PARIS (AFP) — Many, both in the peloton and watching from afar, may have groaned when Chris Froome (Sky) said he intended to ride on for another six to eight years, but not everyone is disappointed.
There are some who feel the domination Froome has shown at times in winning his two Tour de France titles — in 2013 and again this month — has taken the gloss off the greatest bike race in the world. And yet, to buy in to that sentiment would be to ignore what turned out to be one of the most thrilling Tours in recent memory.
The 2015 Tour’s final victory margin of one minute and 12 seconds was the closest since Carlos Sastre finished 58 seconds ahead of Cadel Evans in 2008.
And even that does no justice to the exciting final two stages in which Nairo Quintana (Movistar) started eating into Froome’s lead with incessant attacks every time the road angled upward.
Two years ago, Quintana was second to Froome at 4:20, a margin that would have been 43 seconds greater but for the Briton slowing down on the final stage to cross the finish line arm-in-arm with his Sky teammates.
Quintana has closed that gap significantly, and at 25, he is five years younger than Froome.
Quite apart from embarking on a period of Froome domination, the Tour stands to witness one of cycling’s great rivalries.
Cycling has seen some great duels in the past, notably between Italians Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi, or Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor, but Froome and Quintana could match or even eclipse any of those.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Froome-Quintana rivalry is that rather than it being a matchup of two riders reaching their prime at the same time, one is on his way into his best years, while the other should be coming out of his — much like the recent tennis rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Froome received a lot of bad press on the 2015 Tour, with some accusing him of doping or riding a motorized bicycle, a negative reception Quintana has not had to put up with.
And yet, arguably, what gave Froome victory over the Colombian was circumstance.
A crash on the windy second stage in the Netherlands held up Quintana and his Movistar team, and then a split formed in the peloton. In crosswinds, that can be fatal, and it proved costly for Quintana. By the stage finish, Quintana had lost a minute and 28 seconds to Froome, more than the final winning margin.
Perhaps from a spectacle point of view, what was most exciting in this Tour de France was how one rider pulled out a lead before the other started reeling him in — Quintana just left his Tour-finishing kick until a touch too late.
The Colombian is not as good in the time trials as Froome and with his slight frame, he is vulnerable on flat stages on the open roads. That makes for a rivalry that is sure to ebb and flow, with one potentially taking time against the clock or in crosswinds, and the other looking to claw it back on the climbs.
This year’s Tour route perhaps suited Quintana more than Froome, and the fear for Quintana and those who would like to see him win cycling’s biggest race may be that the Briton would win more easily on a course with more individual time trial kilometers.
In any case, Quintana proved this year that he has matured.
In 2013 he lost time after launching attacks in the Pyrenees too far from the finish and running out of steam.
This year, he was more patient and calculated — perhaps too much — and he is sure to continue improving both physically and tactically as the years progress.
At 30, the now-twice-winner of the Tour de France Chris Froome may be already as good as he will ever be.
Time will tell, but this is a battle that could be played out many more times at the Tour de France.