When we look back at the 2014 Tour de France and debate the outcome a couple of things should be kept well to the front of the mind: Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali extended his lead over his rivals on every single significant stage. On the cobbles, in the Vosges on Bastille Day, in the Alps & Pyrenees and in the time trial. That fact alone should mark him out as a champion of some distinction. His win also completes his set of all three Grand Tours and allows him to join a select group of some of the greatest names in cycling. He won more road stages than any champion since Eddy Merckx, elevating the achievement further. The side-note that he did it in his national champions jersey will have pleased his home fans and cycling history aficionados in equal measure. He focused his season entirely on these two weeks and utterly dominated the race – appearing serene even when coolly dispatching the podium pretenders with stage winning attacks. The words ‘worthy champion’ should not even be being debated.
And yet there will be questions. No Quintana, Froome or Contador. Would they have brought a better fight had they been in the race until the end? Would they have challenged in a way that the selected and the survivors could not. Who knows? Nibali looked suitably imperious way before the high mountains and the ‘real’ challenger’s exits. I had predicted he would finish fourth behind Contador, Froome and Valverde. I had expected a Nibali-esque ride from the rested Movistar man and I didn’t think even that would be enough to challenge the two pre-tour favourites. I was guilty on basing my assessment of Nibali on his Vuelta performance of last year – when he couldn’t stave off the challenge of a 41 year old. How on earth could he compete against the likes of Froome and Contador?
Does that mean I still think that Alberto and Chris would have beaten Nibali had they stayed upright? Perhaps. His Nibs’ mastery on the cobbles gave him a two minute cushion as early as stage 5 so we would have been guaranteed attacking racing when we reached the mountains but, at the end of the day, they fell and he didn’t so it’s a moot point. We wouldn’t be having a conversation like this about the Paris-Roubaix would we? There was talk early in the race that the Tour’s losses would be the Vuelta’s gain but I think that the Tour’s losses were also the Tour’s gains.
I’m overjoyed that two Frenchmen stood on the podium alongside the Italian rider. In this country we lamented “Thirty Years of Hurt” about a competition that we’ve only won once and which occurs every four years. France have endured their own 29 years of hurt every summer since 1985 – none more painful than 1989 – and seen their sport ripped apart by scandal after scandal in the meantime. They will go into the thirtieth anniversary of Bernard Hinault’s last win with renewed hope about the potential of their riders and the credibility of the peloton. Pinault & Peraud rose (and descended) to the challenges very well whilst Bardet’s youth maybe counted against him at the end of an exhausting three week Tour.
Change is coming – in a sport relying on the constant revolution of wheels you’d ask for nothing less – but this time it’s change we think we can both see and applaud. Kevin Reza has flown the flag for black riders with great visibility whilst the inaugural La Course race on the Champs Elysees on the final day (with equal prize money!) can only have served to open more eyes to women’s cycling. Sky’s recent dominance is being tested like never before with the super strong Astana and Tinkoff squads taking up the baton of being the teams to mimic for either their solidity or their adaptability. Sky will be back at their bases already, licking their wounds and dusting down their drawing boards. It makes me think of the line from ‘The War Of The Worlds’ so wonderfully narrated by Richard Burton: “Minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this with envious eyes, and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against [them].”
Tinkoff Saxo’s overnight transformation from Contador’s support platoon into stage-raiders and KOM assailants was quite remarkable – but only in the context that Sky couldn’t do the same. Oleg Tinkoff’s rash offer of an Aston Martin to Rafal Majka if he won a second stage shows how little further expectation there was on the Pole after that maiden win. His second win, the KOM jersey and Mick Roger’s clever attack out of the breakaway into Bagneres-du-Luchon almost made up (in my eyes) for that truly appaling day-glo kit. Sky’s loss of two leaders was a double blow to a team known for it’s adherence to “the plan” but Sky’s ‘strongest team’ never looked anything like living up to their billing. Say what you like about Bjarne Riis but that man is able to get the best from the riders he has and ‘on the hoof’ too.
Other memorable moments in the last week of racing were Jack Bauer being caught less than 20 metres from the line into Nimes after a 200km breakaway and Ramunas Navardauskus’ redemptive win for the Garmin team at Bergerac four days later. The agony of Bauer’s catch could be the defining image of the Tour – pain and suffering were a constant theme as always but was written particularly large this year – as Nibali’s many wins diffused his campaign across the entire three weeks and it lacked a final defining moment by dint of being so far ahead by the time the Time Trial (and victory) eventually came. A photo of him on the cobbles will almost certainly be used to headline the story in years to come.
Also remarkable was the relative lack of discussions about drugs which is perhaps strange in a team like Astana, whose management have a difficult history with performance enhancing products. It used to be that seeing French riders falling down the standings was a sign that the rest of the peloton was doped to the gills. Now that we have French riders on the podium again perhaps we really have turned a corner and are back to a peloton of ‘une vitesse’. Let’s hope so.
We often say that every year has been a ‘vintage’ edition but I don’t use the expression lightly this time around. With the exception of the final parade into Paris I cannot think of a single ‘dull’ stage. The lop-sided route served the race extremely well and Christian Prudhomme and race director Thierry Govenou have a massive task on their hands to follow up with something of equal distinction next year. With a start in Utrecht and a counter-clockwise routing it will be tough to find as compelling a narrative that Yorkshire, the WWI battlefields and three sets of mountains served up. But, as ever, already we eagerly await the return of Le Tour.