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.
For the fifth consecutive year we had a new face atop the podium in Paris – and this time, Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali was flanked by that recent rarity in pro cycling: two Frenchmen at contrasting poles of their careers.
Now the dust has settled from the past three-odd weeks in France, Yorkshire, and south-east England, it’s time to ruminate over the pros and cons of this year’s Tour de France.
First up: the five major positives about the 2014 Tour.
In Nibali we had a worthy, credible winner
On the face of things – and in particular, on the Italian’s unruffled face as he seemingly eased to a medley of mountain-top victories looking barely breathless in the fierce French heat – Vincenzo Nibali’s total domination of the Tour set alarm bells ringing.
Four stage wins, 18 out of a possible 20 days in yellow, and the biggest winning margin since Jan Ullrich in his pomp – Nibali’s dominance had the usual armchair trolls gasping in disbelief.
But I saw a rider in his prime taking the kind of time chunks of far lesser riders who – prior to the race – he and his co-favourites were expected to dominate. That Alberto Contador and Chris Froome crashed out gave Nibali’s performances an extra sheen – not taking anything away from the Sicilian who, lest we forget, had both former Tour winners on the ropes even before his commanding ride across the cobbles in Stage 5.
Rather than Nibali beating the likes of Jean-Christophe Peraud and Thibaut Pinot in the mountains, what was perhaps more noteworthy was the fact that both Frenchmen could keep up with the Italian for so long in the first place. What’s more, Nibali’s winning time on the Hautacam was considerably slower than any of the sullied but superior efforts from the EPO era.
Nibali’s win did not come from nowhere; the 29-year-old has been on an upward trajectory since his victory in the Vuelta a Espana in 2010. He secured his maiden Grand Tour without a single stage scalp; on the grandest stage of all, there was no way Nibali was going to win the yellow jersey in the same way Peter Sagan won the green.
After years of hurt the host nation finally delivers
For years all the French had to get excited about was Richard Virenque’s annual (asterisked) assault on the polka dot jersey, Christophe Moreau not popping in the high mountains (also asterisked) and Thomas Voeckler’s game attacks between his unexpected dual 10-day stints in yellow.
This year that all changed. Stepping our of the shadows of the big name withdrawals, France ended up with two men on the podium for the first time since Laurent Fignon beat Bernard Hinault in the 1984 Tour. Before Jean-Christophe Peraud and Thibaut Pinot’s run on the podium got into full flow, Blel Kadri had pulled off a magnificent solo win, before Tony Gallopin’s heroics put a Frenchman in yellow on Bastille Day.
Having given Nibali 24 hours off to wash his ubiquitous yellow jersey – the Italian apparently wearing the same jersey for each of his 18 days as race leader – Gallopin added a daring stage win of his own on a day that saw four Frenchman adorn the top ten.
All of a sudden, Europcar’s plucky breaks through the likes of Voeckler and his heir apparent, Cyril Gautier, seemed something of an anachronism: with Jean-Rene Bernaudeau’s men fighting for scraps and exposure, Ag2R-La Mondiale and FDJ were suddenly having a bearing on the general classification with their excellent collective racing.
Pinot and fellow youngster Romain Bardet impressed going both uphill and – Shock! For a notoriously wary descender like Pinot – down, while Peraud (an old hand with a young rider’s mentality stemming from his late arrival on the road racing scene) shadowed Nibali throughout the Pyrenees, growing in stature and belief every day.
Three riders in the top six is a great cause of excitement in France, and firm foundations for future growth. After all, the rider seen by many as the most talented of the bunch, Warren Barguil, has still to make his Tour debut.
Record-breaking Germany can usher in a new era
In the wake of the doping scandals that engulfed much of the first decade of this millennium – especially those involving the public-funded T-Mobile squad – German free-to-air TV pulled the plug on the Tour in 2011.
Last year’s race would take some beating, as Marcel Kittel won four stages alongside scalps from Andre Greipel and Tony Martin. It wasn’t enough to switch German TV back on, which meant a nation missed out on Germany’s biggest ever haul of stage wins in a single Tour, when Kittel repeated his four-stage salvo either side of Martin’s emphatic brace and a solitary sprint win for national champion Greipel.
The successes of a young, believable and highly marketable star like Kittel is enough to end the boycott: German TV will return to the Tour in 2015 in what is as good a sign as any that cycling is taking huge steps forward following its troubled recent past.
Wonderful individual performances kept the narrative alive
From Dutchman Lars Boom lighting up the rain-soaked cobbles of northern France and Italian Matteo Trentin giving his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team a boost after the early setback of losing Mark Cavendish in Harrogate, the 2014 Tour was brimming with superb pieces of individual brilliance.
Double stage winners Alexander Kristoff and Rafal Majka showed their class by excelling at what they do best – the Norwegian by careful positioning, persistence and very fast sprinting; the Pole by winking and dancing his way through the Alps and Pyrenees, only once using a motorbike antenna to supplement his attack with an unnecessary slingshot up to Pla d’Adet.
Michael Rogers added to the Tinkoff resurgence after Contador’s withdrawal, while both Gallopin and Ramunas Navardauskas were rewarded for powerful, brave and audacious attacks – staving off expected bunch sprints and taking the race deliciously off script.
The route was a humdinger
Starting with the “greatest Grand Depart” of them all, before hitting the cobbles ahead of stints in four mountain ranges – the Vosges, Jura, Alps and Pyrenees – there’s no denying that the 2014 course was both varied and demanding.
A lot has been said – both before and after – about the cobbles having no place on a three-week Grand Tour, but no one can deny that Stage 5 of the race was more dramatic than perhaps anything we have witnessed in recent years. In fact, that it was better than recent editions of Paris-Roubaix says it all.
Of course, cobbles should be used sparingly: too frequent an appearance and they will lose their allure; but just as some editions of the Tour cater more for time triallists and others more for pure climbers, there should be an allocation for taking the race over everything that France has to offer. And if that’s some narrow, cobbled farm tracks in the bleak north, then every once in a while, so be it.
That different editions of the Tour can suit different styles of riders is only a positive thing for an event which can – as we saw in 2012 – get very predicable. While back on the subject of Yorkshire, the opening two stages in the north of England will no doubt prove to be a complete game-changer in the way ASO devises their routes in the years to come.
And now, five reasons why the 2014 Tour was rather disappointing.
What happened to the rivalries?
The public were denied the expected two-way tussle in the mountains after the two pre-race favourites crashed out before the first major summit finish. Meanwhile, the man who the script had down to take the Tour’s first yellow jersey in his mother’s home town of Harrogate instead saw his shoulder separated and his dreams crushed in a moment of hot-headed aggression that paved the way for Kittel to continue the sprint domination that he unleashed in 2013.
Nothing can be taken away from Nibali and Kittel – they both proved extraordinary champions – but there’s no denying that the race would (or at least, could) have been a more fiery affair had Cavendish, Froome and Contador managed to stay on their bikes.
The battle for green was almost non-existent
In recent years it has been the polka dot jersey that has lost some of its mystique, with journeymen not especially renowned for their climbing abilities – I’m thinking the likes of Anthony Charteau and Voeckler – taking the king of the mountains competition. Well, victories for Nairo Quintana and now Majka have seemed to stem this tide of the breakaway KOM winner.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of the green jersey competition, which has become rather predicable. Since he made his debut on the Tour three years ago, Peter Sagan has led the points classification for 55 out of 63 stages – pretty impressive when you take into account no one wears the jersey on the opening day of the race.
In 2012, Sagan won three times and last year just the once; this year, the Slovakian tyro was more famous for his four second-places and his ability to turn opportunity after opportunity into a loss. That Sagan didn’t even win a stage and still cantered to the green jersey does admittedly underline his admirable consistency (the 24-year-old finished in the top ten in 11 out of 21 stages). But it also shows us that something is perhaps amiss with the green jersey competition, which is in need of a reboot.
Put simply: quadruple stage winner Kittel finished below Bryan Coquard in the green jersey standings – and, taking nothing away from the French debutant’s dogged persistence in the intermediate sprints, that does seem a bit remiss.
Big teams not rising to the occasion
The Astana team of yellow jersey Nibali finished with a full quota of men – with the likes of Jakob Fuglsang and Michele Scarponi continuing despite hefty falls. But the majority of the other so-called super teams flattered to deceive.
Team Sky tried to rally around the out-of-sorts Richie Porte once leader Froome crashed out – and when that failed the likes of Vasil Kiryienka, Geraint Thomas and Mikel Nieve made a series of gutsy, if flawed, attempts to keep the sponsors happy.
But for a strong opening day in the Pyrenees, where they dictated play on the Port de Bales, the Movistar team of Alejandro Valverde were as lacklustre as their team leader.
The exception to the rule was Tinkoff-Saxo, who regrouped to deliver three thrilling wins through Rogers and Majka (twice), which were enough to make oddball owner Oleg Tinkov weep on live French TV.
Perhaps the ultimate indictment to Movistar and Sky was that they were outperformed and outshone by both FDJ and Ag2R-La Mondiale – two French teams whose GC credentials were hardly ebullient going into the race.
Lack of British talent out of sync with the occasion
With two British riders winning the previous two Tours – plus the world’s biggest bike race starting on British soil – you’d have expected more than just the four British riders taking to the start in Leeds (not to mention been puzzled by the absence of Bradley Wiggins, the man largely responsible for the current resurgence of cycling in the UK).
Cavendish and Froome’s short-lived Tours cut the British tally down to two – and when Simon Yates was reluctantly pulled form the race by his protective Orica-GreenEDGEteam on the second rest day, the British contingent was down to the solitary rangy figure of Welshman Geraint Thomas.
The result was perhaps inevitable: for the first time since 2007 there were no British stage winners on the Tour.
The worrying craze of supporter selfies
While the millions of fans who lined the roads in Yorkshire broke all records for the Tour, there can be no denying that the amount of spectators insisting upon turning their back to the action while taking photos of themselves was both cringeworthy and dangerous.
Collisions with camera-wielding fans were two a penny in the opening week, with Simon Gerrans, Ted King and Andy Schleck all hitting the deck in one incident in London. Roy Curvers somehow avoided crashing after colliding with a man in Stage 2, while Vincenzo Nibali clipped a girl speaking on the phone during his victorious ride to Hautacam.
Geraint Thomas described the selfie craze as yet another “new pain in the arse” for the peloton. There’s no doubt the nervousness it inspired brought out the worse in some riders: Navardauskas swatted phones from the hands of fans in Yorkshire, while Marcel Sieberg deliberately shouldered a man’s camera to the ground en route to London.
Thankfully, Kevin Reza was on hand to pick up the camera and ride along filming his teammates before handing it to his directeur sportif in the his team car.
Vincenzo Nibali may has eased to the overall victory but it was the most exciting Tour in recent years and a far cry from the Sky-dominated snore-fests of late.
Perhaps the best thing about the 2014 Tour was that it delivered on both spectacle and intrigue: despite the convincing win, the race was unpredictable and compelling – offering a sneak preview of things to come and whetting the appetite for future Tours.
As such, this Tour of renewal can perhaps act as a stepping stone to a new era of open racing – one in which French riders may have a role to play.
It may have been a brutal race which took its toll on many, but the overall feel seemed free from the usual stresses that have soured proceedings; indeed, there was very little talk of doping to cast a shadow.
In this respect, the very lack of a positive (to date) was arguably the biggest positive of them all.