Tour de France 2020

It’s been a Tour de France for the underdogs

The 2017 Tour de France has seen eight first-time stage winners and the emergence of a few smaller teams, a treat for cycling fans.

How can someone root for the heavy favorite? I just don’t understand. No matter if I’m watching cycling, football, or even some obscure Olympic sport (modern pentathlon, anyone?), I cheer for the underdog. I enjoy surprises and fresh faces on the podium. Perhaps that’s why I’ve enjoyed the 2017 Tour de France so much.

Before going any further, my one caveat: During this Tour a number of favorites crashed out. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) didn’t even make it through the first stage. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) departed due to a crash (and an activist UCI jury) after stage 4. Richie Porte (BMC) crashed out in stage 9. And just today, Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step) crashed out while wearing the green jersey.

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This string of unfortunate crashes is a true bummer — but hey, crashes are part of racing. The departure of these stars has created a vacuum, and the underdogs have risen to the occasion.

As an American, I’m obligated to cheer for Cannondale-Drapac, the only U.S. team to actually bring American riders to the Tour. The green team’s Tour de France win drought was long and bitter. Rigoberto Urán is the monsoon storm it needed, winning stage 9, the team’s first since 2013 when Dan Martin won stage 9. Plus, Urán is poised to finish on the overall podium, should he keep his bike upright. The Slipstream organization has only reached the Tour podium once prior, with Bradley Wiggins in 2009. Unfortunately, that honor was won years afterward when Armstrong, who was originally third that Tour, had his result stripped.

Dutch team LottoNL-Jumbo also snapped a losing streak that stretched back to 2014 with Primoz Roglic’s emphatic stage 17 win on Wednesday. The Dutch team occupies a similar station to Cannondale-Drapac in the WorldTour — it is aggressive but lacks the big budget and firepower to win everywhere. So it was a treat to see the yellow-and-black kit atop the Tour podium for the first time. And no matter the team, Roglic’s personal story is terrific. He used to be an elite ski jumper. This is his debut Tour. Plus, it was the first Tour win by a Slovenian — ever! “I really feel nice, it’s crazy that I’m the man who can also make cycling history in Slovenia,” Roglic said.

Even a French Pro Continental team had a taste of glory. Direct Energie rider Lilian Calmejane won stage 8, the team’s first since 2012 when Thomas Voeckler won stages 10 and 16 and Pierre Rolland won 11, then under the Europcar marque. Allez les Bleus!

And lest we forget team Sunweb, which has enjoyed more success than most teams at this race. I realize Sunweb is not a true underdog. Tom Dumoulin (yeah, that guy who won the Giro) took two stages last year. Yet the team has never won a classification jersey at the Tour. Now, with poor Marcel Kittel having crashed, Sunweb is poised to win two jerseys. Warren Barguil has the king of the mountains prize all but locked up, and Michael Matthews has a healthy lead in the points classification. This success comes after the team endured a tough 2016 season following a terrible training crash in January. It’s great to see Sunweb animating nearly every stage.

Of course underdogs cannot win every time. Chris Froome looks extremely strong in yellow, and his Sky teammates are imperious at the front of the peloton. No matter how the race for yellow plays out in these final days, the “anti-Froomes” have animated this race. Chapeau to Fabio Aru and Romain Bardet and the other rivals. Plus, after 17 days, this Tour has produced eight first-time stage winners, including Aru.

Froome may indeed win his fourth Tour de France as the heavy favorite. But when I look back on 2017, I’ll remember the underdogs.