If you’d seen the glow of joy on the faces of British fans waving Union Jacks to celebrate one of their own winning the Tour de France for the first time, you wouldn’t think for a second that the 99th edition was boring. And yet many, perhaps as many as 80 percent of the fans following the race on the Web and TV, have been calling it a bore. So what’s the truth?
They say that perception is 90 percent of reality, but I’d like to put this 2012 Tour into perspective—both historically and factually. For instance, was it really as dull as some of the more-predictable Tours in the five-Tour-winning reigns of Induráin, Hinault, Merckx or Anquetil? And, in the first place, how do you define boring?
I wasn’t bored by any of the 21 stages this year even though, at times, Team Sky’s tempo-setting pace more resembled the speed of a collective training ride than an elite-level race. What critics have to remember is that the Tour lasts 23 days, from the opening prologue to the finale in Paris, and the long-term GC battle is very different from the daily competition to win stages. You have to bear that in mind, and not expect the stage-win and GC battles to coincide.
When those two elements do coincide—as they did on the summit finishes at La Planche-aux-Belles Filles and La Toussuire—then, for sure, the excitement level ratchets up a few notches. But 200-kilometer-plus road races are inherently boring, and new cycling fans tend to forget that. Even Peter Sagan, perhaps the most exciting addition to the pro peloton in the past couple of years, said during the Tour that what he likes least is the long periods of tempo riding. If he had his way (as would the critics), Sagan would like to be racing the finales all the time—and preparing another version of his victory salute!
You also have to remember that the winner of the Tour not only has to be strong but also can’t have a bad day. Consistency is king, and therefore a favorite such as Brad Wiggins will ride as conservatively as possible to retain his mental and physical focus for those moments in the mountains (and for all the time trials!) when the Tour can be won and lost. Because of that aspect in the sport, newcomers can think: “Boring!” And yet in what other sport do athletes compete on a daily basis for five or six hours per day? None.
The average speed of this year’s Tour was 39.883 kph (that’s almost 25 mph), which made it faster than the Tours of the past two years, and faster than eight of the 10 Tours held when there was no drugs test for EPO (1991 to 2000). To average that speed (including long mountain stages when speeds average closer to 30 kph than 40 kph), you can only imagine what it’s like to hold a wheel in a peloton often moving at between 50 and 60 kph. That’s no sinecure, and only the fittest, most talented athletes are capable of doing this day after day.
What’s also hard to grasp unless you’ve actually raced and/or followed cycling for many years is the sport’s tactical aspect. On Team Sky, for example, strategies are discussed every morning in the team bus, with head sports director Sean Yates relaying the details to the riders. Sometimes, plans are revised, as last Friday when Mark Cavendish asked if he could be helped to win the stage rather than the team just holding breaks in check on the day before the final time trial—his request was granted and he won the stage!
Out on the road, Yates is in constant contact with his riders via their radio earpieces, and he said after this Tour that on-the-spot decisions weren’t made until he’d discussed them with the tactically astute and highly experienced Bernhard Eisel, the Austrian who came with Cavendish from HTC-Highroad this year and was ostensibly on Sky’s Tour team just to ride for the world champion.
Every team has different plans every day, and the intersection of all these varied tactics gives cycling a degree of sophistication that doesn’t exist in any other sport. For instance, people were asking me after the stage to Peyragudes on Thursday, “Why did Liquigas do all that riding up the last two climbs? That was a waste of time, right?” It was clear that the Italian team wanted to set up its leader Vincenzo Nibali for an attempted stage win on the mountaintop finish. And it was great seeing its young German Dominik Nerz and Italian veteran Ivan Basso riding as hard as they could to make a Nibali attack possible. But they couldn’t have foreseen that the aching calf muscle that Nibali noticed early in the stage would prevent him making the 100-percent effort he needed.
The high level of the pace set by Nerz and Basso was confirmed when Wiggins had trouble following his teammate Chris Froome on the final steep pitches—even though the yellow jersey (partly) explained his lack of focus on the emotional realization that Nibali’s bad patch meant that the Tour was in the bag. The openness and honesty of Wiggins went a long way to this Tour not being boring, He was accomplishing something that no British cyclist had come remotely close to achieving in any previous Tour de France.
In explaining his exhilarating finish to his time trial at Chartres on Saturday, Wiggins said: “A lot of things came out when I crossed the line after 10 fantastic final kilometers. Every stroke of the pedals was for all the things I’d done to get there. And that punch in the air when I crossed the line summarized everything, but in a positive way, I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular.”
Maybe “just” winning the two long time trials and “barely” following Froome on the three summit finishes were not exciting performances in their own right. But they were massive athletic accomplishments. They were just the type of results that earned Anquetil, Hinault and Induráin their multiple Tour victories (Merckx was the exception, of course!), and even they were criticized for their lack of panache.
In fact, when Hinault was criticized at the 1979 Tour for relying on the time trials to win the race, he was so incensed that he won the last two road stages, first in a bunch sprint over Belgians Marc Demeyer and Guido Van Calster at Nogent-sur-Marne, and then in a two-man break, two minutes ahead of the field, on the Champs-Élysées!
Wiggins didn’t need to do that, but he did make possible the Friday and Sunday stage wins by Cavendish with his strong surges into the final kilometer each time. And at the end of the day, the British one-two triumph with Wiggins and Froome will be remembered as one of the greatest feats in Tour history. It certainly wasn’t boring!