In the end the promised finale fireworks never came. Not from the top of the Arc de Triomphe after the evening stage on Sunday, where we given a projected feu artifice lightshow instead of some actual gunpowder explosions (the whole show was greeted with polite bemusement rather than rapture in our house), and not from the last few days of racing either where the assumption has been that the riders simply didn’t have enough left in the legs to seriously attack the yellow jersey and so saved what they did have for the scrap for podium and best team places. Another sign of a clean Tour? Maybe..
After the shock and awe of Mount Ventoux, the final week had the toughest of tough acts to follow. Contador was still the man most likely to challenge Froome at this point and much was made of the tricky descent down into Gap as the likely place that the Spaniard would first try to grab some time back. A little was made of Froome’s descending ability but, whilst he didn’t try for a 98kph flier like Simon Clarke had done a few days earlier, he didn’t look too shabby going downhill and it was Alberto who came off, nearly taking out Froome in the process. Much was then made of this incident – mainly by a visibly worked-up Froome – and for the first there was a palpable sense that the pressure of the yellow jersey might be getting to it’s wearer. Contador ratcheted up the pressure further the next day with a superb (by his recent standards) time trial performance which moved him up to second place and again he looked to be chipping into Froome’s lead, only for it all to be deflated by Froome who, having changed from a road bike to a time trial machine for the final leg of the course, caught and then surpassed the time posted by the 2007 and 2009 winner by 9 seconds to take his third stage win of the race.
With four and a half minutes in the bank Froome approached the first ascent of Alpe d’Huez the following day with more of his team intact than we had seen in the first week. Siutsou and Lopez had recovered from whatever was keeping them quiet in the Pyrenees and brought their leader to the suddenly infamous descent of the Col de Sarrenne with all his rivals close at hand. An epic battle was raging ahead in the breakaway with AG2R’s Christopher Riblon ditch-diving and bunny-hopping his way through the descent and valley drag to first get up to and then instantly blast past the wheel of BMC’s TeeJay Van Garderen for a French national pride saving win. The Sarrenne descent did cost Froome time – though not as a result of his descending speed or perceived lack of it. Melted ice in his team car shifted on the decline, spilling into the electrics and halting the Sky support crew, who were then not at hand to feed a fringale-ing Froome before the cut-off point on the second ascent. Last team mate standing Richie Porte, by now no stranger to disappearing back out of shot and then miraculously hauling himself back up into it a few minutes later, did the Lazarus trick once more to go back for a few gels for his leader who was then able to limit his losses to the lively Quintana to less than a minute – even with the 20 second penalty the commissars gave him for doing it. It was Froome’s biggest wobble of the Tour and even then he managed to gain more time on Contador, who was also suffering on the second round of the famous hairpins. Now lagging Froome by five minutes and 11 seconds, and with Quintana only 20 seconds behind him, Contador suddenly stooped looking forward and started glancing nervously over his shoulder.
Quite rightly too. The second and third best climbers in the race – Quinrana and the rapidly improving Rodriguez – had the podium in their collective sights, meaning that Saxobank – obviously uncertain about Contador’s failing form – had to pay significant attention to keeping their place as leader of the team competition. This lead to an unlikely, and almost certainly unplanned, Sky-Saxobank alliance in keeping the tempo high for the final two mountain stages. Movistar were also playing this game for Quintana and for a while it looked as if the current trend for multiple sprint trains dominating the ends of the flat stages had moved over to the mountains too.. Up the Glandon, the Madeleine, and up the Croix Fry on the penultimate GC day, and finally up the Semnoz on the final day of proper racing, we saw ‘lead-out’ men aplenty sharing the duties before the leaders broke cover in the final moments. The tactic worked well for Movistar who catapulted Quintana into second place, into the white and the polka dot jersey, into his first stage win and who also managed to plunder two breakaway stage wins in the final week courtesy of an unhindered Rui Costa. The ten minutes he and Valverde lost in the echelons the week before freed him to take advantage of the lack of interest from the GC and he expertly reaped them. Rodriguez sat at the back of the mountain trains and, like Sagan – who wheelied up Alpe d’Huez non handed to wear the joke a bit thin – just used the other teams to lead him into a position to attack at the death. And on the last few kilometers of the last few days he did, eventually taking enough time out of the fading Contador to push him off the podium. Froome had time to spare on each day but still tried attacking moves at every denouement. It speaks volumes of his apparent willingness to attack at every stage (and also of our rapidly changed expectations for British riders in the Tour) that we were left somewhat disappointed that he did not repeat his Ventoux emulation of Eddy Merckx in taking the yellow and polka dot jerseys by beating Quintana in the final climb. But it didn’t matter. The big one was in the bag. 2 from 2 for British riders. 2 from 4 attempts for Sky. Mind boggling.
And so to Paris. Pedals were turned slowly, cigars were smoked, champagne was quaffed, beards were dyed green, ( I take back everything I said about Sagain looking cool) and the sun was set for the final showdown. Sprint trains were formed one last time (and in a confirmation of the aforementioned crossovers even Sky put a train on the front of flat race for a short turn) whilst David Millar took in a couple of laps on his own out front before the fastest of the fast men shot out of the final bend almost in the order they had won stages earlier in the race. Kittel, Greipel, Cavendish, Sagan. And so it stayed across the line. Cav’s train had gone off the rails somewhere between the tunnel and the Place de la Concorde and he was too far back to overtake either of the two Germans in front. Passing Greipel would have out the order right as far as the stage wins were concerned but second is nowhere for Cav and he wouldn’t have taken the slightest consolation from a single higher placing. It was one whole wheel he needed and Kittel took it by half a wheel ending Cav’s four year reign. Again our notions of what we can now expect from final day were challenged and we were forced to refocus on Froome and his delayed celebrations.
As I said earlier, the fireworks never came but the show was a notch above the usual proceedings, as they should be the centennial Tour. Merckx, Hinault, Lemond and Indurain in the open top car was a classy moment – as was Lance’s absence alongside the 5 times winners who joined Froome on the podium for the presentation. Froome’s speech in the dark was understated, grateful, and slightly awkward. It was as far removed from Wiggins’ brilliant, sun-blessed grandstanding as can be imagined and both spoke volumes about the characters that they are. Comparisons are inevitable and should not be shied away from. From my point of view they are now equal – 1 Tour apiece.