Every four years, I watch the Olympics, and every four years, I watch sports such as diving, swimming, and gymnastics, and question my life decisions.
Alberto Contador became the second pre-race favourite to crash out of the Tour de France in less than a week – but that doesn’t mean the rest of the race will be a yellow procession towards Paris for Vincenzo Nibali.
Nor does the absence of the two main protagonists – Contador and Chris Froome – mean that the 2014 Tour will be deprived of any true spectacle once the race hits the high mountains next week.
On the contrary, this is shaping up to be the most intriguing and potentially explosive Tour in recent history. So sit back and enjoy it.
Mark Cavendish tumbled out of the race before the conclusion of the first proper sprint; Froome road-rashed and tarmac-thwacked his way out before those infamous cobbles of stage six; now Contador bids adieu to the race with the first HC climb yet to be tackled.
My, it’s a lucky thing Tony Martin has already won his own impromptu individual time trial – for the omens were hardly looking good.
Separated shoulders, fractured wrists and broken tibias… And each rider got back on his bike and carried on.
Across the Atlantic and on the other side of the equator another global sporting event has been competing with the Tour for audience figures – one where its protagonists roll around the tuft at the slightest clip of the ankle, where teeth sunk into the soft skin of a shoulder results in more column inches than the entire Tour de France put together.
Footballers should try having their skin punctured by the teeth of a chain ring – or try performing those theatrical, deceitful tumbles across coarse asphalt.
But I digress. It’s not as if the kind of sports fans reading this article need any convincing of the tough-man status of bike riders.
They could see that in Michele Scarponi fighting back onto the front of the main pack to help his teammate Nibali despite moments earlier going head over handlebars on a tight bend on a fast descent; or in Tiago Machado crashing at top speed en route to finishing the stage in last place, outside the time limit, and with his left elbow seeping blood from a deep wound to the bone (race officials later reinstated the Portuguese, who had started the day in third place).
Of course, they could also see it also in Contador riding twenty largely uphill kilometres – and still quicker than Andre Greipel and the gruppetto, mind – with a broken tibia just below his bloodied right kneecap after a reported two crashes on the back of the Petit Ballon climb.
Contador’s withdrawal blows the race wide apart before we’ve even hit the Alps.
With Andy Schleck, Froome and now the Spaniard all crashing out, there are no former Tour winners left in the race – something that has not happened since Oscar Pereiro careered off a precipice on the descent of the Colle dell’Agnello in 2008.
It means that on 27th July will have a first time winner standing atop the podium for the fifth consecutive year (although poor Schleck never actually got to stand on the top rung for real – only retrospectively, and in his head, not to mention before everything started to go downhill faster than Peter Sagan on the hunt for intermediate sprint points).
Nibali, of course, is the rider everyone now thinks will win the Tour – and in doing so complete his clean sweep (he won the Vuelta in 2011 and the Giro in 2013). Judging by his flawless performance thus far – which includes two stage wins and a magnificent debut salvo on the cobblestones of northern France – it will take a brave man to bet against him.
Given the fate of this Tour’s previous favourites, nothing’s a guarantee. And even if Nibali were to stay upright and healthy – look what happened to Cadel Evans in the Giro: leading at the first rest day, the Australian faded faster than the British 2014 Summer of sport.
Now Nibali is no Evans: he’s a double Grand Tour winner at the peak of his powers. But we’ve yet to hit the high mountains and now, with both Contador and Froome out of the picture, there’s going to be a vacuum to fill and a lot of belief among riders who wouldn’t normally have a hope in hell in winning the season’s biggest bike race.
Just look at the French. For years they’ve been ridiculed – no winner in their own race since Bernard Hinault in 1985 and a yellow jersey about as frequent as the running of a World Cup.
Bastille Day 2014 has been something to savour for the French. Not since David Moncoutie’s win in 2005 have the French had it as good – and back then things were somewhat soured by a certain American’s record seventh overall win.
Even the build up to Bastille Day was pretty perfect for the host nation – habitually reliant upon a last-ditch Rolland or Riblon attack to get their first (and only) win of the race before Paris.
Blel Kadri of Ag2R-La Mondiale last week ensured that the first scalp came two days before Bastille Day before Lotto Belisol’s Tony Gallopin seized the maillot jaune in time for Quatorze Juillet – the nation’s biggest national holiday of the year.
Then something quite extraordinary: with most of the world debating about the cause of Contador’s crash (was it a broken frame or did the Spaniard simply hit a pothole at top speed?) the home fans were treated to quite the rarity in modern day cycling – three Frenchmen finishing in the top five of a high mountains stage.
Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Ag2Rteammates Romain Bardet and Jean-Christophe Peraud are joined by Gallopin in a top eight that is 50 per cent French.
Forget that practically everyone expects them to fade away in the second and third weeks. That is immaterial. The fact is that each one of these riders will be injected with a huge amount of belief that would not have been there when both Froome and Contador still in the race.
Youngsters Pinot and Bardet may have started the Tour with hopes of matching their previous best performances – tenth and fifteenth respectively. Now they will be thinking a top five or a podium is not beyond the realms of feasibility.
Richie Porte – Sky’s Plan B – is in second place (+2:23) and champing at the bit; apparently in good form despite a lack of genuine GC pedigree and a season hampered by fitness and illness.
Alejandro Valverde – the only other Grand Tour winner remaining alongside Nibali and veteran Chris Horner – is poised in third place (+2:47) and aware that this year may be his last chance to lead Movistar given the rapid rise of Colombia’s Nairo Quintana.
After the French trio of Bardet-Gallopin-Pinot American Tejay Van Garderen lies in seventh just under four minutes down. Given his crash and time loss en route to Nancy, he’ll be pinching himself that his chances are still alive.
Both Peraud and world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) are within the four-minute mark, while Bauke Mollema (Belkin) completes the top ten at 4:08. One place below, Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto Belisol) can still have aspirations of a high finish come Paris.
Horner, Europcar pair Pierre Rolland and Cyril Gautier, and white jersey Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) are all lurking with intent. Blimey, Sky could even go with Plan C in Geraint Thomas or a Plan D in Mikel Nieve. It’s that crazy.
A Pereiro-style breakaway (known to the French as “une échappée à la Walkowiak” after home rider Roger Walkowiak became the surprise winner of the 1956 Tour following a break that was gifted a 19-minute advantage by the peloton) could even rear its head.
Watching the remainder of the race will be like turning up at a Broadway theatre to discover the Hollywood A-listers have given way to understudies who in turn have thrown away the script. Let’s now sit back and savour it as these cameo roles take centre stage and improvise.
Far from being ruined – this Tour has merely taken on a fresh and wholly unexpected dynamic. For years fans have inwardly grumbled about the predictability of the Indurain, Armstrong, Contador and Team Sky years.
All of a sudden this Tour’s got unpredictable – and gloriously so.