Even though the 2017 Tour de France was won by less than a minute, the racing was conservative and defensive. Here's how to fix that.
Am I missing something? It seems like the entire cycling world had the hots for the 2017 Tour de France. Meh … It left me cold. Sure, the GC came down to less than one minute. The race also had a number of interesting storylines, exciting moments, and first-time stage winners. Yet through all of that, Froome’s fourth win felt inevitable. It put me to sleep.
Sky’s $40 million super-team deserves a lot of the credit for making the Tour a plodding march. But this year’s unconventional race route is also to blame. I would have altered this route to amp up the excitement.
1. De-emphasize time trials
Despite ASO’s best efforts to make this Tour one for attackers, it devolved into a race that hinged on time trial bookends, stages 1 and 20. Froome took 51 seconds out of Rigoberto Uràn in stage 1, and he beat the Colombian by 25 seconds in stage 20. That 1:16 was the bulk of his 54-second margin of overall victory. To beat Romain Bardet, Froome was 39 seconds faster in stage 1 and 1:57 (ouch!) quicker in stage 20 for a total of 2:36. Bardet was third overall by 2:20.
We can’t expect a grand tour to be void of time trials, but even disc-wheel devotees have to admit that Tours like the ones Miguel Indurain won in the 1990s were a bit dry.
Let’s start by shortening the stage 1 time trial — just make it a prologue. What is the purpose of starting a grand tour with a TT? It’s usually a way to give a rider like Rohan Dennis or Fabian Cancellara a chance to wear yellow. For those guys, the difference between 14km and 4km is often negligible. Let the GC guys figure things out later in the Tour.
Then, move the second, longer time trial back into week two of the Tour. It should play a role in deciding the GC, of course. However, in the 2017 Tour, it was the sword of Damocles for everyone except Uràn.
2. Forget the flat stages
Apologies to Marcel Kittel, but this Tour wasted at least five days on 200-kilometer flat stages that lulled us into a stupor. The route needs to replicate the excitement of stage 14’s steep kicker into Rodez where Fabio Aru lost yellow.
Or, if you want to keep the pure sprinters in the mix, the route could seek out crosswinds to disrupt the formulaic finishes. Stage 16 caught Dan Martin and Louis Meintjes off-guard with a lumpy run to Romans-sur-Isère, coupled with a crosswind that exacerbated the time gaps.
3. Follow La Vuelta
Returning to suggestion #1, if the time trial moves to week two, the short, 100-ish kilometer stage should punctuate week three. Then, we’d see GC contenders mounting last-ditch efforts to un-horse Froome. Plus, with this stage in the final week, there’s a greater chance that GC teams will be too weak to tamp down attacks. (I’ll admit, however, that Sky looked quite peppy on stage 18 to Col d’Izoard.)
It’s not that I want the route to prevent Froome from winning yet another Tour. I want it to compel him to with the race with offense, rather than defense. It was like watching a 1-0 soccer game. All the players did was kick the ball around in the middle of a big field for 90 minutes.
Froome failed to win a single stage of the race. That’s perhaps a bigger hang-up than the time trials or the sprint stages. Only six others have won yellow without claiming a stage.
Sure, he won last year’s Tour by a nap-inducing 4:05, on the trot ahead of Bardet, but in 2016, Froome attacked the race like a swashbuckler. His solo win on stage 8 to Bagnères-de-Luchon was a masterpiece. His TT victory in stage 18 was a fist slamming the table. Did he attack the crosswinds with Peter Sagan in 2017? Nope. Were there any moments of manhood-threatening super-tucking this year? Unfortunately, no.
If Sky’s going to keep dominating the Tour, fans need at least a hint of panache and unpredictability. Froome is headed to the Vuelta in a few weeks — hopefully the guys who plan the Tour’s route will be taking notes.