Commentary: The Tour route is another effort to cage Team Sky
Editors’ Note: Author Samuel Abt was a long-time sports journalist and columnist for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. He covered the Tour de France and other professional cycling events for more than 30 years. A resident of the Paris area, Abt retired several years ago.
The guy up on the stage is the impresario Carl Denham, just back from Skull Island. Behind him, as the photographers go wild with their flashbulbs, is a gorilla. In fact, he’s a giant gorilla. Luckily for everybody, he’s in shackles.
“Don’t be alarmed, ladies and gentlemen,” Denham says, “those chains are made of chrome steel. Stay in your seats. Nothing can break them.”
This familiar scene from “King Kong” flashed through my mind earlier this week when Tour de France owner ASO revealed the route for the 2019 edition. Playing the role of Carl Denham was Christian Prudhomme, the Tour de France majordomo, as he showcased the route at a gala in Paris.
And that gorilla wasn’t King Kong, it was Team Sky.
You’ve no doubt seen the movie in one of its three major iterations, (the 1933 original with Fay Wray is by far the best), so you know what happens once Kong, unhinged by the hoopla, breaks loose and goes, um, ape. Will a similar fate befall the Tour de France and its attempts to shackle Team Sky?
In an unspoken way, that script dominated Prudhomme’s presentation. Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, and now Geraint Thomas — as British riders for Sky keep winning the race, its popularity at home wanes. The organizers hope to tame the beast. What better way than with a course designed to produce, oh happy day, the first French winner since 1985.
The candidates are Julian Alaphilippe, Romain Bardet, and Thibaut Pinot and they exhibit the same strengths and weaknesses: strong climbers all, they often fizzle in time trials, although Pinot has made huge progress there.
Not by chance, there will be seven climbing stages in 2019, five of them with summit finishes. The sole individual time trial will cover a mere 27 kilometers. And Bardet gets a cherry atop his cupcake: The stage on Bastille Day, the French national holiday, finishes in his hometown of Brioude.
Far more rounded than the local heroes are the two Brits (les rosbifs, as they are known to the French) who lead Sky, Thomas and Froome, who finished first and third this year.
Thomas flew up the mountains and is the British time trial champion. Froome has won the Tour four times. Sort of Kong-like, no?
With its $35 million budget, Sky is also hatching the next generation of King Kongs. That rider starting to thump his chest is Egan Bernal, all of 22 in January and the winner at home in Colombia of the mountainous Oro y Paz and the national time trial championship.
Add in a stage victory and second overall at the Tour de Romandie and the overall victory and two stages at the Amgen Tour of California. Plus, he had a strong performance in the mountains of the Tour, where he finished 15th overall. Bernal signed a five-year contract with Sky this fall.
An even-younger prodigy with the team is Ivan Sosa, 21 at the end of October, another strong Colombian climber, who will join next year if his contract can be worked out. His potential is considered so vast that, in a rare bidding contest, Sky had to top Trek for his services.
In the here and now, if the new Tour route favors the French, so do the favorites’ ages. Thomas will be 33 next year and Froome 34, a worrisome factor if the race is fiercely hot or rainy. Alaphilippe will be 27, Bardet 28, and Pinot 29.
Alaphilippe might be favored among them after his performance this year: victory at the Flèche Wallonne and Clasica San Sebastian, overall titles at the Tour of Britain and Tour of Slovakia, two mountain stages at the Tour and the polka dot climber’s jersey.
Still, he finished a lackluster 33rd in the Tour and eighth in the world championship road race in which he was the big favorite. While he blamed leg cramps in the worlds, some wondered how well he handles the pressure of being “The Man.”
Bardet had a good season, too, with second in the worlds, third at the Critérium du Dauphiné behind Thomas’s victory, sixth overall at the Tour, second at Strade Bianche and third at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Pinot did not race in the Tour because of illness but finished sixth overall at the Vuelta a España, where he took two stages, and won Milano-Turino and then the Il Lombardia. Earlier in the year, he finished first in the Tour of the Alps and had four podium finishes on stages at the Giro d’Italia.
Sky is not the trio’s only obstacle. Tom Dumoulin, 28, was second this year. He should be strong again in the climbs and time trial. Richie Porte, 34, may finally overcome his injury-illness-misguided team strategy hex. To cover all bases, throw in a Central European contender or two, the stray Italian or Spaniard or Australian or a hitherto unknown third Yates brother. It doesn’t look easy for the French.
This is not the first time the Tour organizers have stacked the deck for one of their own in a blatant attempt to cage a monster rider. Tour organizers did it two decades ago to support Richard Virenque, a climber who never made it into the final yellow jersey because of Bjarne Riis, Marco Pantani, and an earlier King Kong — well, maybe Godzilla — Miguel Indurain, who won the Tour five times.
Indurain finally succumbed to age and the smart tactics of his rivals. King Kong was done in by incessant attacks by airplanes and machine guns.
In any case, according to Carl Denham, “No, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.”
Who is beauty in this scenario? With the wispy mustache he sometimes sports, Alaphilippe doesn’t look fetching enough.