In all the years of watching the Tour de France, I don’t think I’ve seen a more exciting or more open race.
There is no capo, to whom all others pay due deference. There are more well-drilled lead out trains who could deliver stage wins for their sprinters. There’s a clutch of climbers who are always astonishing to watch as they burst over even the non-classified mountains like mountain goats. And there are riders on the way up meeting those on the way down on the escalator of fortune, as well as those who are, or should be, there or thereabouts.
And then there are the teams.
When Sky burst on to the scene just a few short years ago, with their science, their regimen and their plan, they took everyone by surprise. Not that other teams hadn’t been doing this kind of thing, it’s just no one had put it altogether in such brutal and clinical fashion. And they had the right mix of youth, exuberance, maturity, experience and talent to triumph and deliver Bradley Wiggins to victory and his place in the pantheon of Tour history.
This year, the plan is going a little awry. The first signs were there on the team time trial on the fourth stage . They were expected to blow everyone away and they didn’t: they *only* finished third. Which isn’t too shabby but showed everyone else that there were possible weaknesses to be pierced and exploited in the team’s armoury.
And while the plan came to fruition at the end of week one, with Sky leading the charge up the first mountain stage and delivering Chris Froome into the yellow jersey, no one reckoned on a free for all on the Sunday. And who orchestrated it all? Take a bow, David Millar.
After Millar popped up to take fourth in Stage One, I will confess to spending much of the next three stages screaming at the telly and his Garmin-Sharp team to pull out all the stops to deliver him to yellow. But it was not to be. And it would appear that having seen his big moment pass him by – by all of one second – Millar has set out to have some fun.
If this Tour has a boss, it’s him. No one is more instrumental at setting the tone and pitch of the stages in this year’s Tour. The Tour has engaged in the kind of mêlée and mischief-making which suit Millar well – and which are proving to be infectious.
These are the kind of tactics that Sky’s plan had not reckoned on. Nor had they reckoned on their team not being strong enough to adapt and adjust. If it doesn’t go according to plan, they are a bit of a busted flush. Too much youth perhaps and not enough experience in the team’s legs. Not that Millar is cutesy – in a preview interview, he laid out what it might take to smash the Deathstar. More fool Brailsford for not paying attention.
Dave Brailsford, the Sky team manager, is finding out the hard way that science and theory are all very well, but you actually need to know road racing, its soul and its heritage, to understand how to not just conquer it, but be part of it. That he does not was laid plain in a superb discussion on last Monday’s rest day held by the superlative ITV4 as it explored how the sport might defeat doping.
Two veterans – Millar and Paul Kimmage, a former cyclist turned journalist – advocated strongly for a truth and reconciliation approach. Both believe that former drugs cheats can and should be rehabilitated: not only does the team Millar part owns encourage bright, shiny new talent but it also offers redemption to those who cycled on the dark side and who have renounced their old ways. It’s an approach which finds favour with Kimmage.
But Brailsford is a zero tolerance man. No room ever for those who often found themselves caught up in the web, who like Millar in his youth were tempted and found out. He is on the wrong side of this argument and it puts him at odds with the cycling fraternity. And that tells when it comes to the race itself.
While it’s all about the teams, other tribal loyalties are often evident. Thus, last year, when Cavendish found himself without a lead out train and Garmin found itself without a sprint contender, Millar’s team often worked to help Cav.
The pair of them were at it again in the recent British Road Race Championships in Glasgow. Both were there without much back-up and even before the race, I had worked out that if Millar couldn’t make the break to win, he’d help his pal in a sprint finish.
If you ever get a glimpse at the back-end of the autobus, you will often find stragglers and strugglers from across teams looking out for each other. If a GC contender gets a puncture or other mechanical problem and his domestiques aren’t around, others will help get him back in the race – including team cars. Even at the front, there is a fraternity: there were several instances last week of other teams providing much needed water and sustenance to rivals in breakaway groups. And every single rider donated their stage winnings and earnings from last Sunday’s stage to help victims of severe Spring flooding in the area they rode through.
Not all of the heritage, though, is wholesome. Anyone who ever watched the heartbreak of Robert Millar’s attempt to win the Vuelta will know that the Grand Tours are not particularly welcoming to outsiders. In that race, the Spaniards and others ganged up on the Scot to ensure he didn’t win. And young Peter Kennaugh might well have got his own introduction to the sport’s cynical side last Sunday – I’m not so sure the move which sent him tumbling down the hillside was an accident.
But when the Tour is in full-on playful mode, it is joyous. In Friday’s supposedly pedestrian transition stage, teams took advantage of the cross winds to split Sky. For Omega Pharma-Quickstep it was all about putting distance between Cavendish and the other sprinters; for Contador’s Saxo Bank-Tinkoff, it was about cutting Froome’s lead over his rivals for the yellow jersey. And in about and up for it were some of the new kids on the block from the likes of Belkin, as well as more established teams like Cannondale and Garmin-Sharp.
Yesterday, the Tour showed why its appeal endures. About twelve kilometres from the finish, a young French rider broke away. In only his second tour, riding for a wildcard team, he nearly made it a perfect Bastille Day weekend for the hosts, only to be reeled in with three kilometres to go. And who eventually won the stage? A domestique for Mark Cavendish’s team. A rare moment of glory for the workhorses and powerhouses.
Today’s stage sees the Tour getting back down to business. It’s already started, with four bunny hop class four climbs to get them all in the mood for the big one: a finish at the top of Mont Ventoux. With a climb of over 1900 metres at the end of the longest stage in this year’s Tour, it has all the elements needed for an epic etape.
Frankly, given the form of the 2013 Tour to date, anything could happen and probably will. The stage is unlikely to turn out as Sky planned it.
Dave Brailsford is learning the hard way that you need more than a plan to win back-to-back Tours de France. If Chris Froome does win, it might well be in spite, not because of the plan and because of his own ability, talent, ambition and will to win. Froome might turn out to be a bit of a lone wolf winner, but all the more worthy for that.