Commentary: A rest day, but the Tour de France never rests
Ah, a rest day.
After 16 action-packed stages that have provided more drama than a daily soap opera and more plot lines than a “Game of Thrones” season finale, the Tour de France exhales one last time Tuesday, with three summit finishes in the Alps on the horizon.
For riders, staff, journalists, and fans, it’s a welcome break in the action, as this year’s Tour de France has been a seemingly nonstop rollercoaster of emotions, laden with inspiring victories, crushing injuries, breakthrough performances, and troublesome accusations.
It’s been a Tour where two stars of the sport crashed, separately, while wearing the maillot jaune in the opening week, and both were forced to abandon the race.
It’s been a Tour where the words “cocaine,” “testicular cancer,” “pseudoscience,” “hidden motor,” and “urine” have all been in the headlines.
Ivan Basso’s announcement that his team doctor had discovered testicular cancer came on the race’s first rest day; on Monday, Tinkoff-Saxo announced that, following surgery, he has been cleared of additional treatment. News that Katusha’s affable veteran Luca Paolini had tested positive for cocaine and was sent home seems almost like ancient history 10 days later, in the middle of a race that has yet to lose steam.
It’s been a Tour in which Lance Armstrong is again riding on the roads of France, in July. And yet, for better or for worse, that’s been one of the least compelling stories of the race.
It’s been a Tour where Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) has finished second on five occasions, while his team owner, Oleg Tinkov — the Donald Trump of pro cycling — has stated that Sagan is “stronger” than race leader and Sky rider Chris Froome. (Which is, of course, a foolish statement — almost like asking which color is better, yellow or green.) In reality, of course, Sagan and Froome are very different horses for very different courses. Apples to oranges.
It’s been a Tour where the team of the maillot jaune has been booed and assaulted on the open roads, with Froome claiming to have had urine splashed in his face, Richie Porte saying a spectator punched him, and Luke Rowe asserting someone spat on him.
It’s been a Tour in which the top three riders from 2014 have not been in contention for the podium, essentially from the opening stage. Last year’s Tour winner, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), has looked quite ordinary, sitting in eighth overall at almost eight minutes down. The runner-up in 2014, Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale), suffered a nasty crash on stage 14 into Mende and is covered in bandages. Last year’s third-place finisher Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) had a dramatic first-week meltdown and is currently 19th overall.
The only riders from the top end of last year’s GC who are again fighting for the podium are Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), who was fifth overall last year and now sits in third, and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who placed fourth last year and is in the same position as the race enters the Alps. The absent GC podium from last year’s race serves as confirmation that when riders such as Froome, Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) are not at the Tour, it is a different race entirely, opening the doors for second-tier GC riders to battle at one another’s level, rather than against superior GC riders. What a difference a year makes, indeed.
There have, of course, been moments of brilliance. Daniel Teklehaimanot of MTN-Qhubeka made history by becoming the first black African to wear at Tour leader’s jersey by spending four days in the KOM jersey. A week later, his teammate Steve Cummings took a jubilant stage win for the South African team on Mandela Day.
Tony Martin’s brilliant, solo stage win on the cobblestone stage — on a teammate’s bike, after a puncture, to take the race lead, after narrowly missing it for three days — stands out as perhaps the most touching moment, followed closely by his dramatic exit from the race two days later after he fell in the closing kilometer and suffered a compound fracture to his collarbone. Yet there he stood, on the podium, wearing the maillot jaune in a world of pain and emotion, knowing full well that he would be headed to the hospital for surgery rather than to the team hotel.
For Martin, a quiet rider who has always preferred to let his legs do the talking, there was perhaps no moment more telling of his character than when he and the stage 6 winner, his Etixx-Quick-Step teammate Zdenek Stybar, crossed paths in the mixed zone behind the podium following his crash. In the midst of an interview, Stybar spotted Martin’s yellow jersey and stopped to express concern for his teammate’s well-being, asking Martin if he was OK. Martin answered no, he was not, but told Stybar to “enjoy the moment” of his first Tour stage win. It was a very personal interaction, unfolding in front of millions; a moment no one wanted to see, but also a golden moment of genuine compassion and fraternity amid the chaos of fans, journalists, TV screens, and podium presentations.
A Tour of distrust
More than anything, however, this Tour has turned into one of distrust and doubt, with a chorus of accusations against Froome and Sky. Froome’s performance on stage 10, when he won the stage atop La Pierre-Saint-Martin and put minutes into his competitors, re-opened the floodgates of skepticism that had first appeared in 2013.
Froome has continually insisted he is clean, that his conscience is clear, and in the absence of definitive proof of wrongdoing, it’s understandable that he and his team would be upset about doping allegations. Anyone innocent of wrongdoing would be upset with publicly having their character questioned.
Yet it’s also understandable that, after years of deception, fans and journalists would be skeptical of all stellar performances. The sport’s history requires this. The same would be true of any team dominating the Tour de France, particularly for three of the past four editions, with two different riders who had never before won a grand tour. The same would be true of any team fielding domestiques capable of climbing among the top climbers in the sport on summit finishes, as we’ve seen both Porte and Geraint Thomas do thus far. If it were Quintana, Contador, Nibali, Valverde, or van Garderen in the same position, the same questions would be asked; the same eyebrows would be raised. As they should be.
It’s not pleasant or pretty, but this is the reality of pro cycling in the years that follow the revelations of the USADA report, and more recently, the UCI’s CIRC report. This is the Tour de France in 2015, and the situation is not likely to be different next year, no matter which rider is wearing the maillot jaune. Blaming the media for raising questions about extraordinary performances is as misguided as blaming today’s riders for the actions of their predecessors. The media’s job is to report, but mistrust is now, sadly, part of the story. Everyone involved with pro cycling — riders, directors, sponsors, race organizers, journalists, and fans — shares a piece of the blame. And though it’s not specific to the Tour de France, confronting the sport’s dark history comes to the forefront every year, like clockwork, in July.
As always, actions speak louder than words, and what’s needed now is a collective deep breath and an acknowledgement that full transparency is the only clear path out of this mess.
Full transparency means that all teams should be required by the UCI to make available every rider’s biometric race data — power output, heart rate, cadence — as well as off-bike data, such as resting pulse and body weight. Call it a “power passport,” to complement the longitudinal blood and urine tests of the biological passport. (Unlike the biological passport, however, this data would be publicly available.) Variables do exist, such as different teams using different brands of power meters, or oval versus traditional round chain rings. Algorithms to account for these variables must be developed and agreed upon by a panel of experts. This data can then be used to establish trust, as well as to inform and engage the television audience.
Then, with all this data in the public domain, we let race tactics, weather conditions, course profiles, and team strength determine the winners. Some may not approve, but if all agree to the same terms, no one has an unfair advantage. Similar to the use of race radios, accessing another team’s biometric data would simply be a technological advance that is available to all. And similar to the biological passport, which should remain in the hands of the UCI and World Anti-Doping Agency, every team would be held to the same standards.
On Tuesday’s rest-day press conference, Sky revealed Froome’s data from the 15.3km climb up La Pierre-Saint-Martin. Sky’s Tim Kerrison, head of athlete performance, countered a France Televisions study that estimated Froome’s power-to-weight data from stage 10 as 7.04 watts per kilogram. Kerrison claimed Froome’s average watts output was 414 rather than the 425 claimed by the French expert, and that his true watts per kilo translated to a figure of 5.78 watts per kilo. The team said it has shared a “billion points of data” with the UK Anti-Doping Agency. Whether it will be enough to satisfy Sky’s vocal critics, such as South African professor of exercise physiology Ross Tucker — who has been adamant in his calls for transparency in power data — remains to be seen. But it’s a start.
What’s clear is that times have changed. This is an age of affordable power meters and pro racers setting Strava KOMs, an age when the science of cycling physiology is no longer understood only by a handful of specialists, and an age when red flags are raised, in real time, over social media. The scrutiny — the so-called “pseudoscience” — is not going to disappear; if anything, it’s only going to intensify. The genie is out of the bottle, and it’s not going back in. And let’s face it, words alone won’t change anything. We’ve heard it all before.
And so, here we are, on the Tour’s second rest day — a day that once again delivered drama, without resolution. Some things remain the same, while others, it appears, simply refuse to change.
And yet the Tour marches on. As it has been for the past four years, Sagan will almost certainly wear the green jersey in Paris on Sunday. He’ll likely stand next to Froome, in yellow, and Quintana, in white, just as it was in 2013. Amid all of the chaos and commotion, the Tour remains equally exhilarating and exhausting.
So, to everyone whose July is focused on the biggest, most beautiful race in cycling, enjoy the rest day. Here’s to hoping for a bit of rest — or, at least, an exhalation. And perhaps, in time, a resolution.