Monday, July 23, 2012

2012 Tour de France Wrap-Up

"I have started many stories about bicycle racing, but none of them are as good as the actual races."

Ernest Hemingway,
from A Moveable Feast

In this reporter's opinion, the Tour de France is the world's greatest annual sporting event. I say annual because you have to give the Olympics and the World Cup the nod in terms of importance and glamour, but those are held every four years. The Tour is watched on television by one billion people, worldwide, every year. Another 20 million will watch the event in person, every year. The spectacle is unlike anything else in sports--a three week caravan of controlled chaos. The stadium for it all is the French countryside, which undoubtably makes for the most beautiful arena in sports. In the mountains, human suffering is on display when they climb ridiculously steep roads, followed by thrilling, high speed descents with 1,000 foot drop-offs and no guard rails. On the flat stages, you see crazy, elbow to elbow sprints at 40 mph. The race's history is as colorful as any sports.

Having said all of that, this reporter must also say that the 2012 edition of the Tour de France was the most boring I've ever seen. I still enjoyed the race, but more for the helicopter shots of the beautiful countryside and the familiar voices of Phil and Paul than for the drama of the race.

The main problem with the race was that there was just one legitimate contender, and he won. Bradley Wiggins was a deserving winner, no doubt. He won both long time trials, a solid indication that he was the strongest man in the race. He did what he had to do in the mountains. He won in the exact manner of Miguel Indurain--stay with the best in the mountains, then beat them soundly in the time trials. But even Indurain had his rivals--Chiappucci, Rominger, and a young Pantani. Wiggins had only one serious rival going into this year's race, the defending champ Cadel Evans. But Evans had not looked like a potential Tour winner all season. By his own admission, his offseason was quite hectic and stressful, highlighted by the adoption of a son. I never thought that Cadel would win a second Tour. He had chased that carrot for so long that, upon finally winning the race at age 34, I'm sure he felt that his life's work was complete. When you win your first Tour in your 20's, you think about winning five or six, but not when you win your first in your mid-30's.

Vincenzo Nibali? Never a threat. The Italian climber couldn't even get rid of Wiggins in the mountains, and got hammered in the time trials. Same thing for Belgian hope Jurgen Van Den Broeck. Same thing for Tejay van Garderen, the new American hope, who finished fifth. Tejay, just 23, won the white jersey for Best Young Rider. Greg LeMond, won the white jersey in 1984 at age 24, then became the first American to win the yellow jersey two years later. Tejay seems to be on the right path. We've always known he can climb, and this year he showed that he can be among the best in the time trial, which of course is key.

And that brings us to Chris Froome, teammate of Wiggins, who finished second overall. The only drama in this race was the Wiggins vs Froome drama, because on a couple of mountain stages it looked as though Froome could drop Wiggins if he had wanted to. Bernard Hinault then says that Sky was riding for the wrong guy because Froome was stronger. But was he really?

I didn't like the way Froome rode in this race. There is no denying his strength, but he rode like a spaz. It was like watching someone who has great natural ability but who was in a bike race for the first time--his accelerations in front of Wiggins when he was supposed to be "pacing" him were ridiculous. His antics on Stage 17 were embarrassing--he kept accelerating way ahead of Wiggins, then turning around and waving to the yellow jersey to "come on and catch up." It's like he wanted to whole world to say "Wow! Look how strong Froome is! He's dropping the maillot jaune!" If I had been Wiggins, I would have punched him at the finish line. You don't disrespect the yellow jersey like that. I loved it that Wiggins put 1:16 into Froome in the final time trial--a nice exclamation point on his statement as to who really was the strongest in this race. Froome will probably switch teams for next year, and come back to try to beat Wiggins, which will make for a great race. I'll be rooting for Wiggins.

Wiggins won me over in general. I thought it was a class move when he patted Nibali on the back at the end of a mountain stage after Nibali had said some harsh things about Wiggins in the press--it was something a race leader does. I loved it when Wiggins would lead out Cavendish or EBH in the sprint finish--very cool to see the yellow jersey sacrificing himself for those who've worked so hard for him for three weeks. And, I liked how Wiggins told everyone to slow down and wait for Evans when some idiot had tossed tacks onto the road forcing Evans to deal with three different flat tires. Wiggins behaved like a solid Tour leader throughout.

Other quick thoughts: Cav is still the fastest sprinter I've ever seen, and with 23 stage wins to his credit, he may one day break Eddy Merckx's Tour record of 34. Peter Sagan is unbeatable in an uphill finish. He looks like the kind of rider that should dominate the classics like Flanders for years to come. And, I thought it was great that Thomas Voeckler won the mountains classification--he's good for the Tour. He's French, he's old-school, and he's alway up for a breakaway.

We were all spoiled by last year's race. The 2011 edition was the best since 1989. Evans, Schleck and Contador put on a great show, just like LeMond, Fignon and Delgado did in '89. When you have three legitimate contenders, you'll probably get a very good race. Even with just two legitimate contenders, you're likely in for a treat (think Armstrong-Ullrich, Anquetil-Poulidor, Coppi-Bartali). But when you have just one man who can win the race, you are likely in for a snoozer. Before this year, 2002 was the most boring race I had seen. That year, Armstrong had no Ullrich, and the race was a formality. You were, at the very least, watching Armstrong make history winning his fourth in a row. Likewise, we at least had history made this year as Wiggins became the first British rider to win the Tour, which was nice to see (especially for long-suffering British bike racing fans like Phil and Paul, who did a nice job throughout of hiding how giddy they must have actually been).

Next year we might get Wiggins vs Froome vs van Garderen vs Contador vs Schleck, which could be terrific. I'm willing to sit through a boring 2012 Tour with a race like that a distinct possibility next summer. Vive le Tour!