Commentary: Why this year’s Tour is quickly becoming one of the best ever
A combination of factors has transformed this year's Tour de France into one of the most unpredictable and engaging in decades.
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Something special is unfolding this month in France. For the past several years, cycling’s greatest race ended in near pre-ordained predictability. In 2019, the script is deliciously upside down.
After two weeks of racing, consider this: five riders are within one minute of each other behind yellow jersey Julian Alaphilippe. Two — yes two! — French riders have legitimate chances to win, with Thibaut Pinot emerging as the strongest climber with a week to go. Ineos isn’t racing with nearly the same suffocating control as its predecessor, Team Sky.
Why is this year’s Tour so tight and so wonderfully entertaining?
A few reasons: First off, Chris Froome isn’t in the race. Love him or hate him, Froome’s absence due to injury meant this Tour was going to be different than anything we’ve seen since 2012. Ineos still lined up with defending champion Geraint Thomas and Colombian superstar-in-the-making Egan Bernal, but without Froome, the guarantee from the past six years was gone.
That’s not to say Ineos won’t still win. In fact, looking objectively at the GC right now, there is still a high probability that Thomas or Bernal could pull off the victory. No team is as strong and experienced as Ineos in racing and managing the daily demands of the Tour. Despite a relatively uneven ride across the Pyrenees, Ineos has managed to keep both of its GC options in the mix. As Thomas said Monday, the key to the Tour is consistency over the course of three weeks. The team is still in it to win it.
Without Froome, however, there isn’t the high probability of success. And the cracks that have appeared in the Ineos fortress have only stirred up confidence within the peloton.
Secondly, Ineos’s rivals are stepping up to the challenge in dramatic ways. Alaphilippe is the revelation of this Tour; the Frenchman roared into the race on the form of his life. Behind him, there were nearly a dozen rivals who started this year’s edition with realistic hopes of winning. Crashes, inconsistency, and bad luck have reduced that number heading into the final week, but there are still five riders within one minute of each other.
Furthermore, without Froome, the race has lost its rider of reference. As in other transitional Tours following the demise of an established winner — think, in the wake of Miguel Indurain or Lance Armstrong — this year’s Tour started without a singular, five-star favorite. A Tour without a gravitational center has led to an explosive and wide-open race. So even before the race started, the Tour began in uncharted territory with a deep peloton, one unseen in years.
And finally, this year’s Tour course is ideal for attackers and improvisation. The first two weeks were truly engaging, with plenty of opportunities to liven up the race. ASO deserves credit for gradually spicing up the first half of the route. No longer is the race a dull procession of flat sprint stages. The inclusion of short walls and hilly finales gives wings to the attackers. More than anyone, Alaphilippe has taken full advantage of the nuances in this year’s course.
And without having a time trial waiting in the final weekend, which often causes the more conservative GC contenders to bide their time, this year climbers believe they have a chance to win. Riders like Pinot, Mikel Landa (Movistar), and Bernal will light up the final week, knowing that the race is still up for grabs.
Another key factor: this year’s course isn’t weighted down by a lot of time trial kilometers. While time trials are an essential element of any grand tour, they too often suck the life out of a race. The placement of the relatively short and technically challenging time trial midway through the race was a stroke of genius by Tour course designers. A long time trial too early in the race often sees a rider like Froome gain so much time that it’s all but impossible for the climbers to get back into the frame. In modern cycling, bigger gains per kilometer can often be taken against the clock than against the grade of a categorized climb when riders are on equal footing.
Tour organizers have taken this into account and have slowly been shaving back time trial distances. Just like most fans, ASO doesn’t want to see the GC largely decided midway through the race. In 2012, when Bradley Wiggins became the first British rider to win the Tour, there were 100 kilometers against the clock — one prologue and two individual time trials. This year, there’s a quarter of that, with 27.2 kilometers of individual time trialing. The equally constrained 27.6-kilometer team time trial allowed a strong team to limit the losses for individual riders. With fewer individual kilometers against the clock, the GC race is much tighter.
Perhaps most importantly, this Tour is proving to be more human and egalitarian than in years past. One leader on one super team is no longer dictating the action of the race. There’s been growing parity creeping across the peloton over the past few years. Ineos still boasts the largest budget, but teams like Groupama-FDJ, Jumbo-Visma, and Deceuninck-Quick-Step have all performed at an equally high level on smaller budgets. Cycling isn’t only about mathematics and bank accounts. This year’s Tour is reaffirming that cycling can also be about courage and sacrifice just as much as about power numbers and programmed tactics.
The final three climbing stages across the Alps should be one of the most tantalizing in years. Will Pinot continue his momentum? Will Ineos falter or rebound? Can Alaphilippe hang on? And then there’s Kruijswijk and the resurgent Landa. Will the unsung Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) pull off the upset? The best part about this year’s Tour is that no one knows the answer.
There haven’t been this many question marks at this point in a Tour in a long time. Many of today’s new cycling fans have never witnessed such a wide-open and unpredictable Tour. Let’s hope it’s not a one-off.