Blazin' Saddles: Why the 2018 Tour de France will be much better
After another victory for Chris Froome and further domination for Team Sky, Felix Lowe explains why next year's Tour de France will be so much better.
If this year’s Grande Boucle was far from vintage, it wasn’t exactly plonk either. After three weeks of occasionally exciting riding and the odd episode bordering on the dramatic, Chris Froome popped the cork on a fourth win – but here’s why we may end up toasting his charge for a fifth Tour title more than the frustrating edition we have just seen.
First things first: there was a lot to celebrate about the 2017 Tour de France.
First-time French victories for Arnaud Demare, Lilian Calmejane and Warren Barguil – who followed up his glorious Bastille Day scalp with an even more memorable win on the Izoard – will linger long in the memory.
Two nail-biting stages decided by photo finishes – including one where the winning margin was but 0.0003 seconds, or 6mm – kept fans second-guessing, and were brought full circle by both those ‘losers’ (Edvald Boasson Hagen and Barguil) turning things around before the end of the race.
An exciting battle for the green jersey – thanks to Marcel Kittel’s sprinting prowess and Michael Matthews’ versatility – partly made up for the early departure of Peter Sagan. And who can forget the breakaway exploits of indefatigable Belgian Thomas De Gendt – even if the Super-Combatif jury inexplicably overlooked his 1,000+ kilometres out in front of the peloton.
The 104th edition of the Tour did throw up a plethora of interesting issues, too – from race etiquette and the unwritten rules to course design and the perils of total live coverage, via the hot-potato topics of jury inconsistency (that Sagan disqualification), chauvinism (all those boos for Froome in Marseille), budget caps (Team Sky’s continued domination) and even the French police’s attitude towards Colombians running along the side of the road.
But the 2017 Tour – despite being the second fastest edition of the race’s history (40.99km/h) and the seventh narrowest winning advantage (54 seconds) – was also a cagey affair with very little suspense and way too many flat and tiresome stages unnecessarily longer than 200km.
So, without further ado, here’s why the 2018 edition of the Tour will be far better than the Tour we have just witnessed…
Froome’s cloak of invincibility has been torn
Coming into the race undercooked and without a win all season, Froome was made to work harder than ever before to win his fourth Tour. His winning margin of 54 seconds was the most precarious of all his victories to date; unlike his podium rivals Rigoberto Uran and Romain Bardet, he didn’t win a stage; while the difference was made against the clock – in a Tour with fewer time trial kilometres than ever before.
It’s clear that Froome is still the best Grand Tour rider of his generation – but his generation is getting on. When Eddy Merckx won his fifth Tour, he was 29; both Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault were 30; old boy Miguel Indurain was 31. If Froome is to join them in the five-Tour club he will do so aged 33 – and only one rider (Cadel Evans, 34) has been older and won a Tour in the post-War era.
In short, gone are the days when Froome can put in a seated uphill surge and win the queen stage of the Tour. Indeed, now it seems like his weapon of choice is neutralising his rivals by having a mechanical.
Too harsh? Time will tell. Perhaps Froome was just weighed down by carrying that chap’s wedding ring around with him throughout the race; perhaps he always aimed to win this Tour on a half tank, so he could hit peak form for the Vuelta – a race he has yet to win. But it does seem that the sands of time are no longer in Froome’s favour.
Team Sky won’t be as strong
Remarkably, Sky won the team classification for only the first time on Sunday – even though Luke Rowe mirrored Froome’s overall victory by finishing the race as Lanterne Rouge. The British team may have been less easy to spot without their trademark black jerseys, but Sky still bossed most of the race.
But next year they will be without the Spanish Mikels as both Nieve and Landa move on to pastures new: the former to Orica-Scott and the latter, it seems, to Movistar – or, in his words, “To a team that wants me as its leader”.
Mikel Landa with Chris FroomeGetty Images
Landa, who missed out on a place on the podium by just one second, was one of the strongest riders of the race – playing the role Froome played to Bradley Wiggins in 2012. Losing Landa will be a double blow for Sky: not only will they lose a key lieutenant, they will face him as a direct opponent (to use a football analogy, it’s reminiscent of Arsenal selling Robin van Persie to Manchester United).
Sky still have Wout Poels coming back plus there is talk of them trying to sign a rider in the Barguil mould. But it’s hard seeing them any stronger than they were this July. It’s not as if the exceptional Michal Kwiatkowski can improve on what he already did, is it?
Quintana won’t be on the back-end of a wretched double
Three times on the podium in France, Nairo Quintana chose a terrible year to go for the Giro-Tour double. Not only did he come up against a superb Tom Dumoulin in a Giro heavy on time trials, he entered one of the most open Tours in recent years completely overcooked.
Nairo QuintanaGetty Images
An in-form Quintana would have probably ensured that second-placed Uran was not the best-placed Colombian over the three weeks. Instead, he looked like a pale imitation of the rider we once thought he was going to be. Having ridden four consecutive Grand Tours, Quintana will now wisely miss the next two. And when he returns at next year’s Tour, it will be to win it – not to pedal squares en route to finishing 12th.
Porte – and Martin – will be hungrier than ever
One of the tragedies of the Tour was that the man who could well have pushed Froome all the way – and certainly spiced things up in the mountains – crashed out so early on during that frenetic day in Stage 9 to Chambery.
Richie Porte’s high-speed crash on the descent of Mont du Chat also severely hampered the chances of the one rider who attacked each stage as if it were a one-day classic. Dan Martin’s tactics may not suit a race that traditionally rewards conservatism, but at least the Irishman was bent on making the Tour less of a precession to Paris with Froome in yellow.
While Porte’s no spring chicken – and while he’s still to finish on a podium in a Grand Tour – he is perhaps the one rider who knows Froome enough to really take the race to him. If he and Martin can avoid such incidents that befell them in the Jura, then the race will be all the better for it.
Aru will build on a break-through race
Like Froome, Fabio Aru came into the Tour undercooked and it really showed in the third week. Unlike Froome, the Italian had no team support to speak of – particularly when both Jakob Fuglsang and Dario Cataldo, his mountain lieutenants, were ruled out after the most unnecessary of crashes in the feed zone after the second rest day.
If his attack when Froome suffered a mechanical was borderline lamentable, Aru at least showed his class by riding into yellow at Peyragudes in Stage 12. A fitter Aru – with a stronger team around him (whether that’s at Astana or elsewhere) – will see the 27-year-old build on his best Tour finish (fifth place) to date.
Dumoulin – and others – will add a whole new dynamic
When the race entered its tiresome pattern of Froome, Uran and Bardet riding together as if attached by an invisible chord, the Tour was crying out for more protagonists capable of infiltrating the status quo. We really could have done with the strength and belief of Tom Dumoulin, the panache of Vincenzo Nibali, the flight-footedness of a fully fit Esteban Chaves – riders who, in different circumstances, could really have ignited the 2016 parcours.
Tom Dumoulin celebrates winning the Giro d'ItaliaGetty Images
Next year we have the prospect of a chastened and more experienced Chaves lining up alongside both Simon and Adam Yates at Orica-Scott; we have the alluring possibility of Dumoulin and Barguil in a two-pronged Sunweb assault; we have a fully focused Nibali with a luckier Ion Izaguirre at Bahrain-Merida – not to mention, perhaps, both Quintana and Landa together at Movistar, with Alejandro Valverde’s evergreen and ever-attacking support.
There will be fewer 200km stages for the sprinters
The Tour route-makers shouldn’t be overly criticised for trying something new – after all, had more top sprinters stayed in the race, we would surely have witnessed more than a daily Marcel Kittel masterclass.
Either way, ASO will have learned from their mistakes and – given the fresh challenges of entertaining a TV audience from start to finish – we’re likely to see shorter, more intense stages, and not a succession of flat schleps where riders can’t even be bothered to get into a break.
Starting on French soil in the Vendee in north-west France will help: the race will not have to stretch itself out as it did on the way back from Germany. Instead we should see a traditional anti-clockwise route that features more stages in the Pyrenees, a return to the popular Massif Central, and an Alpine crown featuring more of the race’s legendary peaks.
The experiment with fewer summit finishes and more descents was neither a success nor an unqualified failure; perhaps a compromise is needed with summit finishes on unknown peaks, with descents capped with one final short ramp before the finish. Or more short stages such as the Bastille Day bonanza to Foix.
After the frustration voiced by fans over the 2016 route, however, ASO will be forced to come up with something both special and a little different.
Kittel may have some opposition
Fans looking forward to a prolonged showdown between Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish had their hopes dashed quicker than you can spot a Sagan elbow in Vittel. Cavendish has vouched to fight back in a bid to become the Tour’s all-time most prolific stage winner, while Kittel’s five triumphs this year showed that he’s the current fastest man on two wheels.
But with Fernando Gaviria knocking on the door, the absent Bryan Coquard chomping at the bit, and Dylan Groenewegen now emboldened by a Champs-Elysees win, the sprint battles next year should be fiercer than ever – particularly if Arnaud Demare can build in his own maiden win, and Sagan comes back fighting.
Sagan will be back but Matthews will have belief
Losing someone with the charisma of the world champion was always going to be a blow for the Tour – even if, ultimately, it paved the way to a much more intriguing battle for green than the past five years of Sagan domination. Returning to the race that kicked him out so controversially, Sagan will come up against his successor in Michael Matthews, as well as the usual suspects.
Given this year’s abundance of flat sprints, we can also expect an increase of punchy finishes that bring the best out of Messieurs Sagan and Matthews – so 2018 should not all be about Kittel and Cavendish, for sure.
A new era for the host nation
Five stage wins, a polka dot jersey and the first French victory on Bastille Day since 2005, the hosts had a strong Tour – even if Bardet ultimately came up short in embarrassing fashion in Marseille.
If perennial French favourite Thomas Voeckler bade farewell to the race on Sunday, next year should see Sylvain Chavanel follow his team-mate out of the exit door after a record-breaking 18th consecutive Tour – a symbolic end to an era whose reins have already been handed over to the likes of Calmejane, Bardet and Barguil.
While France still look some way away from witnessing their first winner of the Tour since 1985 – the year Froome was born – then they are at least capable, now, of winning stages and competing on all fronts. Bardet’s second consecutive podium finish was capped by the first French polka dot jersey in five years and the first French sprint victory since 2003.
All of the above are reasons to get excited about the next Tour – now less than 350 days away…