PARIS (VN) — Was this Tour a good Tour? And, by extension, was its winner a good winner? Can we even know, now, with our hindsight still so young?
British journalist Daniel Friebe rates and ranks each Tour in glasses of wine. The scale is roughly correlated to the effect of each glass on a person. One glass, boring. Five, a party. Like most Friday nights, most Tours fall somewhere in the middle.
Friebe ranked the 2016 Tour as two out of five verres, right alongside 2002, a race subjugated by Lance Armstrong and Postal, 2012, a Sky-dominated year, and 2014, a strange Tour where most of the favorites fell down and Vincenzo Nibali had little real competition.
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I like the wine-glass rating system. It feels apropos for cycling, so simple and yet quite complicated. And as I sit at a Parisian café less than 24 hours after the conclusion of this year’s Tour and consider the last three weeks, two glasses seems about right. This Tour de France was not a stirring spectacle. There was no great battle for yellow. It felt processional from the end of the first week, and the loaded, much-lauded third week gave us only one good stage (and that only thanks to bad weather). The race was smothered — yes, that is the right word — by a Sky team that utilized tactics that are clearly more conducive to winning than to entertaining us.
But was 2016 really that bad? And, more importantly, will it be remembered as such?
I don’t believe it will. The 2016 Tour de France is a young wine. A bit objectionable now, yes. But it will age well.
Mediocre Tours are defined at first by what they lack — an exciting GC battle, big attacks and overall suspense — rather than what they include. And by this measure, the 2016 Tour was sleepy indeed.
The two-glass Tours, it seems, are those where the victor is established early and rarely challenged. Was Froome ever going to lose this Tour? No. In fact, I gained the distinct impression that he could have won by quite a lot more. He never really punched the accelerator on a climb, did he? It’s an odd feeling to get to the end of a Tour and feel as if we may not have seen what the winner was truly capable of. Metronomic efficiency is good for winning Tours and bad for those watching.
But the stature of Tours won in such a manner tends to improve as they recede to history. Our collective memory of great riders often forgets the way in which they won. At a certain point, the winner’s panache matters less than where the victory fits in context of the sport as a whole. As evidence, pointed out by l’Equipe journalist Philippe Bouvet in Monday’s paper, most of the Tours won by Merckx and Hinault were complete snoozers. Yet now what do we call them? The Cannibal and the Badger. Capital C, capital B.
There were fine moments. Chris Froome’s attack down the Peyresourde brought the pressroom to its feet. I imagine many of you were standing too, shouting for or against Sky’s marmite leader.
Froome’s run up Ventoux was a spectacle. The collapse of the 1km to go arch falls into the same category. And what of Romain Bardet’s daring move on stage 19, a piece of bike racing as fine as any in recent memory, in which he attacked through a storm, which sent three of his rivals to the ground, then lost just seconds to the leader’s group across the massive climb to Le Bettex, earning a stage win for France and his first Tour podium.
There’s more. We witnessed the formation of a new grand tour contender in Adam Yates, the resurgence of the sport’s best sprinter in Mark Cavendish, and the tightest top-10 in the history of the Tour. The yellow jersey broke two different bikes in the same Tour, and rode to the Bettex finish on a teammate’s. Still, he lost just a few seconds.
Less than 24 hours after the peloton took its final lap of the Champs-Élysées these moments remain submerged in the lackluster narrative surrounding the yellow jersey. This two-glass Tour, for now, deserves no more than what Friebe gave it. Even the most exciting Froome we’ve ever seen wasn’t enough to pull it out of mediocrity.
But the dusty lenses of time and nostalgia change our interpretation and our memory. Like a good wine, this Tour will get better with age.