ANAL­Y­SIS: WHO WILL WIN?

Procycling - - Contents - Wr i t e r: E dwa r d P i c k e r i n g Pho­tog ra­phy: Get t y I mages*

A Tour route that mixes clas­sic tra­di­tion with in­no­va­tive ideas. Who will come out on top?

The 2018 Tour sees a re­turn to ba­sics, with a clas­sic home grand dé­part, but also in­no­va­tions in the form of cob­bles and short moun­tain stages. And, of course, a dop­ing af­fair. Pro­cy­cling looks at how the race is likely to pan out

F rance, like any great coun­try, has a whole which is slightly less than the sum of its parts, and if you need proof, you might look no fur­ther than the Vendée.The host dé­parte­ment for the Grand Dé­part of the 2018 Tour is a bu­colic par­al­lel­o­gram of farm­land and back­roads sand­wiched be­tween the Loire and the Gironde. To the north and east, it is con­tigu­ous with the great fer­tile plain of north­ern France; the south­ern bor­der is formed by the Marais Poitevin, a damp ex­panse of marsh­land, canals and big skies. The west­ern edge, the Côte des Lu­mière, forms part of the vast curve of the Bay of Bis­cay on France’s At­lantic coast. The beaches gen­tly shelve into the sea, while the off­shore winds have long at­tracted the yacht­ing set, along with their money.

In some ways, the Vendée could not be more French – its ru­ral and agri­cul­tural in­te­rior are about as pro­fonde as la France gets, while its coastal cul­ture has much of the sun­shine of the Riviera, with­out the shady peo­ple. How­ever, as the lo­cals will tell you, they’re dif­fer­ent. Not in the same hot-headed way as the Cor­si­cans, nor in the stub­born way of the Bre­tons. But there’s an in­de­pen­dent streak in the Vendée that is as wide as the At­lantic Ocean, born partly of the lo­cals’ sense of be­ing slightly apart from the rest of the coun­try, and they know their own minds. While the rest of the coun­try swings be­tween so­cial­ist and con­ser­va­tive, the Vendéens have stub­bornly re­turned rightwing can­di­dates in all mod­ern pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, though they drew the line at vot­ing for Ma­rine Le Pen in 2017.

When France rose up against the aris­toc­racy in the Revo­lu­tion of 1789, the peo­ple of the Vendée adopted more of a wait-and-see at­ti­tude. While the rest of the coun­try set to de­cap­i­tat­ing the an­cien régime, both lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively, with gusto, the Vendéens or­gan­ised an up­ris­ing of their own. No lovers of aris­to­cratic rule in the first place, they none­the­less dis­trusted their new Rev­o­lu­tion­ary rulers enough to fight back, for which im­per­ti­nence their peas­ant army was crushed and 200,000 of their num­ber sum­mar­ily killed. In the Vendée they’ve got a nat­u­ral dis­trust of au­thor­ity, who­ever it is.

So what they make of the on­go­ing Chris Froome saga is any­body’s guess. The king of the Tour de France may or may not be per­mit­ted to ride the race, po­ten­tially leav­ing his Sky team head­less. Froome’s ex­pla­na­tion of the spike in salbu­ta­mol lev­els that showed up in a dop­ing test at the Vuelta a Es­paña last Septem­ber has not yet been fully pro­cessed, and while a leak put what would nor­mally be a con­fi­den­tial process into the pub­lic do­main, the Brit has ex­er­cised his right to carry on rac­ing. Froome has rid­den the Ruta del Sol, Tir­reno-Adri­atico, the Tour of the Alps and the Giro d’Italia. He says he’s rid­ing the Tour. ASO, the Tour’s or­gan­is­ers, are mak­ing noises to the ef­fect that they’ll

try to stop him. For their part, the Vendéens may sim­ply have taken one look at Froome, an­other at the cy­cling author­i­ties who seek to bar him from start­ing, and col­lec­tively de­cided that the whole boil­ing sport has gone mad. Again. I t is years since the Tour de France was the best grand tour of the year. Maybe 2011 was the last time, but even that race, won by a su­perb de­fen­sive grind from Cadel Evans ahead of the more in­dus­tri­ous but scat­ter­gun ag­gres­sion of Andy Sch­leck, took a long time to come alight. In re­cent years, the Giro and Vuelta have been more ex­cit­ing, more var­ied, more un­pre­dictable and more en­gag­ing. Ex­hibit A: the re­cent Giro, which was ev­ery­thing a grand tour should be. The Tour has been com­par­a­tively stul­ti­fy­ing – ev­ery year since 2012, the even­tual win­ner has taken the yel­low jersey early and the dom­i­nant team, Sky, has em­ployed a strat­egy of cate­nac­cio in five of those six (for the ex­cep­tion, 2014, Vin­cenzo Nibali won a one-sided race).

Is this a prob­lem? The Tour re­mains the big­gest race in the world by a long dis­tance, and that cre­ates its own magic – ask any rider’s bank man­ager whether they would rather their rider won a spec­tac­u­larly ex­cit­ing Giro or a bor­ing Tour, and they would take the lat­ter ev­ery time. The pres­tige of the yel­low jersey is undimmed by the pro­saic style in which it is of­ten won. The Tour is the most prof­itable event in the sport, and is still re­ally the only cy­cling race that is known of by the wider pub­lic. Its size is one of the rea­sons it has be­come so… bor­ing. The higher pres­sure and greater im­por­tance of the race make risk-tak­ing less worth­while. Breaks don’t stick be­cause the teams of the sprint­ers, puncheurs and climbers keep them well un­der con­trol, de­pend­ing on the ter­ri­tory. And there is a re­lated fact – the strong teams are so strong that they smother the ag­gres­sion of the other GC con­tenders. Sky’s climb­ing do­mes­tiques – Wout Poels, Geraint Thomas, Micha¯ Kwiatkowski,

to name only the strong­est – have of­ten been among the four or five fastest climbers in the Tour, while work­ing for Froome.

Nev­er­the­less, the 2018 Tour is marked by a few tweaks, by ASO and the UCI, which are de­signed to try and shake up the race.

First, there is the par­cours. The good news is that Thierry Gou­ve­nou, the Tour’s route de­signer, has ac­tu­ally spent the last five or six years mak­ing the course a lot more var­ied. The Tours of the late 1990s and early 2000s set­tled into a pre­dictable for­mula: flat open­ing week, long time trial, moun­tains, tran­si­tion stages, more moun­tains, long time trial, Paris. Routes like this worked bet­ter in the past be­cause the teams were less strong, the tac­tics less pre­dictable and the sports science less ad­vanced. But with the sport mod­ernising through the 1990s and get­ting more pop­u­lar in­ter­na­tion­ally (with there­fore more pres­sure bear­ing down on the Tour, its show­case event), the tac­tics be­came more de­fen­sive. (The drugs also con­trib­uted – EPO abuse didn’t nec­es­sar­ily make moun­tain trains pos­si­ble, but it co­in­cided with their adop­tion as the favourite tac­tic of strong lead­ers in rich teams.)

Gou­ve­nou has rein­tro­duced cob­bles into the Tour de France (spec­tac­u­larly suc­cess­fully in 2014, when Vin­cenzo Nibali was a ma­jor pro­tag­o­nist in the best stage of the race, less so in 2015 when un­favourable winds and cau­tion kept the favourites tightly bunched). There’s usu­ally an up­hill fin­ish or two in the open­ing week. There are fewer long time tri­als. Most im­por­tantly, Gou­ve­nou has started ex­per­i­ment­ing with very short moun­tain stages, where the ac­tion tends to be non-stop.

The head­line set pieces for 2018 are the cob­bled stage to Roubaix and the two short moun­tain stages, one to La Rosière in the Alps, and then the most spec­tac­u­lar, the 65km stage from Luchon to Saint-LarySoulan in the Pyre­nees. There’s a school

The 2018 Tour is marked by a few tweaks by ASO and the UCI which are de­signed to try and shake up the race

of thought that all moun­tain stages should be so short, the bet­ter to of­fer a com­pelling tele­vi­sion prod­uct to po­ten­tial fans. But Gou­ve­nou is stick­ing with the idea that these short stages gain their im­pact when com­bined with the clas­sic long multi-pass schlepps through the moun­tains. Tire the riders out with the long, hard moun­tain stages, like a boxer work­ing the body, then the knock­out blow in the short stages be­comes more ef­fec­tive. Some­times it works – the 2011 Alpe d’Huez stage re­mains the clas­sic of the genre. Some­times it doesn’t – last year’s 101km stage to Foix in the Pyre­nees ended up promis­ing more than it ac­tu­ally de­liv­ered. But over­all, Gou­ve­nou is try­ing to syn­co­pate the rhythm of a race that too of­ten has pro­ceeded in 4/4 time.

The sec­ond dif­fer­ence is the eight-rider teams, a rule im­posed by the UCI at the start of the sea­son. The UCI par­tially sold the change on the ba­sis that it would make races safer, with fewer riders on the road. But it’s also, on the sur­face, an at­tempt to make it more dif­fi­cult for teams to con­trol races. The jury is out on whether this has been ef­fec­tive or not, and there’s no real way of mea­sur­ing, but there’s good news and bad news. On the pos­i­tive side, the Clas­sics saw the favourites ex­posed com­par­a­tively early. On the neg­a­tive side, the Giro pelo­ton kept a tight lid on escapes, with few go­ing on to con­test the stage wins, though one of these escapes, that of Froome on the now in­fa­mous stage 19, ended up defin­ing the race. Anec­do­tally, teams have been stat­ing re­luc­tance to di­vide their goals with such small teams – with nine-rider teams, it might be pos­si­ble to sup­port a GC rider and a sprinter (though in re­al­ity few were do­ing this with great suc­cess), but with eight, it might be pru­dent to tar­get one goal ef­fec­tively, rather than two with a risk of miss­ing out on both. It’s also pos­si­ble that Sky with eight riders is ev­ery bit as dom­i­nant in the moun­tains as Sky with nine riders – in ar­guably their most dom­i­nant year, 2012, they rode most of the Tour with eight riders. The is­sue of team se­lec­tion will be more im­por­tant – teams have to have enough Clas­sics spe­cial­ists and strong rouleurs to deal with the team time trial and the cob­bled stage, but also climbers to sup­port their lead­ers in the very moun­tain­ous sec­ond half of the Tour. Some teams have riders who can do both – see Thomas and Kwiatkowski at Sky.

The third tweak is in the in­crease in time bonuses avail­able to the riders. Each non-time trial stage will give 10, six and four sec­onds to the first three over the line – this may, as with the Giro this year, make life even more dif­fi­cult for the break­away riders, but part of the rea­son the Giro was so ex­cit­ing this year was in Si­mon Yates’ tac­tic of build­ing a good lead in the GC with stage wins and solo at­tacks to take the time bonuses. Con­versely, the time bonuses didn’t have much of an ef­fect in the 2017 Tour, but at least Yates proved at the Giro this year that tar­get­ing them is a worth­while tac­tic, even if it didn’t ul­ti­mately work.

There is also a new fea­ture for 2018: an ex­tra bonus sprint in the open­ing nine stages which will not count to­wards the points jersey but will give three, two and one sec­onds to the first three over the line. These tend to be to­wards the fin­ish of the stages. It’s an orig­i­nal at­tempt to give the view­ers some­thing more to watch, but these will have less of an ef­fect on the over­all clas­si­fi­ca­tion – they will mostly be taken by the riders in the day’s break, but a cou­ple are sit­u­ated at the top of hills, which may tempt the punchier GC ri­vals to bank some time, though three sec­onds won’t go very far.

Will these tweaks make the 2018 Tour more ex­cit­ing? Per­haps, but you could also ar­gue that the or­gan­is­ers will be far more wor­ried about whether the win­ner of the race will sub­se­quently serve a ban for an ad­verse an­a­lyt­i­cal find­ing in a drug test that hap­pened nine months pre­vi­ously.

The short stages gain their im­pact when com­bined with the clas­sic long multi- pass schlepps through the moun­tains

The pre-Tour spec­u­la­tion this year has been di­vided into two ver­sions: a Froome edi­tion and a non- Froome edi­tion

T he pre-Tour spec­u­la­tion this year has been di­vided into two ver­sions: a Froome edi­tion and a non-Froome edi­tion. The rules con­cern­ing his AAF for salbu­ta­mol at the Vuelta state that he may con­tinue rac­ing un­til the sit­u­a­tion is re­solved, which in turn is de­pen­dent on Froome pro­vid­ing a nat­u­ral ex­pla­na­tion for the high lev­els of the asthma drug in his sys­tem. It was hoped that this would hap­pen early in the sea­son, but the Giro came and went with no res­o­lu­tion, and with only a few weeks un­til the Tour, it’s un­likely that it will hap­pen be­fore July. ASO have fired warn­ing shots, say­ing they will try to pre­vent Froome from start­ing, but there are few re­cent prece­dents for such ini­tia­tives suc­ceed­ing.

So, Froome rides, prob­a­bly. And if he rides, he is the log­i­cal favourite. He’s won four of the last five, along with the Giro. Over the last cou­ple of Tours, there have been chinks in the ar­mour – he has had to jab his way to vic­tory in the last cou­ple of years, com­pared with the hay­mak­ers with which he knocked out his ri­vals in his first two wins. It’s been a few years since he sig­nif­i­cantly dis­tanced his ri­vals in the moun­tains at the Tour, though he can rely on be­ing the best time tri­al­list, Tom Du­moulin apart, among the con­tenders. But he com­pen­sates for any weak­nesses by hav­ing the strong­est team in the race, and with a tenac­ity which makes it fool­ish to ever write him off. He also, mirac­u­lously, ap­pears un­af­fected by the on­go­ing case. But if Froome doesn’t ride, it’s not a sim­ple case of ev­ery­body else fin­ish­ing one place higher. His ab­sence would change the dy­namic. The only other pre­vi­ous Tour win­ner on the start line will be Vin­cenzo Nibali, who is prob­a­bly the most tac­ti­cally as­tute of the GC con­tenders, at least in terms of one-day rac­ing. Nairo Quin­tana should be com­ing into his peak years now – with two sec­ond places and a third at the Tour, along with Vuelta and Giro wins, he would be more of a favourite if he hadn’t put in such a medi­ocre per­for­mance last year. The 2017 Tour was the fourth con­sec­u­tive grand tour he’d rid­den, and he looked flat. The home favourite is Ro­main Bardet, who has been sec­ond and third over­all.

At the mo­ment, the shadow of Chris Froome looms over the 2018 Tour. Will he ride? And if he rides, will he win? But the more im­por­tant ques­tion is, what does that mean for the sport? The Tour or­gan­is­ers are work­ing to make their race into a more in­ter­est­ing spec­ta­cle, but you get the im­pres­sion that this doesn’t ex­tend to turn­ing it into a bat­tle­ground for a lon­grun­ning and un­sat­is­fac­tory le­gal case.

Quin­tana fal­tered in 2017, but at his best he is a po­ten­tial win­ner of the yel­low jersey

Bardet fought his way to a su­perb sec­ond place in Strade Bianche 2018

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