Fifteen talking points from the Tour de France

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Chris Froome will win the next two Tours

I said in my preview that whilst Froome remained a cycling force, he had ‘not improved’ over the last twelve months. I was referring in particular to his climbing and ignored the fact he has become the most astute of team leaders. He’s mentally tougher than ever – seemingly unflappable – and made known a new daring streak when top tube pedalling down the descent into Luchon and trying to out-sprint Peter Sagan in Montpellier. Whilst these Tour-winning attributes are difficult to measure, his time trialling progress is easier to quantify. Second behind discipline leader Tom Dumoulin on Stage 13, Froome reversed positions on the hillier trial of Stage 18. His climbing remains first rate, his team are second to none (literally, no one in history) and none of that will change anytime soon. Consider this collective brilliance alongside the fact Contador’s finished and Quintana’s got problems – plus the dearth of young talent emerging on Froome’s level – and it’s only logical to think Froome will win the next two Tours.

Sagan Froome Tour 2016

What was wrong with Nairo Quintana?

Allergies. Apparently. But not really. In 2013, Quintana finished second to Froome looking like a boy having fun on the hardest slopes of the Tour de France. In 2015, also second, he looked like an extremely talented boy who got caught out through inexperience and tactical errors. This year, however, he took a step backwards resembling a man who had no idea what to do. Despite Froome leading 2-0 in head to head Grand Tours, Quintana went into the race as an equal. What he gave up in experience he gained in red hot form and a succession of calendar year wins. He actually rode very well for the first two weeks; always near the front, glued to Froome in Andorra and avoiding destructive losses in the south coast crosswinds.  But the Brit had chipped away at his confidence with an impressive stage win on day eight and aggression on the day before Ventoux. Then, on the cut Ventoux stage, Quintana had a nightmare. His opening attacks were somewhere between desperation and exploration and looked, if anything, to inspire Sky into a response. Poels shut them down without breaking sweat and Froome swiftly left Quintana for dead. The Colombian lost more time on the first time trial and his race was over. He found himself in a podium battle and deserves some credit for not imploding in the Alps – his third place is really just one place lower than many expected him to finish. However, losing out to Romain Bardet and barely edging past Adam Yates is a miserable mediocrity for a rider with such high hopes.

New chapter in the Mark Cavendish story

In terms of shouting at the TV moments, did the race get any better than the Stage 1 bunch sprint? As the day reached it’s finale Mark Cavendish could be seen among the three men that had collectively knocked him off his perch – Sagan had taken away green jersey hope, Kittel had claimed Paris and old rival Greipel had underlined the changing of the times. The Rio-bound Manxman had very little race form but none of that mattered by the end of Stage 1. In the closing moments he did the unthinkable –at least in our minds – and flew past both Sagan and Kittel. The German had been going full gas, moving around the other side of Sagan, but was beaten comfortably by Cavendish. The winning margin was small but it would have felt like a hammering. A grinning Cavendish took yellow for the first time in his career and from that moment he did not look back. He edged out Greipel two days later before going straight round Kittel (who had recovered some confidence after a win of his own)  on Stage 6. He took a fourth win on Stage 14 going past Kittel with such ease that the German was left clinging to the idea that Cavendish had cut him up (the Brit’s dart to the right was not advisable but had no bearing on the stage). The Olympics prevented ‘Cav’ from getting to Paris and perhaps that is the only reason the 2016 Tour won’t be the sweetest of his career.

Peter Sagan is the best biker rider in the world

Seriously, how good is Peter Sagan? If his Worlds victory got Oleg Tinkoff off his back, and a scintillating Classics campaign got fans off his back (and probably Tinkoff, again) then it was a Tour stage win on the second day that finally got rid of his own personal monkey. From there he was superb and his constant attacks looked more enjoyable than his desperate efforts twelve months ago. He won again in Montpellier despite initially looking to offer the victory to team mate Maciej Bodnar. A hat-trick was completed in the final week when out sprinting Alexander Kristoff. There were a couple more podiums to lock in the green jersey and he still found time to help Rafal Majka in the mountains. From bunch sprints to Alpine wheelies, every moment he was involved in was fantastic. One last question to answer – how does he fit that much hair under a regular helmet?

Tom Dumoulin – rider of the race?

If Froome or Sagan can be overlooked for rider of the race than Tom Dumoulin is fitting of the title. A slow start to the race confirmed no GC ambitions but the Dutchman would whip up a storm in Andorra with a magnificent victory. He approached the Arcalis climb as part of a powerful break with recognised climbers Majka, Rui Costa and Thibaut Pinot looking strong. Not wanting to wait around for their moves, Dumoulin opened up a gap with a powerful kick. He had a long way to go but on the steep slopes and in terrible weather he locked in a thirty second lead. It was a classic Dumoulin ascent and his strong tempo was perfectly measured. The hail stones made it an even more memorable victory but Dumoulin’s race was far from over. A favourite for the time trial, Dumoulin made up for a Giro disappointment with a rampant 63 second victory. He came close to becoming the third rider to complete a race hat-trick on the mountain TT and continued to get in the breaks. A broken wrist took him out of the Tour and placed the peloton’s leading time trialist on the injured list with Rio approaching.

Dumoulin Tour 2016

Can Wout Poels win a Grand Tour?

Each of Sky’s Tour winners has had seven super domestiques and one that’s an extra little bit special. Bradley Wiggins had Froome, whilst Froome himself had Richie Porte in 2013, Geraint Thomas in 2015 and Wout Poels this time around (he also had Sergio Henao, Thomas again, and Mikel Nieve which made things that bit more ridiculous).  Froome won the Tour in his first race as leader whilst Porte’s gone on to lead at the Giro and come fifth in France. Thomas has yet to lead at a Grand Tour but looked every bit a future contender last July and has shown the time trial to be a strength. It’s natural to ask what Poels can do if relinquished from the Froome train. As was the case with Michele Scarponi at this year’s Giro, no rider in the GC top ten looked a better climber than Poels. Leadership would require a tweak in his mindset and improvement against the clock but Poels was good enough to get people asking the question.  A natural Sky progression would be to release Poels at the Giro next year but that spot could be reserved for Mikel Landa with Thomas next in line for the switch. The Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner could have a long wait.

Can Richie Porte win a Grand Tour?

And what about Richie Porte? I’ll be honest and say I never cared too much for Porte at Team Sky. He was part of the robotic Sky train and I never got behind him when Froome crashed out in 2014. At last year’s Giro my opinion began to change. He had started the season so well and it was exciting to think he could possibly take on Alberto Contador. He subsequently had a puncture, lost time, and then lost more time because he took Simon Clarke’s wheel. If Porte was angry he didn’t let it show, saving face in the following interviews in a way that previous Aussie contender Cadel Evans could rarely do. At the Tour Down Under this year Porte attacked for a third straight stage win on Willunga Hill but made his move 300m too late and remained second overall. By the time the Tour came around I was fully behind this perennial underachiever but on day two he had a mechanical and lost a chunk of time that he would struggle to get back. Nevertheless, Porte put to rest a whole host of his demons with a strong three week performance and a fifth place that should/could have been a podium. He attacked Froome, defended his position less cautiously than most and never looked especially tired. He blitzed the openings of both time trials before fading badly but, again, showed his intent. Can Porte win a Grand Tour? Yes, but he needs to avoid somebody as good as Froome.

Van Garderen has to race another Grand Tour

When it comes to assigning leaders to Grand Tours next year, BMC have surely got to get Van Garderen out of France. The American’s been a mixture of brilliant, average, unlucky and rubbish over the last five years and it’s time to change his programme. This year he was grinding away in ‘average’ mode before falling away badly after the final rest day abandoning personal ambitions and helping Porte. Last year’s podium near-miss will still be on his mind but there’s little to suggest he deserves leadership again next time around. On his day, Van Garderen is a highly capable climber but it’s time for a serious crack at something new – perhaps the Vuelta – before his best years pass. The Vuelta will usually have an easier – or more exhausted – GC select and the experience will be new for Van Garderen. American pro cyclists tend to go long in their careers and there’s plenty of time to return to the Tour after 2017.

Romain Bardet puts together an excellent race

Bardet  had an excellent race and will come away with a stage win on Mont Blanc and Ag2r’s second podium in three years (following Jean Christophe Peraud in 2014). Bardet finished four minutes behind Froome and this gap fairly reflects their difference in class. However, the Frenchman finished ahead of the likes of Quintana, Valverde, Aru and Mollema and fully deserved to. His progression to second spot was steady and owes as much to his loss-limiting Pont d’Arc time trial as it does his brilliant victory on Mont Blanc. He avoided obstacles that have previously scuppered him; there was no time losses in the opening week, no bad days on the summits, no time trials miles off the pace. The mountain time trial was actually Bardet’s friend and saw him take over twenty seconds on a handful of his rivals. Ultimately, however, it was a typical Bardet attack – descending at pace with team mate Mikel Cherel – that saw him jump up from fifth to second. He caught Costa on the final summit and, finishing with a small lead over the GC group, moved up to second overall. He was caught on camera waiting for the results to come through and cheered passionately when they did. Bardet saved France’s race with their only stage win and his GC result was as good as he could have hoped.

Bardet Tour 2016

Cruel Tours for Mollema and Aru

Oh Bauke Mollema. Another Grand Tour, another strong Dutch ride and another dream torn to tatters in the final few days. Mollema was a revelation of the middle week, attacking Froome on several occasions and looking comfortable in second spot. Things began to unravel in the two time trials before he exploded and landed in tenth following Mont Blanc. He crawled round the steep final corner apparently cycling up a wall. In a Tour lacking aggressors, the Dutchman became a figure of hope. He, like Porte, had a go at every opportunity including the final day where he threw caution to wind with an effort to climb back up the GC. He soon cracked, again, and dropped outside the top ten. It didn’t matter; he’d finished in the Tour’s top ten on three occasions and wanted more.  Fabio Aru also suffered major losses at the end of the race. The Italian has been banded a giant disappointment but I actually see things differently. If there’s anything to be disappointed with it’s his season as a whole, scarcely showing the form he did in 2015. At the Tour, however, he stuck at his task and seemed to grow into the race with a third place in the Stage 18 TT an obvious high point. He made a pained charge for the podium on Mont Blanc before being reeled in and looking to have made peace with his sixth place. It was on the very last day in the mountains, on the final climb, that he cracked, astonishingly badly, and lost over thirteen minutes. So close to respectability in his first Tour, Aru became an also-ran.

New contenders for best descender in the peloton

First there was Nibali, then Bardet and Sagan, and now we’ve got Jarlinson Pantano. The soon-to-be-contractless Colombian caught the eye in a number of ways this Tour – dogged climbing, surprise attacks, outsprinting Majka for a landmark stage win – and in fact was unlucky not to be named winner of the super combativity award. However, it was his descending that was most thrilling and he used many descents to gain (or claw back) chunks of time on his rivals. He was fearless and used his downhill speed to pull away from the likes of the tentative Ilnur Zakarin. He’s also the rider who Sagan never quite shook off on that descent of the Col de Manse in 2015. A wobble into Morzine on the final day suggests he still has some tricks to learn before dethroning Nibali.

Julian Alaphilippe misses out on a Tour stage

Etixx’s Julian Alaphilippe has everything needed to win bike races. He’s quick, climbs well, a solid time-trialist, suitably fearless and smart. He had everything needed to win a stage of the 2016 Tour except a dose of luck, or perhaps better timing. On the stage to Culoz he had bridged across to the leaders, crashed, found himself back with his original group and immediately attacked again to bridge back across. His climbing and descending were equally impressive and it was only his tendency to run into good climbers on their best days that stopped him from coming home first. There was also a ridiculous crash into a mountain wall and an entertaining two-man attack with team mate Tony Martin. The two formed a great partnership and later shared the combativity award. All in all, a lively Tour debut for Alaphilippe.

John Degenkolb is back

John Degenkolb completed his first race back from badly breaking his finger (as well as a host of other traumas) in just mid-May but by the final week of the Tour he was finishing top five in bunch sprints. His best day out came on Stage 14, not too far behind Cavendish and just beaten into fourth by a fast finishing Sagan. It was fantastic to see him competitive at the highest level and he looked genuinely fast too. Whilst this was a pleasing sight to all cycling fans, no doubt Degenkolb would have seen it as three places away from success. The German is a true racer and will see his Tour performance as nothing more than another step back to the top. The two-time monument winner could return to his happy hunting ground of the Vuelta next month and should be back to his excellent best ahead of the 2017 season.

Fourth for Adam Yates

When Bradley Wiggins came fourth third in the 2009 Tour, the UK went mad; first Boardman in the time trials, then Cavendish in the sprints, and now a Brit who doesn’t get dropped on climbs. By contrast, Adam Yates came fourth this year and he’s done ‘pretty well, hasn’t he?’. In another era we would be lauding Yates as a potential Grand Tour winner such was his consistency and, in particular, strength in the final kilometres. I’ve never seen a rider sit in the dangerous last wheel spot for so long without getting dropped. Any time the group elastic stretched too far he would move up a little and tuck back in. It wasn’t so much wheel-sucking as riding perfectly within his means. He always had plenty left for the final kilometres to close down attacks or make back time. There’s plenty to work on for Adam Yates but Orica will be chuffed with their Grand Tour return so far this year; second at the Giro for Esteban Chaves, fourth at the Tour for Yates.

Alejandro Valverde is outstanding

I don’t really like Alejandro Valverde but it’s getting harder to remember why. Quintana was obviously Movistar’s leader but Valverde rode to yet another top ten. Adam Hansen completed a magnificent fifteenth straight Grand Tour this past month, but Valverde’s ridden the last four and claimed two podiums and two seventh places. Does the Spaniard ever have a day off?

Mike Franchetti

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