The Roar
The Roar

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Five contentions from the Tour

Vincenzo Nibali can relax - today is a day for the sprinters. (Photo via Team Sky).
Expert
28th July, 2014
16

Well, we survived. The sleep deprivation will wear off, coffee consumption can return to safe levels, and Twitter’s ceaseless hunt for the best/worst Sherliggettisms of all time can finally be set aside.

Congratulations to Australia’s Zak Dempster and Luke Durbridge for finishing their first Tours de France.

I’ve scraped together a few contentious bones to chew over while they’re still fresh.

1. Vincenzo Nibali could have beaten anyone
There’s been endless column inches devoted to Nibali’s performance, and debate over whether he could have beaten Chris Froome and Alberto Contador.

He would have won anyway. He was just so utterly in control, never put under pressure by a rider near him on GC.

And what about his victory margin? Isn’t that a bit sus?

Well, Nibali did win easily, but imagine a hypothetical crash-free ‘Dream Tour’ scenario where Nibali won, defeating both Froome and Contador. You would expect them to make up the podium, sitting somewhere between Nibali and Peraud.

In this scenario, Nibali’s margin to a hypothetically fourth-placed Peraud (7’37”) is a fair bit less than the 10’15” that Bradley Wiggins took out of Jurgen van den Broeck who came fourth in 2012.

Good riders can take big chunks of time, even from other strong riders: Froome beat fifth-placed Contador by 6’27” in 2013; and Wiggins took 6’19” from third-placed Nibali in 2012.

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So Nibali’s 2014 Tour is certainly on the high side for winning margins, but given who was missing and the lack of quality in depth in this race, it doesn’t seem that unreasonable.

If that’s not enough to convince you, how about this: Nibali rode for 5,399 minutes in this Tour, or nearly 90 hours. He won by 7’37”. That’s a margin of 0.1 per cent of his total time.

2. Team Sky’s morale is looking shaky
The Sky stranglehold is broken. If Chris Froome’s crashes and withdrawal were bad luck, it’s a failure of planning that Sky didn’t have a credible backup.

I desperately wanted Richie Porte to step up, and he’s still capable of a podium result at the Tour one day, but his season just hasn’t gone to plan and it became obvious that he was underdone far too early in the Tour. Illness caught up with him and the hard competitive edge seemed to vanish.

The toughness of Geraint Thomas and Vasili Kiryienka just weren’t enough to salvage a result from this Tour.

Meanwhile, Sir Bradley Wiggins sulked off to the Commonwealth Games and seems so miffed by the whole situation that he told the BBC that he’s had enough of serious road racing:

“The road is quite cut-throat. The track feels more like a family and a closer-knit group of people.”

That’s a statement we might as well translate to “F*@% you!” in the general direction of Froome and Dave Brailsford.

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Fine, we all knew Wiggins was stroppy, but I was surprised to see British Champion Peter Kennaugh publicly criticising Team Sky for not backing him for a Tour spot:

“I feel like I’ve already proved what I can do, I don’t feel like I need to prove myself anymore. It’s starting to get frustrating when the team says things like ‘you need to go and prove yourself’.”

From the outside it’s starting to look like Team Sky’s disappointing Tour is a symptom of a deeper malaise, not just a spot of bad luck.

3. The French and Germans are here
Seven stage wins to German riders.

Four to Marcel Kittel, which settles the debate about who is the best sprinter in the world.

Two to Tony Martin, who will be truly scary if he starts winning road stages as easily as he wins time trials.

One to Andre Greipel, who never really looked in his best form after an injury-hit preparation, but still managed to grab Stage 6.

Perhaps German television should start to forgive its nation’s cyclists of the sins committed by Jan Ullrich, Erik Zabel, Stefan Schumacher and Co. by showing the Tour de France live again.

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Come on, they’ve earned it!

The French are also – rightfully – ecstatic about having not one but two – two – riders on the Tour de France podium, for the first time since Laurent Fignon and Bernard Hinault stood on the top two places in 1984.

Jean-Christophe Peraud hit undoubtedly the high point of his road career (he is an Olympic silver medallist in mountain biking), but at 37 it’s difficult to see him coming back to improve his place. Thibaut Pinot is an altogether more exciting prospect, especially now that he seems to have overcome his fear of descending.

Add Romain Bardet (sixth) and Pierre Rolland (eleventh backing up after fourth at the Giro d’Italia), the heroics of Tony Gallopin to wear yellow and win a stage, Blel Kadri’s stage win, and the overall teams classification victory of the extraordinary French team AG2R.

Two stage wins, two podium places and a top ten, and the teams classification.

There’s quite a few reasons to tip the beret at a jaunty angle and sing La Marseillaise.

Can they hold a podium place against the likes of Froome, Contador, Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Uran or a fresh Rafal Majka? Perhaps not, but Bardet and Pinot should have plenty of good years ahead of them.

Even without Thomas Voeckler’s sex face.

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4. La Course was a success, but there’s plenty to improve
I confess that I watched the women’s La Course race on the Champs Elysees with more excitement than I could muster for the men’s race to follow. So many people have worked so hard to get this event to happen, and the buzz from the women involved in the race was utterly infectious.

A race in front of the crowds and cameras on the biggest day of cycling in the world is a hell of a thing. It built on the mainstream success of the women’s Tour of Britain. The racing was aggressive and the sport’s most marketable superstar won.

But I’ve got no doubt that many of its backers will now be determined to ratchet up the race for next year. A criterium race in front of big crowds and with global TV coverage is pretty cool, but it’s not even close to the spectacle or sporting challenge of the men’s Tour.

The next step should be a short stage race finishing with the Paris criterium, again as a curtain-raiser to the men.

5. Cycling still has a serious trust deficit
It’s becoming clear that for many viewers, winning the Tour de France is proof enough that a rider is doping. That’s especially true when his victory margin and superiority are so clear that it looks like his rivals are stuck riding steel bikes from the 1980s.

You only need to spend five minutes on social media or reading the comments here and elsewhere to see how deeply engrained the cynicism has become.

We are talking about a rider with a proven record in Grand Tours; a gradual, consistent and methodical progression to the top; no history of doping; and with the only two riders who have seriously challenged him in the last two years absent.

Before the Tour, if you had asked most keen observers who would win if not Froome or Contador, I would bet almost all would have said Nibali.

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Regardless, there is a significant minority of fans that place no trust in this performance.

It doesn’t help that he rides for a team with a bad reputation, run by an individual with a worse one.

It also doesn’t help that riders from Sky (Jonathan Tiernan-Locke), Orica-GreenEDGE (Daryl Impey) and Tinkoff-Saxo (Roman Kreuziger) were all sanctioned by anti-doping in the weeks leading up to the Tour. It’s a bad look.

And like it or not, when people see a rider like Michael Rogers winning stages a few months after returning from a well-publicised drug ban, they assume the worst. It doesn’t matter that he was found to be not guilty of doping, and it’s not fair, but people just assume it’s another case of the UCI sweeping things under the rug.

It is hard to see how cycling can reverse this trust deficit while the likes of Alexander Vinokourov, Bjarne Riis and even Matt White remain in control of teams. For now, we all wait with bated breath until the samples collected during the race have been analysed and cleared.

What can cycling do to recover its shaken credibility? Would a truth and reconciliation process really help convince the average punter that cycling has cleaned up its act, or would it just be another bad news story that tightens that old association of ‘cycling’ with ‘doping’ in the minds of casual fans?

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