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Roundtable: How good was 2017 Tour? Should cycling cap budgets?

The 2017 Tour de France wrapped up Sunday with a fourth yellow jersey for Chris Froome. In some ways, this year’s Tour felt familiar. His Sky team rode mercilessly at the front of the peloton, snuffing attacks from rivals. Yet in other ways, this Tour was singular. Froome never unleashed a withering attack in the mountains — he didn’t win a single stage for that matter. Also, his margin of victory was smaller than in any of his other victories at the race, 54 seconds. What does this mean? Did the Tour succeed in building an entertaining race with an unconventional route? Should we reign in Sky’s $40 million budget? Time for a post-Tour roundtable!

How does this Tour title compare to Froome’s three other yellow jerseys?

Fred Dreier (@freddreier): To paraphrase Froome: it was his closest, but not his hardest of the four. In terms of watchability, I’d put it second, behind 2013. Watching Froome battle Quintana (and get dropped) on l’Alpe d’Huez and then Semnoz was real drama.

Caley Fretz (@caleyfretz): It was less dominant, more tactical, and once again proved that Froome is simply a more complete bike racer than most of his rivals.

Andrew Hood (@eurohoody): “Narrowest” gap does not mean the most difficult, or most entertaining. Froome’s 2015 Tour was more challenging to win against a superior Quintana on Alpe d’Huez. What this win represents is Froome’s (and Sky’s) ability to manage the race no matter what they face. This victory was more measured and finessed than his others simply because there were fewer opportunities for Froome to mark differences. Add another mountaintop finale or a longer TT, and the differences would have been more “Froomian” and well into minutes.

Spencer Powlison (@spino_powerlegs): This one is third out of four. My favorite was 2016, when he attacked like a crazy person and won three stages. Sure, the margin of victory was over four minutes, but that was pure panache. I agree that 2013 was a great edition also, with Quintana’s last-ditch attacks on the Alpe. That one is number two. Froome’s 2017 vintage was okay. It had a nice body of uncertainty with a whiff of desperation, but overall it wasn’t lively enough.

Was the ASO’s unconventional Tour route a success, a flop, or irrelevant to the quality of the race?

Fred: For those who were expecting something truly unconventional, This tour became a flop the moment Richie Porte crashed out. I totally get it. I actually expected more dominance from Sky, so I was pleasantly surprised by the small gaps on GC.

Caley: I liked it. A few of the pure sprint stages should have been spiced up a bit (a flat stage finish in Liège? Have they not seen the Ardennes before?), but on the whole the tight GC battle made for good racing.

Andrew: Having climbing stages earlier in the race — stage 5 to Belles Filles and stage 9 to Chambéry — brought some early excitement into the race. Some of the much-bemoaned longer stages are partly geographical, though organizers could whack 25km off those longer stages and have the same result. I like how the Tour is different every year, and TdF technical director Thierry Gouvenou is doing an exceptional job at trying to keep things interesting. At the end of the day, it’s up to the riders to race. I’d like to see one more of those shorter, explosive climbing stages included in each year’s route. One in the Pyrénées, and one in the Alps; fireworks assured.

Spencer: I stirred the pot yesterday with my column on three ways to improve the route. Andy is right that more short mountainous stages would help. Also, would it kill them to add just one more mountaintop finish. And finally, to Caley’s point, the flat stages … so boring. If there wasn’t such a close battle for the second and third positions on the podium, between Rigoberto Urán, Romain Bardet, and Mikel Landa, I would have called this an outright flop. Let’s hope for something more traditional (and entertaining) in 2018.

What stage was the biggest missed opportunity for Rigoberto Urán in the GC race?

Fred: I actually don’t think Rigo missed any opportunities that were truly open to him. Had he lost stage 9 due to that shifting problem, then that would be the easy candidate.

Caley: Looking back, taking a few more risks in the Dusseldorf time trial might have been worth it. Urán lost 1:03 in 14km in the first time trial and just 31 in 22.5km in Marseille. If he’d stayed closer in that first TT he may have found himself in yellow after Froome lost time on Peyragudes.

Andrew: Urán rode a smart race. His team was the most inexperienced among the big GC challengers, so he knew his best opportunity was simply hovering close to Froome and hoping for an opening. Had Froome faltered, Urán would have been first in line to press the advantage. One ill-timed puncture or crash, and Urán might have ended up on top spot in Paris. Is that racing with panache? No. But following wheels was the most prudent thing Urán could have done considering the circumstances of the race.

Spencer: Caley’s right that his stage 1 time trial wasn’t coherent with his station as a true GC contender. Come on — even Bardet beat him that day! He should have also joined Fabio Aru on the attack in stage 9 when Froome had the mechanical. Race or wait? I say game on, especially when you’re an underdog.

What stage was the biggest missed opportunity for Romain Bardet?

Fred: Bardet and Fabio Aru may be kicking themselves for not attacking earlier (and with more force) in those final 10km to Peyragudes. Froome has now admitted he was in the red and possibly bonking. So one has to wonder how he would have reacted to a bunch of attacks earlier in the final climb.

Caley: Stage 14, when Froome had his second key-moment mechanical. Bardet’s Ag2r team smashed it but he should have taken matters into his own hands.

Andrew: Stage 12 in the Pyrénées. When Froome didn’t open up an attack on the Peyresourde, it was a sign that Froome was not on his best day. Even by Froome standards, he looked awful. Bardet played it right by attacking on the final ramp at Peyragudes — he won the stage, after all — but his short-term gain might have been his longer term loss. Had Bardet attacked over the top of the Peyresourde, Froome might have been gapped, and the entire dynamics of the race could have been permanently altered.

Spencer: I agree with Fred and Andy: Stage 12 was the do-or-die moment, and Bardet, even though he won the stage, didn’t take advantage of the situation. Sure, there’s a chance he could have taken time out of Froome on stage 14, but that is less of a sure thing, compared to a summit finish.

Should cycling cap team budgets to encourage parity in big races like the Tour?

Fred: Yes. We’ve now seen cycling’s answer to the New York Yankees/Man United win five of the last six Tours. If that isn’t proof that cash can get you to the top during this era of pro cycling (when spent wisely, of course), then I don’t know what is. A budget could force Sky to look at its murderer’s row (Geraint Thomas, Michal Kwiatkowski, Wout Poels, Mikel Landa, Mikel Nieve, Sergio Henao) and keep two or maybe three.

Caley: Nah. There are other ways to decrease the dominance of a particular team. Dropping team size would be far more effective.

Andrew: That is not realistic in the business model of today’s peloton. Salary caps and budget limitations only work in a “closed” league where teams also share the benefits and have a permanent spot at the table. Money is not the only reason Team Sky is dominating the Tour. Froome is one of those “once in a generation” riders. Put him on another team, and he’d still be very hard to beat. Put a Quintana inside the Sky machine, and the result might be the same. Other teams are catching up, and Froome is getting older. Cycling needs more money, not less.

Spencer: In a fantasy world, I say yes, cap the teams, give them a degree of parity that you see in the NFL, for instance. But as Andy astutely points out, cycling’s messy business model precludes such a controlled system. The good news is, Froome won’t be racing forever, and as Richie Porte, Mikel Landa, and Geraint Thomas have shown us, just because you wear a black-and-blue (or I guess white in this Tour) kit, doesn’t mean you’re a shoo-in for a grand tour victory.

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