The second rest day of the Tour de France marks, for us armchair followers at least, the beginning of the end. Sure, those guys on the bikes still have a mind-bending amount of cycling to do, but if the 3 weeks of the Tour was condensed into just one stage (like when TV scientists cram the whole of Earth’s existence into just one year and we learn that humans popped up at about 3 minutes to midnight on New Years Eve) then we are long past the feed zone and the intermediate sprint. We have already shed three-quarters of the Sky domestiques and we are either hungrily eyeing up the remnants of the breakaway, or wondering if this is the moment when Cadel will start going backwards quickly. Yes, my friends, we are now a ‘select group’ as Phil Liggett would say; we are at the ‘head of affairs’ and, just as someone pops off the front and is ‘free to fly’, the ITV4 cycling coverage will be going into its final, 7 minute long, ad break.
We thought we’d been spoilt in the first week. We had been treated to more ding-dong, see-saw cycling action in two heady weekend days than we could have imagined in the whole ‘boring Sky Procession’ Tour. What then were the hopes for this week? Rain after Sun? Famine after Feast? Not a chance! This is the Tour that, like a dodgy team doctor in the late 1990’s, keeps on giving. Famine? I’m bloody stuffed!
First of all we get given the gift of Marcel Kittel. An impossibly-coiffured sprinting Goliath who first makes CVNDSH look angry and then makes him look beatable. Not only does Kittel hoover up the Sprint stages that Cav was absolutely expected to win, and, with Tony Martin, reignite country-wide Germanic interest in cycling. Not only does he arouse some slightly suspect man-crush comments from my fellow weekend cyclists either. Kittel is arguably the reason this Tour is so fucking brilliant! Cav’s OPQS teams’ reaction to Kittel being momentarily dropped was the initial spark that became the raging bushfire on the Road to Saint-Amand-Montrond on Friday, which, in turn, set the scene for the blistering scenes on the Bald Mountain yesterday. And Kittel is loudly sounding off about fellow riders cheating. Thank you Marcel, thank you from the bottom of our hearts. May your hair never fall.
Tuesday’s Cav-spat set the tone for the week. No quarter would be asked for or given. The more I watched the replay of his coming together with Tom Veelers the less I liked what I saw. I know the road went left, and I know Veelers went right but I found it hard to not sympathise with the man who went down in that particular case. Sorry Cav – I still love you and what happened to you the following day in the time trial was pretty disgraceful.
Wednesday’s time trial to Mont St Michel was as pretty and picturesque as the organisers had intended. Froome mixed just enough yellow amongst his Sky black kit to take on the appearance of an elongated wasp and duly stung his GC rivals for 2 minutes over the 33km. ‘Game Over’ was announced again. In fact it was pretty much advised that we could all get our heads down and do some actual work during the next few days as they would be flat ones for the sprinters or maybe a breakaway. I don’t think the word ‘boring’ was actually used but it was definitely implied. Have a couple of days off and see you all on Sunday for Ventoux..
They didn’t reckon on the hidden Kittel effect though which, when mixed with crosswinds and a second Spanish Armada, swung the GC pendulum back the other way again. After Kittel had overtaken Cav in the last 20 metres of a full-on, unimpeded sprint on Thursday – something that we were told hadn’t happened since the Dawn of Time itself – OPQS did not want to be in the same position again the following day. Cue a Kittel mechanical, an OPQS attack and a ramping up of the pace that lead to Froome being caught out when a new lead echelon formed under the generalship of the Saxobank team of Alberto Contador. I had always thought that, of the riders who Sky jettisoned last year in the Zero Tolerance Policy debacle, Mick Rogers would be the biggest loss. And so it seems, as it was his call that Froome was out of position and his marshalling of his new team that got so many of them into such a small break. Cav, who got into the break with a bigger sprint than he needed at the end, celebrated his 25th stage victory with a grin wider than Nairo Quintana’s shoulders. Contrast that with Froome who donned his latest his yellow jersey at the end of the day with gritted teeth; having ceded 69 precious seconds to Alberto. Big loser Valverde rolled in over 10 minutes down with his dreams of a podium finishes in tatters, shredded by the winds. Somehow Kittel’s hair remained immaculate throughout the carnage.
Saturday was a breakaway that an Italian won. We were all glad for the respite and the total lack of drama.
Sunday. Bastille Day. A nation en fete. The traditional day when the French riders fail to trouble the podium despite every cycling pundit looking so far down the rider list for a contender that they risk giving themselves a hernia. Sylvain Chavanel gave it good go – trying to round out a brilliant week for OPQS despite their misfiring Manx Missile – but he was obviously doomed from the base of the climb. Sky redeemed themselves as a team on the lower to middle slopes with Richie Porte looking like a resurrected man as they came out of the tree line after more sterling work from Pete Kennaugh. It’s not quite the same without Kiryenka’s impassive face of doom ploughing up the incline though. Porte actually smiles when he suffering, which is very disconcerting. Quintana attacked early as expected, Schleck nearly rode off the road which was semi-unexpected and Cadel looked like 36 year old man trying to keep up with riders a whole cycling generation younger than himself. Kudos for hanging in there Cadel but the writing is on the pavement on these famous climbs and it’s not your name anymore. And then it happened. He waited until they were out of the trees – better for TV coverage: Sky are very media savvy you know – and Bang! Froome does a Usain Bolt and treats us to the sight of a very tall man moving his legs quicker than should be humanely possible. He explodes away from the dancing Contador, who suddenly looks like he is moonwalking in the other direction, spins up to Quintana, has a brief chat at about gifting him the stage and then realises that he can do the same trick again and leave the Colombian (who does not look 23 in anyone’s books surely!) behind for the biggest stage win of his career. I’m supposed to say ‘to date’ on the end of that but I’m going to leave it alone. Only Eddy Merckx has won on the Ventoux in yellow before. And he only managed it once.
With all the echelon losses redeemed with interest, Froome looked a much happier man atop the podium. And why not? The race seems to be sewn up, the others are just fighting for podium places now… Aren’t they? With this Tour – who knows. I am definitely staying in my armchair for another week to find out!
PS – Tom Simpson. Rest In Peace.