Eyes On: Tour de France 2018

Eyes On: Tour de France 2018

The Tour de France is over for another year and for the 6th time in 7 years, Team Sky are emerging victorious in the General Classification – though maybe not with the rider everyone was expecting. The final standings in the various classifications were as follows:

  • General Classification:
  1. Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) – 83h 17’ 13”
  2. Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) – + 1’ 51”
  3. Chris Froome (Team Sky) – + 2’ 24”
  • Points Classification:
  1. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) – 477
  2. Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) – 246
  3. Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) – 203
  • Mountains Classification:
  1. Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) – 170
  2. Warren Barguil (Fortuneo-Samsic) – 91
  3. Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) – 76
  • Young Rider Classification:
  1. Pierre Latour (AG2R La Mondiale) 83h 39’ 26”
  2. Egan Bernal (Team Sky) – + 5’ 39”
  3. Guillaume Martin (Wanty-Goupe Gobert) – + 22’ 05”
  • Team Classification:
  1. Movistar Team – 250h 24’ 53”
  2. Bahrain-Merida – + 12’ 33”
  3. Team Sky – + 31’ 14”
  • Combativity Award: Dan Martin

History made, but not as expected

Though many likely expected a Team Sky rider to be standing on the top of the podium, I think most would admit that they would have been expecting to see Chris Froome there winning his 5th Tour de France title and 4th consecutive Grand Tour. Instead, it was his teammate and former super-domestique now co-leader Geraint Thomas who made history by becoming the first Welshman to win the Tour. With Froome having competed in the Giro d’Italia, it was unclear how fresh he would be for this race – and at one point it was unclear if he would be allowed to race while the investigation into his adverse test result from last year’s Vuelta continued – so Thomas was given the lead of the team in the 2018 Critérium du Dauphiné, which he won, and was given protected status as co-leader for this race.

20180730_193411.jpgAs is always the way in the Grand Tours, Team Sky brought a dominant roster to the race which certainly gave both Thomas and Froome every chance to compete, but whereas previously Thomas had struggled from poor days or poor fortune, this time he was able to keep himself where he needed every day and was able to avoid any bad luck, while many of his competitors in the General Classification lost time early on. Chris Froome lost 50 seconds on Stage 1 when he came off the road, while Richie Porte (who later retired injured on Stage 9) and Adam Yates also lost the same amount of time courtesy of another incident. Tom Dumoulin lost time after contact with Romain Bardet left him in need of a wheel change within 6km of the finish line and lost 53 seconds on the road with a further 20 seconds being added as a penalty for spending too much time drafting behind his team car to get back on. Romain Bardet had almost half a dozen bike/wheel changes on the cobbles of Stage 9 and expended so much energy to only finish 7 seconds down on the day, but struggled with a number of domestiques abandoning early, while Vincenzo Nibali crashed out on Stage 12 and Movistar could not decide which rider out of Mike Landa, Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde to support.

Despite all these issues for his competitors though, “G” was fully deserving of the victory as he was able to deal with all of his rivals attacks and was often stuck on Dumoulin’s wheel when he attacked almost as if the Dutchman was another super-domestique, before attacking himself in the final kilometres to win Stage 11 (where he took yellow) and Stage 12 – where he became the first yellow jersey to win on Alpe d’Huez. I’ve noted previously that to win on GC, you have to be strong all-round. Thomas can climb with the best of them and also has a good sprint at the end of mountain stages, while also being an above-average time trialist – good enough to limit Dumoulin and Froome’s gains on the final day to less than 20 seconds. Watching G in interviews, he is just so likeable and after seeing his reaction to winning on Alpe d’Huez and seeing him break down after the time trial, not to mention his off the cuff speech on the podium in front of the Arc de Triomphe where he tried to thank everyone and promptly forgot the names of his teammates and only remembered his wife at the last minute, it was impossible not to be rooting for him.

20180730_193623
7 Grand Tours, 4 Olympic medals & 3 Commonwealth Games medals in 1 photo

Speaking of Froome, do not expect this to be the end of an era. Very few team leaders would ride 4 consecutive Grand Tours and it seems that this was just 1 race too far for him. He was still competitive throughout but in the last couple of days just did not have the legs to hold on against Thomas and Dumoulin, but responded well and became a willing domestique for Thomas in the final days. It will be interesting to see how Team Sky structure their rosters moving forward with both of these riders on their books. Will they use them in separate races to each get the benefit of a full team? Or will they work as co-leaders until the leader is clear and the other becomes a domestique? Do not rule out either option and a continued run of Team Sky dominance in the Grand Tours.

A new star

That dominance in the GC may not even have to come from Froome or Thomas, though, as young Colombian Egan Bernal announced himself on the Grand Tour scene with a wonderful race! The youngest rider in the race did not seem phased and was often one of the last remaining domestiques on the mountain stages and – much like Froome in 2012 – I occasionally got the feeling that he was holding back to protect his leaders. So many times we saw the big names in the GC try to attack on the final climbs only to be drawn back in by a group led by Bernal and his impact on the race only seemed to grow as the race went on, when he could have easily faded due to inexperience and extra workload due to Gianni Moscon being removed from the race. It may not happen this year or next year, but it surely won’t be long until we see Bernal leading a team at a Grand Tour and to be honest, when he gets that chance I’d expect him to be pushing for at least a podium position.

Survival of the fittest

The Points Classification started so well with a couple of early stage victories for Fernando Gaviria, however the excitement soon came to a premature end. Last year’s green jersey winner Michael Matthews was out early following a crash. Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish and Mark Renshaw all missed the cut-off time on Stage 11, while Gaviria, André Greipel and Dylan Groenewegen all abandoned on Stage 12. With Arnaud Démare having had issues on the early sprint stages, the Points Classification was over as a competition Alexander Kristoff failing to win the intermediate sprint on Stage 16 meant that Peter Sagan was mathematically assured of the victory provided he made it to the end. The only excitement came after he fell the next day, though he was able to continue racing without having to worry about competing at the sprints.

Granted, crashes and injuries are difficult to predict, but too often in the Tour de France, the race for the green jersey is more about who can make it over the mountains in decent shape, something that currently too few specialist sprinters are able to do.

Not good enough

A crash for Thomas during the 2017 Giro d’Italia prompted me to write a piece about how outside influences can heavily affect the result of the Grand Tours. Well 14 months later and things haven’t really changed judging by this race.

Froome and Team Sky’s dominance over the years – and Froome’s adverse drug test – have made them very unpopular in France but where most people will g as far as booing, too many people decide to take it further. Team Sky riders, especially Froome, were repeatedly spat at and had liquids thrown at them throughout the race, while one spectator tried to push Froome off his bike on Stage 12 and was actually able to make contact with him (thankfully not enough to make him fall) and another tried to grab Thomas towards the end of one of the recent stages. As if all of that wasn’t enough, Froome actually found himself pushed off of his bike on the way down to the team bus from the finish line of Stage 17 after not recognising him. Not a great look.

It wasn’t just Team Sky who came into problems during the race as a combination of a flare from the crowd, a motorbike too close to the riders and a crowd too enclosed resulted in Vincenzo Nibali crashing on Stage 12 and abandoning the race with a fractured vertebra. Not only that but a protest by farmers on Stage 16 saw them try to block the road with hay bales, while the response of the policy to pepper spray the protesters caused the race to be stopped for 11 minutes after the pepper spray blew back into the eyes of the peloton.

If a professional event like the World Cup or the Super Bowl had even half these issues, there would be hell to pay! The tournament organisers have a lot of work to do to ensure the safety of the riders and the safety of the race result.

Disciplinary Problems? Cavendish v Sagan

So this is something I’ve contemplated writing since Peter Sagan’s disqualification from the Tour de France, but due to my relative inexperience in this sport – it was only during last year’s Tour that I became a regular viewer of the Grand Tours – I was unsure if it was right to do so. However I have decided to write about it as I feel it needs looking into.

 

By now, many people will have seen the dramatic end to Stage 4 of this year’s Tour de France, where Arnaud Démare’s first ever stage victory on a Grand Tour was relegated to being a side-note next to discussions of Mark Cavendish’s crash and Peter Sagan’s disqualification for his part in the incident. Sagan was initially docked 30 seconds and 80 points in the battle for the green jersey, but this punishment was later upgraded to disqualification as he “endangered some of his colleagues seriously.” Cavendish meanwhile, has been forced to leave the tour with a broken shoulder.

My personal opinion is that the initial punishment would have been sufficient. It looked to me that Sagan was simply following the drift of all the racers in the bunch split and attempting to get on Démare’s wheel, unaware that Cavendish – who was behind him – was already in that position. Yes there was a question of his use of an elbow and while some camera angles do make it look bad, others suggest that the elbow was out merely to help him keep his balance. I feel that the punishment has been unduly influenced by the injury to Cavendish.

It is clear that the UCI are trying to improve safety in the bunch sprints – they now allow a 3-second gap between riders on flat stages before they award a slower finishing time, meaning that General Classification riders and teams are not so in the way of the sprinters – and I get the feeling that they will look to reinforce this by being strict on any issues from the bunch sprints. However by that logic, Démare is surely deserving of some punishment as his changes of direction in the same sprint looked far worse and more dangerous than Sagan.

What really surprised and disappointed me, however, was the way that the race commissaires who made the decision to disqualify Sagan did not contain a former racer. In an event like a bike race, there is always an inherent risk, especially in a bunch sprint, so to me a former racer’s perspective should be required to help decide if a crash is simply a racing incident or something more serious.

If we look at another racing sport – Formula 1, they have some very specific rules relating to their officials. From their website I found the following information:

  • At every Grand Prix meeting there are seven key race officials who monitor and control the activities of the stewards and marshals to ensure the smooth and safe running of the event in accordance with FIA regulations.
  • Five of the seven officials are nominated by the FIA. These are the race director (currently Charlie Whiting), a permanent starter and three additional stewards, one of whom is nominated chairman and one of whom is an experienced former driver. The additional stewards must be FIA Super Licence holders.
  • The other two key officials are nominated by the National Sporting Authority (ASN) of the country holding the race. These are the clerk of the course and an additional steward (who must be a national of the host nation). Both must be FIA Super Licence holders.

Notice how of the 7 race officials in F1, at least 5 must be FIA Super Licence holders, a qualification that allows that person to race in F1 Grands Prix. This means that when any incident is looked at during the race, the drivers know that there will be people making a decision who know exactly what is going on at that moment from the point of view of the racers and know exactly what can and can’t be expected from a racer in such a circumstance. It’s not that often that the former racers in the F1 commentary are surprised by the official’s decisions at it also allows them to explain to the armchair fan what will be considered and taken into account about the accident.

I’m not asking the UCI to make as drastic a change as to make the majority of the commissaires former riders, however it is my opinion that they need to have at least one former rider involved in any decisions.

As it is, we have lost 2 great racers for the remaining 2 and a half weeks of the Tour and the green jersey – which has been won by either Cavendish or Sagan each of the last 6 years – is certainly up for grabs. It will be interesting to see where things go from here.

 

What are your thoughts on the incident and the disciplinary procedure? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Screwing Up on a Grand Scale

The Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España: the 3 Grand Tours of cycle racing. The best cycle teams in the world fighting it out over multiple stages spanning a couple of weeks for victory in a number of different classifications including Points, King of the Mountain and the all-important General Classification. Victory in these races would be a highlight of a professional cyclist’s career, a chance for them to compete against the best of the best. Yet far too often, we see results being decided by outside influences that are out of the competitor’s control, but could be avoided by the organisers.

When Geraint Thomas began Stage 9 of this year’s Giro on Sunday, he was 2nd in the GC, only 6 seconds behind leader Bob Jungels heading into a stage that could make or break a rider’s GC hopes. By the end of the day, bloody and bruised, he had dropped to 17th in the standings, 5 minutes and 14 seconds behind new leader and GC rival Nairo Quintana. This was not due to him struggling on the Blockhaus climb, but instead was the result of a completely unacceptable accident 13.5km from the finish. With the peloton spread across the road fighting for position, a police motorbike was stopped at the side of the road where it shouldn’t have been. Wilco Kelderman did not have the space to avoid it and in the resulting collision the majority of Team Sky, including Thomas, were brought down, along with Adam Yates of Orica-Scott, who has gone from 3rd (10 seconds behind the lead) to 16th (4 minutes and 49 seconds behind). Both of these riders were contenders for the General Classification but can probably now consider their chances over! Sky’s second GC contender Mikel Landa fared even worse in the incident, losing almost 27 minutes to the leaders.

While this can be considered an unfortunate accident, it is not an isolated incident of a rider being affected by outside forces that should not have been present. I have only started paying attention to the Grand Tours at last year’s Tour de France and in less than 12 months have noticed a number of incidents:

  • On Stage 7 on 2016’s Tour de France, Adam Yates’ attempt to gain time on his GC rivals was hit when the flamme rouge collapsed right in front of him. He had no time to stop before hitting the marker and ended up riding the rest of the Tour with a cut chin. This incident could have been much worse had this happened when the peloton was passing, but it still meant that Yates lost his chance to build an advantage against his rivals.
  • Yate’s trouble with the flamme rouge was quickly forgotten after Stage 12’s incident. After high winds caused the stage to be shortened, much of the last kilometre was left without railings to hold the crowd back. They duly swarmed all over the road, leaving a space barely wide enough for the riders to pass through. This led to an incident where 3 GC riders (Bauke Mollema, Richie Porte and yellow jersey Chris Froome) crashed into the back of a motorbike that was forced to stop by the crowds, leaving Froome’s bike unusable. As the Team Sky car was some distance down the road, this led to the famous images of the yellow jersey running up Mont Ventoux to reduce the hit on his finishing time while he waited for his team to catch up with a replacement bike.
  • Stage 5 of the 2016 Vuelta a España saw Steven Kruijswijk’s season ended early after a collision with a bollard left him with a broken collarbone. This bollard should never have been left in the way and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, was left at an angle pointing towards the oncoming riders. In truth, it is lucky that only Kruijswijk and Jan Bakelants hit the post as the peloton rode past.
  • Just a couple of days before this latest accident, Stage 7 of the Giro saw a miraculous near miss as riders came around a blind turn to find a marshal standing in the middle of the road flagging to warn of a traffic island. Somehow the peloton avoided hitting him, but that could have been a serious incident. Surely it would have been better to use barriers to block the road on one side of the island so that the island was part of the edge as opposed to being in the middle of the road?

4 incidents and a near miss. From just 3 races. And these are just the incidents that immediately came to mind, so there may be others that I have missed. All of these crashes have involved riders that would be hoping to compete in the General Classification, so the race results are being heavily impacted by each of these incidents.

Crashes happen, I accept that. Bad weather or riding too close to someone in a group can easily result in a number of riders going to ground, that is to be expected in the sport. What cannot be considered acceptable is outside factors that are wholly avoidable being allowed to affect the outcome of an entire race!

Would this be accepted in any other sport? If a fan ran onto a football pitch and booted the ball into the net, we would not count it as a goal, so why should we allow a rider’s GC standings to be affected by an outside stimulus? To continue the football analogy, clubs and tournament organisers do not wait for something to happen and then say it will not affect the result, they take steps to stop a match being decided by outside influences. That is why you see stewards and barriers all around the grounds to stop spectators getting onto the pitch. I appreciate that each stage of the Grand Tours is too long to have barriers every step of the way, but there are things that can be done to help. Having more spotters travelling in advance of the race to ensure there are no unsafe obstacles in the way would allow race directors and stewards to take appropriate steps to ensure that by the time riders get to that point in the road there is no chance of an issue.

Hopefully the riders affected will be able to minimise the losses over the remaining stages. More importantly, fingers crossed this is the last time we see a rider’s race ruined by something completely avoidable.

 

What were your thoughts on the accident? Do you think more can be done? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Teamwork makes the Dreamwork

Barring a massive shock, Chris Froome will today win his 3rd Tour de France. His lead of 4 minutes 5 seconds over Romain Bardet all but guarantees his place as only the 8th rider to have won the event 3+ times. Cycling has been an area of strength for Great Britain at the Olympics for a while now, and this is beginning to show in the Tour as well, with 4 of the last 5 Tours having now been won by Brits (3 for Froome, 1 for Bradley Wiggins).

What must also be noticed is that all 4 of these wins belong to Team Sky, who have certainly become a dominant name in road cycling in recent years. As great as Chris Froome is, much of the credit must also go to his supporting cast. Cycling may seem at first glance to be a very individual sport, but the team is arguably as important in this as in football or rugby.

 

In recent years, the quality of Team Sky’s domestiques has given their team leader every chance of winning the Tour. You just need to look at what some of these riders have done since leaving the team:

Richie Porte was a key figure in Wiggins’ Tour win and both of Froome’s previous victories; having moved to BMC Racing Team ahead of this season, he has established himself as team leader and finds himself in 5th place in the General classification, despite losing time to a punctured tyre in the 1st week and also being caught up in the crash on Mont Ventoux.

Mark Cavendish was a support rider in the 2012 Tour win for Bradley Wiggins, whilst also managing to win a number of sprint stages. A prolific sprinter now at Team Dimension Data, he is currently 2nd in the all-time list of Tour de France stage wins and has every chance of breaking the record moving forward.

As if having Cavendish and Porte supporting wasn’t good enough, Wiggins also had Chris Froome himself as a super-domestique in the 2012 Tour. Apparently helping his team leader win the Tour wasn’t enough for Froome as he finished 2nd in the General Classification before going on to become team leader and Tour winner himself the next year.

 

The role of a domestique is a selfless one, as we saw in Stage 19 of this year’s Tour. Geraint Thomas, gold medallist in the Road race of the 2014 Commonwealth Games and set to equal his best finish in the Tour de France of 15th in the GC, sacrificed his bike and his race (he lost 6 minutes) when Froome fell on a descent and damaged his bike. Wout Poels then did a great job to lead Froome up the final climb, resulting in him finishing 9th in the stage and actually increasing his lead in the General classification. It was also picked up during this climb that Poels was constantly looking back to ensure that Froome was still with him and benefiting from his actions. This is a team of 8 riders doing whatever is required to make ensure their leader wins with as little drama as possible. It has been mentioned on numerous occasions that there have not been many real attacks from competitors this year, but you just have to look at how Team Sky have raced, setting a hard pace that they are able to raise as soon as someone makes a move in order to draw them back in before they could cause any danger to Froome’s GC hopes.

 

When Chris Froome crosses the finish line in Paris this evening, it is likely that he will have all his teammates around him. Though he will be the one wearing the yellow jersey, this is a win for the whole team and for a fantastic team mentality. Congratulations to them all!