, I like Nibali, so I’m inclined to take his side, but it seemed a bit daft by Froome to say Nibali shouldn’t attack the yellow jersey when they’re struggling, because obviously this is exactly when you’d attack them. Given that Nibali was 8 minutes behind Froome and of little danger to him as well, you can’t help thinking Froome would have been better off ignoring the whole thing. But hey.
Nibali was then unlucky to puncture at the foot of Alpe d’Huez, and showed he still had some strength by pegging the group containing a frequently accelerating Quintana at the same time for quite a while. Would he have been able to get on the podium had he not punctured? Probably not. Valverde still looked like he could have attacked Froome if he’d needed to (obviously he didn’t given it would have given the Sky rider an impetus to close the gap to Quintana), and Nibali would have needed a bigger time gain than Quintana managed over Froome to snatch third.
Ultimately though, with fourth place and stage win against the best riders in the world, and one of only two of the “Fab four” to actually win a stage, Nibali can be proud of his simultaneously aggressive and classy ride to fourth.
A successful route?
When announced, the 2015 Route drew much praise for its innovation and copious packing in of every type of terrain. There was a prologue, a team time trial, a cobbled stage, a classic steep finish,stages with likely crosswinds, finishes on descents, multiple summit finishes and the prospect of Alpe d’Huez deciding the race the day before Paris. The mountains were backloaded to celebrate the King of the Mountains competition and (originally) the route was to feature the hallowed turf of the Tourmalet, the Galibier, Plateau de Beille, Mende and Alpe d’Huez, all historic and mythologised battle grounds (well, maybe not Mende) where previous champions had forged their own legends. In essence, the winner would have to prove they could cope with anything the world of cycling could throw at them (quite literally, as it turned out for Sky) and would emerge a lauded champion.
Now, the race never plays out how the route is designed to try and make it so,but in hindsight, the route was perhaps a little to overstuffed. It was a route for a “want it all, want it now” generation, layering challenge on challenge without really considering how this would affect the riders. The team time trial at stage 9 was a particular case in point – it made the already super hard first eight days even more nervous, as teams scrabbled to ensure that they would get a TTT core through to the event. Physical and mental fatigue was thus obvious by the time the race hit the Pyrenees, with breaks winning every non-flat stage from stage 11 onwards. It meant the Pyrenees simply became a war of grinding attrition, with no flamboyant attacks.
With the “transitional” stages also rock hard due to Christian Prudhomme’s insistence that the Tour could be won on any day (note “won”, not “lost”), the riders didn’t really catch a break before they had to get up the Alps as well. Of course, with most of the riders in such a dire state, the time gaps on the last couple of days where large – but this was due to riders simply dropping away through lack of strength rather than the tactical nous and drama of fresh riders duelling.
As I’ve already expressed, the insistence on a GC heavy route also meant that the sprinters were really, seriously marginalised – just five bunch sprints, one of which was from a seriously depleted group broken apart by the winds on stage two, was the worst the sprinters have had since 2005. The Tour would do well to keep in mind that less is more, and that spectacle is more likely to emerge from not only being able to see the full range of cyclist abilities the sport has to offer on show, but giving them the opportunity to actually compete, rather than just slog it out with superior endurance.
PS: Paris. It’s a lovely finale, but 40 years of the Champs Elysees seem to have denigrated into an actual procession stage, rather than a race. Sure, the cobbles of the stage where wet, but when you have a race organiser who has insisted on cobbled stages, made it clear that he thinks the “yellow jersey can be won or lost on any day of the race” and has show his desire to have the race be decided as close to Paris as possible, it was an odd decision to effectively neutralise the race on the first lap. Is the Tour de France now a 20 stage race with a ceremonial parade? If so, can Mr Prudhomme at least make the riders do a lap of honour again, because sitting in the freezing rain for 12 hours isn’t exactly fun…
The Tour has now had three cobbled stages in its last six editions, including two in a row in 2014 and 2015 (the other of course being 2010). By far and away the 2015 stage was the worst of the triple, and it’s tricky to see exactly why. 35 riders (including Tony Martin) got to the end of this years stage, compared to the dribs and drabs last year and just six in 2010, and for some reason 2015 seriously lacked the excitement of the past two editions.
Perhaps this is because the cobbled sections used were not quite so bad as those used previously, but it seems more likely that it was simply because there weren’t any crashes and it wasn’t wet. 2010 split up because of a crash and the fact that Fabian Cancellara was in the front group, whilst 2014 split up because it was wet and due to the stage length being a mere 155 km, meaning it was raced at full pelt. 2015’s 223km epic, placed as it was encompassed by a first week that was harder than ever, perhaps meant riders took it even more cautiously than first anticipated.
No doubt the cobbles will return, although they could probably do with a break now for a few years else we get ruined by too much of a good thing. Still, everyone who has won a cobbled stage in the last 6 years has been a world champion is come respect (Hushovd – 2010 World, Cancellara and Martin various TT championships), so you can’t argue it brings the cream to the top.
BMC – Future promise and old scores settled
BMC will no doubt be overjoyed with their success at the Tour, tempered as it was by Van Garderen’s withdrawal whilst in a podium position. For a team known for its galactico rosters in the past, BMC had always seemed to punch below their weight given they had only won one stage on five previous Tour outings, although of course they did have a yellow jersey in 2011 to give some weight. They added three stage wins this year, with Rohan Dennis giving them a first taste of yellow since Cadel Evans’ 1 day stint (albeit in Paris…) in 2011, before they kept up their world champion credentials by winning the TTT. Van Avermaet v Sagan on stage 13 was all about who would get rid of their “eternal second” moniker, and luckily for BMC, it was their Belgian who survived. It is telling that a roster without the behemothical names they used to throw in did very well, and with Van Garderen sure to be a year older and a year wiser in 2016, they’re finally starting to see the fruits of their labours.
Tinkoff-Saxo – Good enough for everyone but Oleg
Assessing how Tinkoff-Saxo did rather depends on your view. If you’re a rationale human being, then they did pretty well – they won a stage, took home the Green jersey and finished 5th overall. If you’re Oleg Tinkoff, they failed to pull off the Giro/Tour double (thus ruining his Giro/Tour/Vuelta plans, although given he complained Sky where “ruining the business” by just winning the Tour, presumably he would have left the sport after achieving that), “only” won one stage and Sagan failed to win.
A more sensible assessment is somewhere in the middle ground. Sure, Sagan didn’t win a stage, but it wasn’t through want of trying an he was visible nearly every day. Sure, Contador didn’t win, but it would have been a miracle if he had given the size of the task he had taken on, so 5th off the back of a very hard Giro against the cream of the current stage racing crop is an impressive feat, even if Rafa Majka looked stronger in the final week. Sure, Majka didn’t defend his KOM title, but Tinkoff should still be pleased – if there top men had been a percentage point or two further along, they could have had a miraculously good Tour. Their only complaint could be that for a team with their depth of talent (they 6 former stage winners amongst their number) they could perhaps have tried to win more stages from breaks.
Movistar – Podium Bonanza
Two men in the top three, the white jersey and the team prize meant Movistar made four visits to the Paris podium – more than they could probably have wished for. Would they have traded it all in for one visit in the yellow jersey? Probably, but for once, you can’t accuse a team of not trying to do that. We all wondered if Alejandro Valverde would seriously sacrifice his chances of a podium if he had the opportunity, but he indeed went up the road early to set up attacks for Quintana. 2nd and 3rd is an excellent achievement, although Movistar will wonder, with 20/20 hindsight, whether they should have tried to attack Froome earlier. Valverde was also conspicuous by his absence on the Mur de Huy, but having achieved his ambition of finally making the Tour podium, he won’t be too fussed on missing out on his Ardenne hunting ground.
FDJ – The Tour is saved on the Alpe
Francais de Jeux went into the Tour with the dream of repeating the podium antics of Thibaut Pinot from 2014, who would win mountain stages along the way, as well as winning sprints with Arnaud Demare. Up until the penultimate stage, it had all gone diabolically badly. Having lost William Bonnet to fractured neck vertabrae in the stage 3 horror crash, bad luck continued to stalk FDJ as Pinot punctured repeatedly and crashed to lose all hope of repeating his 2014 feat. Demare was not featuring much either – his best sprint performances were 7th, 6th, and 5th on the Champs Elysees. When Pinot also managed to mess up stage 14 to Mende by dithering with Romain Bardet to allow Steve Cummings to win, it looked as though nothing was going to go their way. Luckily, the Alpe can provide great redemption, and Pinot secured the most prestigious stage of the race and a name plate on a hair pin with his exploit to save his and the teams race.
AG2R – The best but most under achieving French team?
The brown, white and blue of Ag2R have quietly flourished into one of the best stage racing teams in the world, with Romain Bardet, Jean Christophe Peraud and Carlos Betancur amongst their number. Whilst no one seriously expected Peraud to reach the heights of 2014, there was hope that Bardet would be a youthful replacement. He only really flourished in the second half of the race however, and was lucky to make everyone forget the Mende debacle by winning into Saint Jean de Maurienne. He also lifted himself into the top 10 and had a decent but too late stab at the Polka dot jersey, and somehow got himself on the podium as the most aggresive rider of the race (presumably a consolation for having had to wear the Polka dot jersey on the final day despite being 3rd in the competition).
Bardet almost made everyone forget Alexis Vulliermoz’s win at the Mur de Bretagne, which meant Ag2r had two stage wins, a top 10 place and a podium in Paris – not far off their haul last year. Now if only they could get Betancur to the Tour in form…
Etixx-Quick Step – Strength in depth, but not exceptional
Cavendish, Martin, Trentin, Stybar, Uran…the team was littered with grand tour stage winners, so it was predictable that they would take three stage wins on three types of terrain. Cobbles, uphill drags and sprints were where they triumphed, and added to a couple of days in yellow, they should be pretty pleased. Lefevre won’t be though, having set Cavendish, who ended the Tour ill, a pre-Tour target of five stages, and having watched Rigoberto Uran, who had succesfully negotiated the first week, collapse to stage hunting. If Cavendish had been on top health, he still would have had to compete without his lead out train – a train that doesn’t seem to be particularly good at the best of times – but perhaps he would have been more competitive.
Cannondale-Garmin – Making it hard to spot luminous green
Previously known as the team who always got a rider into the top ten who was a surprise, it was a surprise to discover they were actually in the race when Dan Martin came second on stage 9. You would have thought they would have brought back the black kit to make it even easier to hide in the pack. Of course, I’m hardly objective when it comes to Mr Vaughters and his hypocritical band of brothers, but this was a dissapointing Tour for them, with Martin the only spark in the first two weeks before Ryder Hesjedal and Andrew Talansky appeared to have a couple of gos. Navardauskas, perhaps their actual best rider apart from Martin (who is apparently leaving) never seemed to be on the screen. No stage wins, no top 10, nothing. A disappointing Tour for a team with a manager who likes to tell everyone how brilliant they are.
Katusha – Old guard rescues the new
Norway and Katusha were excited to unleash Alexander Kristoff, with his battery of wins seemingly taken at will in the spring, on the Tour once more in order to add to the two stages he won last year. Unfortunately, the Tour helped reveal that many of those wins hadn’t actually been against particularly great opposition. Sure, he had stages of Paris Nice, the Tour of Qatar, the Tour de Suisse plus of course the Tour of Flanders and Scheldelprijs, but 5 wins at the Tour of Norway and Tour of the Fjords arent exactly stellar. Still, a win is a win, and Kristoff is following in the steps of Tom Boonen, who has won copious amounts of his career wins at the Tour of Qatar. 28 year old Kristoff couldn’t compete at the Tour though, so it was left to 36 year old Joaquim Rodriguez to win two prestigious stages, plus have an abortive go at the King of the Mountains competition after keeping the jersey warm for Chris Froome for a while. A great example of plan B working out when plan A failed.
Giant-Alpecin – Is the core really that hollow?
The loss of Marcel Kittel wasn’t predicted to hit Giant so hard – they had John Degenkolb, the Milan San Remo and Paris Roubaix winner as a “spare”, after all, plus home favourite Tom Dumoulin who had morphed into the space of a few weeks from a man that hipster fans would boast about knowing to the favourite to take the yellow jersey in Utrecht. Dumoulin, like Bradley Wiggins did in 2007 on home turf, came 4th in the time trial, then was forced out by a crash, but the sight of the muscle bound Giant lead out was curiously absent during the sprint stages. Degenkolb managed 2nd on two stages and was 3rd in the points classification, but just didn’t quite seem to be at the level expected of him. It took Simon Geshke’s breakaway to keep the team’s run of stage wins in the last three years up, and whilst they got plenty of coverage of Warren Barguil, it was mainly of him being dropped, which was cruel, given he is only 23. Despite that, the team is still young, and with Kittel back, they will be confident of getting back to multiple winning ways.
Are Wild Cards still worth it?
I’m sure you remember MTN-Qhubeka’s ride at the Tour, aided as it was by much publicity as well as strong rides from Serge Pauwels and Daniel Teklehaimanot, plus a stage win from Steve Cummings. But how about Bora-Argon 18, Bretagne Seche Environment or Cofidis? They were pretty anonymous over the three weeks. With increasing questions over the size of the bunch being the reason for crashes, it’s worth asking whether it’s really worth having four wildcard teams (Europcar don’t really count, given they were turned down for a World Tour place at the 11th hour).
This table collates all the wild cards the Tour has had, and basically shows that the vast majority achieve very little at the race. Out of a total of 33 wildcards in 9 years, 15 have come out of the race without a stage win, a top 10 result, a day in a leaders jersey or getting anyone on the final podium. Just 12 stages out of a possible 189 have been won by Wild card teams, which is about 1 a Tour, but this is boosted by the occasional very good performances by one team, such as Cervelo in 2009, Barloworld in 2007 or Europcar in 2012. In fact, before Steve Cummings won for MTN in Mende, it was nearly 3 years back to the first Wild card stage win.
It has been suggested by some team managers that weaker teams should be “culled” to prevent swelling pelotons crashing, but this is a minority opinion. The lack of success of the wildcards is more due to the fact that the World Tour can hoover up the talent and leave not even crumbs for the struggling, locally sponsored likes of Bretagne Seche Environment. This is probably why wild cards can only manage to get a GC contender to an average of 27th place overall.
But what to do? You’re damned whatever you do really. If you cut the smaller teams out, you install a glass ceiling that makes investment and competition confined to an elite. But then if these teams and riders aren’t allowed to taste elite racing, how will they ever improve? It’s a catch 22 and not one that is easily answered. With the World Tour shrinking, and teams being forced into creating development squads, it’s not one that is going to go away quickly either
Surprises and Disappointments
The Tour is always a fertile hunting ground to spot new talent, or for known talent to be exposed. Here’s a short breakdown of those that surprised or perplexed us.
So surprising he became the subject of many a doping allegation, Thomas occupied 5th, 6th then 4th place for over a week before collapsing in the last couple of days. It wasn’t so surprising given his 2013 performances with a broken pelvis, his 22nd place last year or his 2nd place in the Tour de Suisse, but Thomas showed that on a less tricky, TT balanced route, he could have podium potential.
The Swiss IAM Team had been underwhelming in 2014, relying heavily on Sylvain Chavanel getting in breaks. Frank had withdrawn after stage 7 of the 2014 race, but 2nd, 2nd and 4th respectively in the Criterium International, Tour de Suisse and Tour de Romandie had shown he could perhaps give the Tour top 10 a decent shot. And so he did – finishing 8th in the end, after a bit of see-sawing in breaks to build himself a buffer in the final week. He’s only 28 as well, so perhaps Switzerland can bank on him to deliver the wins once Cancellara is gone.
For a 23 year old, France had heaped a whole load of pressure onto the not too wide shoulders of Barguil, based on his 2 stage wins at his first Vuelta aged just 21, followed by 8th place last year in Spain. The cameras always seemed to catch him coming off the back of a group (or running into Geraint Thomas), but 14th in your first Tour, on the route it was and with such a splattering of stars is a good sign for the future.
I’ll admit I had no idea who Vulliermoz was when he won stage eight, and kept thinking he was Julian Allaphillipe, who rides for Etixx and came second at Fleche Wallone and Liege Bastonge Liege in the spring (and in my defence, is also, er, French). But it wasn’t, and Vulliermoz was also 3rd on the Mur de Huy, plus he managed to come 26th overall – not bad for a former mountain biker in his second Tour (he rode the Centenary edition with Sojasun in 2013)
Greg Van Avermaet
He finally won! True, he has won other races this season, but in a battle with the other perennial podium finisher Peter Sagan (it only needed Alejandro Valverde to complete the set), it was Van Avermaet who finally came out on top. Bravo sir.
One of the few people I like on Garmin, Martin suffered more through his teams inability to get him into the right position on the Mur de Huy and Mur de Bretagne then his own efforts. He probably climbed both ascents the fastest, but could only take 4th and 2nd, plus another 2nd in the Pyrenees. For a man who this Tour offered ample opportunity for, it was filled with regret.
The World champion was another rider who the Tour seemed to offer a wealth of opportunities to, but aside from his showing to Plateau de Beille, he was most often shown getting dropped. He seemed curiously off colour, preferring to help Rigoberto Uran than seek out his own opportunities, before ultimately abandoning. Was it because he is likely to leave the team? Whatever the cause, it did nothing to help the idea that the wearer of the rainbow jersey is “cursed”.
The Germans emerged as the predominant stage winning nation once more at the Tour, taking six stage wins with three different riders, as well as the yellow jersey for two days. Britain, France and Spain where all next on three stage wins each, which is all the more incredible given Spain only had 15 riders, which given they had 41 in 2007 and have averaged 29 between 2005 and 2015 is remarkably low.
They got one of those men on the podium and two in the top 10, but it is the ages of their protagonists that will be cause for concern. Stage winners Joaquim Rodriguez and Ruben Plaza are 36 and 35 respectively, whilst top 10 finishes Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador are 35 and 32. When you consider that the average age of France’s stage winners (27, 24 and 25) was 25, you see the problem facing Spain – where are their younger riders? Of their 15 riders, only 4 where under 30, none where under 25 and 6 where 35 or older, with an average age of 30.
Italy are another nation who seem to be middling, although Nibali salvaged them a stage win to keep their run since 2013 up, whilst Van Avermaet gave Belgium what seems to be it’s biannual stage win.
The French wait goes on
By 2018, England will be at 52 years of hurt, as the nation trys to kid itself into believing it should be winning international football competitions with ease. For France, they are “only” on 30, but the surprise of getting two men on the podium last year gave them cruel false hope that they would be breaking their duck.
Sure, Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet, Warren Barguil and Pierre Rolland look like the best chance the motherland has of winning the Tour in a while, especially given they are young, but next year they will undoubtedly be exposed in their lack of time trialling skills and the whole process of self flagellation will begin once more.
One unifying factor binds all the French riders together – they are all on French teams. Patriotic ties are clearly strong, but you cant help thinking whether it would be better for them to jump ship to a *shudder* foreign team and see if that would aid their development. In essence, Romanticism may have to give way to pragmatism for the French to end their long wait for a successor to Hinault.
Questions for 2016
Only mildy tongue in cheek…
Who would win if perennial 2nd and 3rd place finishes Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet and Alejandro Valverde broke away together?
Who would triumph in an uphill time trial: Chris Froome or Nairo Quintana?
Will Vincenzo Nibali continue to be the coolest man in the peloton?
Would Andre Greipel beat Marcel Kittel if they were both on stratospheric form?
Who is the best grand tour contender at time trialling? We haven’t seen them do that against each other in years…
How long will it take before some idiot knocks someone off their bike at Alpe d’Huez?
Will the sprinters ever get to play in a flat first week again?
A Tour for the Ages?
When the route and the roster came into view for the 2015 Tour, people were giddy with excitement and proclaimed it could be gloriously entertaining and wonderful. With the reigning champions of all three Grand Tours present and correct to take on cobbles, time trials and many, many mountains with a showdown on Alpe d’Huez, it was meant to be a high tension glory fest.
But it wasn’t. In fact, it was mildly dull until the last few days. The nostalgia and mythology of many of the arenas the peloton were traversing seemed to have clouded the idea that riders made the race, not the course, and after killing themselves to get to the TTT, they were simply too exhausted to properly compete over the rest of the course. The psychological barrage of Froome’s win on stage 10 also essentially killed off the GC race, and from then on we were basically waiting for the Alpe.
The Cobbles, Montvernier, the Murs…they all promised the spectacular and delivered the mediocre. Just because a course is designed as a showcase does not mean that the race will be, and that is how 2015 turned out. In the last few years, I could happily name other editions that were preferable – 2011 and 2003, of course, 2006-2008, even 2009 and the similar 2013 event were better. Sure, it beats 2012, 2010 and 2005, but they were fairly average Tours by any standards. 2015 will probably go down in history as a much better Tour than it actually was, bloated as it is by its roster and course. A classic Tour? Not really. A good one? Yes. Just not as good as everyone would have liked.