We are only 11 stages into the 2014 Tour de France and yet we have already been gifted a race for the ages.
It’s had thrills, spills, bellyaches and tears, Herculean efforts of leg-busting chutzpah, and buckets of va-va voom even without the presence of Va-Va Froome.
Some of it has been caused by accident – quite literally – but a good chunk of the intrigue and interest has come about due to very clever design.
The revival of the French riders, and one French team in particular, has kept the locals on the edge of their seats and ensured enthused crowds roadside daily. Belkin’s Tony Gallopin has been pivotal to all this, with one day in the yellow jersey and that irrepressible victory on Stage 11.
He must have read ‘How to become France’s new hero’ before the race. The recipe is simple. Get into yellow and win a stage in the Tour. The French have been so hungry for a ‘new Bernard Hinault’ that they’ve eaten just about all the pretenders who’ve come and gone since the Badger’s heyday.
Not that Gallopin is an Hinault. Only Hinault is Hinault, we all know that. However the way he won that stage sparked a national reminiscence of the golden days of French cycling – days, it has to be said, long since gone.
The effot he put in to try to stay in yellow on Bastille Day was beautifully captured by a shot from a moto that pulled alongside him as he struggled up the final climb. A string of saliva dangled from his gaping mouth, sweat slalomed down his face, and in that single moment, you could feel everything the Maillot Jaune means to these guys – especially the French.
It was beautiful. No other word for it.
Gallopin’s win followed Blel Kadri’s gallant solo effort to win Stage 8. The Ag2r rider also pulled on the king of the mountains jersey after his win, and though he lost it soon after, it provided another breath of fresh air for French cycling.
His team also captured the lead of the team competition, a rarity for a French squad. They are riding very well collectively, and though it’s early days yet they may have a shot of holding the lead if they ride well in the big hills.
The star team of the Tour have been Astana, but coming up close behind are Thomas Voeckler’s Europcar. The boys in forest green have been the surprise package of this Tour and are riding on the front every day. Exactly why they’ve been going so very hard hasn’t always been clear but, again, it’s making the French happy.
One reason so many teams have been up at the front when the race heats up – at times there have been four lines of teams lined out, all within a metre of each other – is that there is no patron (or boss) in the peloton these days.
In fact, there hasn’t really been a patron since a certain Texan ‘retired’, but the fact that both Chris Froome and Alberto Contador have left the race means that every man and his dog fancies a dig at the front.
The majority on the peloton felt sorry for both Froome and Contador after they exited the race, and no sensible human being would take pleasure in someone breaking bones, but as a result we, the viewing public, are getting the race we’ve been dreaming of.
Froome’s mastery last year meant the 2013 race was little more than a procession. This year the script promised a battle between Froome and Contador, a narrative that didn’t exactly set the pulse racing for a lot of cycling fans.
“The race will be the poorer for the absence of the two pre-race favourites,” said one commentator on Eurosport, but something close to the opposite has happened.
In any case, would Froome have held on to Nibali over those cobbles? The Italian had never raced them before but he showed something a lot of people had forgotten, that he is one of the world’s best handlers of a road bike.
I think Froome would have lost more time than Contador. Also, Nibali looks fantastic in the hills. He could well be coming of age here.
One other factor that may be contributing to the wow factor of this year’s Tour is that it looks as though there is less doping going on.
This is contentious, I realise. It’s an issue I refer to often and I remain unconvinced that is has disappeared, but the closeness of results and the unpredictability of the racing suggests this is the case.
I have zero proof, nothing but observations to go on and some comments from friends connected to top-level cycling, but a half-educated guess says this is what is happening.
Finally, there is the route the organisers have chosen. ASO boss Christian Prudhomme deserves huge credit for eschewing the standard Tour opening by throwing in daily stage routes with narrow curving lanes, hard little climbs, and a sever lack of straight, flat finishes.
We’ve had rollers in Yorkshire, large stones in northern France and enough nasty hillocks in the Vosges to rock everyone’s legs – and to throw up all sorts of surprises.
It’s been a vintage Tour so far, let’s hope it continues.