The final Grand Tour of the cycling season begins tonight with the 2020 edition of the Vuelta España.
There’ll be lots of reflective words written on the 102nd edition of the Tour de France, which for me is the best we’ve seen since 2011.
And while last night the sprinters enjoyed what, for this Tour at least, was a rare day (albeit a wet one) for them for them to shine, the enduring memories of this race do not come from the fast men.
Saturday night’s epic dash up Alpe d’Huez, the 29th time this 13.8km climb has featured in le Tour, was as good as you’d want or expect to see.
Everyone expected Nairo Quintana to attack Chris Froome in the hope he could snatch the yellow jersey in the most dramatic fashion, and we weren’t disappointed in what we saw.
Realistically, Froome’s 2:38 advantage was always going to be too much for the white jersey wearer to overcome, but gee, Quintana didn’t die wondering.
After making an initial attempt on the Col de la Croix de Fer, Quintana launched with 12.4km to go on Alpe d’Huez.
After initially struggling to escape the clutches of Wouter Poels and Richie Porte, Quintana broke the elastic, but with Porte staying strong Froome never panicked. He was able to ride mostly at his own pace knowing that Quintana would have to do something incredible to steal the yellow jersey.
And so it proved.
Quintana managed to snatch back 1:22 (plus a six-second time bonus) but was still 1:12 shy of what he needed.
If Quintana had taken back the 2:38, it would’ve meant he’d climbed Alpe d’Huez in 38:11, the seventh fastest time.
Ahead of him would be Marco Pantani with the top three times, Lance Armstrong with the fourth and sixth fastest, sandwiching Jan Ulrich’s climb in 1997.
But Quintana could “only” do a 39:23, for the 22nd quickest ascent, an effort bested by riders including Miguel Indurain, Bjarne Riis, Alex Zulle, Floyd Landis, Richard Virenque, Carlos Sastre, Iban Mayo, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden.
Looking at that list I’m glad Quintana was the 22nd fastest.
For all the claims, rumours and innuendo that have swirled around both Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome for the past two years, in historical terms, no one “flew” up that mountain on Saturday night, not even the Colombian.
In 1995, when Pantani rode a 36:50, the stage was 162.5km. Two years later when Ulrich rode a 37:42, it was a mighty 203.5km. And Floyd Landis’ 38:36 in 2006 was at the end of a 187km stage.**
On Saturday night, Alpe d’Huez was the climax of a 110km stage.
So maybe that was what gave Quintana an edge or, ssssshhhhh, don’t tell anyone, maybe he had a secret motor stashed in his bike?
Rumours of “mechanical doping” have been around in cycling for a few years, just ask Fabian Cancellara who copped a heap of innuendo after some of his dominating performances in the Classics.
So far, no evidence has been found. Nonetheless, the UCI has checked bikes at the Tour de France. They just haven’t checked very many. Prior to Stage 19, there had only been bike inspections across four stages.
Just 25 tests were carried out. Only one of those four was a mountain stage and it wasn’t Stage 10.
For the record, I don’t believe Quintana is a mechanical doper, but to silence the doubters all podium places on a mountain stage should have their bikes inspected.
Before we leave the events of Stage 20 behind, does the ASO have to reconsider its crowd control measure on climbs like Alpe d’Huez?
There are some mythical climbs in Tour de France history, but none captures the imagination like Alpe d’Huez.
Dutch corner and numerous other switchbacks and ramps are so incredibly crammed with fans, it’s a wonder they can step aside when the riders fly past.
Do the riders like the fans so close on the climbs?
Of course they don’t.
Do all the fans that cram the roads have good intentions towards the riders? No, they don’t.
And when you have such a potentially decisive stage as Saturday night, it is simply too much of a risk to have fans get so close to the riders.
There are barriers along the route for the final four kilometres, but for stages like Alpe d’Huez, they need to erect them a lot further down the hill, and particularly around Dutch corner.
What do you think the Gruppetto made of Dutch corner?
There were around 25 riders in the final group that crossed the line nearly 24 minutes after stage winner Thibaut Pinot. You could imagine them riding in single file it was so crazy.
Anyway, one of those was Orica-GreenEDGE’s Michael Matthews.
Along with Adam Hansen who finished just over two and half minutes in front of Matthews, those two Aussies have just finished the best race of their lives.
Not because they won anything, but because they finished.
Broken ribs and a separated AC joint in your shoulder are both hellish injuries for cyclists.
Matthews could barely breathe for a week, while Hansen could hardly grip the handlebars. Just how they both managed the cobbles on Stage 4, let alone, all the mountain stages that followed is beyond me. Such was Hansen’s pain he rode the Team Time Trial on his road bike and even until a few days ago, couldn’t climb out of his saddle to sprint.
When I copped a separated AC joint, I didn’t ride at all for a month.
No question, Aussie riders are the toughest. Chapeau times two.
Also chapeau to Alberto Contador, the man who tried and failed.
I’m not sure anyone really believed it was possible to win the Giro and Tour in the same year, but Alberto obviously thought he could.
And while Contador continued to talk up his chances, and we saw flashes of his brilliance, they were only fleeting and he never really threatened Froome’s grip on the Maillot Jaune.
This Tour proved conclusively the “double” can’t be done.
Contador expressed no regrets and refused to concede the double is impossible, but I reckon unless they take all the mountains out of the Giro, or insist on the same riders doing both races, then it ain’t going to happen.
“I don’t think it’s impossible to do the double but it’s really complicated because nobody has the experience on how to prepare it”, he said.
“However, I prefer having tried than being left with a desire to do it.”
“The main problem was the requirements of the Giro. I think that this Giro was very hard from the beginning due to Astana’s performance and left me exhausted every day with long time trials and the final week, which was marked by extraordinary efforts,” Contador added.
“As a result, although my mind wanted to proceed, my body needed more rest.”
I don’t know about Contador, but after three weeks of super-late nights glued to the TV, my body, and eyes are also due for some R and R.
As are yours, I’m sure.
**Despite what we now know about Lance Armstrong’s career, his fastest Alpe d’Huez time in 2004 (37:36) wasn’t included in this piece because the stage was a 15.5km time-trial.