ANALYSIS: WHO WILL WIN?
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