Tour de France 2011 review: Talking points
July 27, 2011 6 Comments
In the final part of my post-Tour de France review, now the dust has settled here are a few observations looking back on the best race in recent history, with some analysis as to what made it so good and looking forward to what could be done to make things even better for the 2012 edition. And some random thoughts about a few of the key themes that stick in mind – just because.
1. A truly great parcours
After last year’s race, which celebrated 100 years of racing in the Pyrenees and included both the hills of the Ardennes classics and the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, I lavished praise on Christian Prudhomme and his team for devising a spectacular and varied parcours which tested the riders across many different aspects of their craft. If anything, this year’s route was even better, giving us a race of three distinct parts. First there was the rolling profile of the first week, which contained no major climbs but a variety of flat and hilly finishes which brought the best out of Philippe Gilbert and forced the top contenders to come out to play rather than hide anonymously in the bunch. The second week saw Thomas Voeckler grittily defend the yellow jersey with echoes of 2004 as he tracked the favourites up to Plateau de Beille. And the final week produced day after day of attacking cycling, whether it was descending or climbing, or even the first or last climb of the day.
Andy Schleck complained about “mortally dangerous” downhill finishes and that fans do not want to see the race decided on descents. He was only partially right. No one wants to see riders put at unnecessary risk – the memory of Wouter Weylandt’s fatal crash at the Giro remains fresh in the memory – but any descent carries inherent risks, just as a bunch sprint does, and a descent is generally only as dangerous as the riders are willing to make it. It is in the nature of professional cyclists to push themselves to their physical and mental limits, and no matter how safe the organisers make a descent there will always be someone who is willing to take a risk beyond the limits of their own talent. And most fans don’t care where the race is decided, as long as the racing is honest, exciting and favours the best man on the day. This year, the descents provided some of the best racing spectacle of the entire Tour, from Thor Hushovd‘s daredevil riding to claim his two stage wins, to the critical Evans/Contador/Sánchez break into Gap which cost Schleck more than a minute and fuelled his ire. Deal with it, Andy. This year’s race provided opportunities for descenders as well as climbers and time-trialists, and the combination of handling skills and bravery required to do the former well are important parts of a rider’s armoury in which Schleck was found lacking – and Cadel Evans, crucially, was not.
All this made for some fantastically varied racing, with different riders in the ascendancy on different stages. Compare that to this year’s Giro, which was packed with one epic climb after another, but too often featured the same names and faces at the front day after day in the mountains. Chapeau, Monsieur Prudhomme. Chapeau.
2. Jersey rule changes
During the race, I wrote about my thoughts on the changes to the scoring system for both the green jersey and the polka dot jersey classifications, and pronounced the former a big success while reckoning the latter was a qualified success. With the benefit of hindsight at the end of the race, I stand by my assessment of the points competition and, although I still have some reservations about the King of the Mountains, it was definitely an improvement.
The race for the green jersey gave us a three-cornered battle between the best pure sprinter in the world (Mark Cavendish), the punchy classics specialist (Philippe Gilbert) and, somewhere in between, a less rapid bit extremely dogged sprinter (José Joaquín Rojas). Cavendish rightfully won the jersey courtesy of his five stage wins, but was made to work in the intermediate sprints for the first time, and then forced to sweat until Paris after being deducted points for missing the time limit on the Galibier. Rojas never won a stage, but his doggedness and greater ability on the climbs kept him in contention throughout. And Gilbert powered through on the uphill stages and constantly went on the attack in search of points. It made for a fascinating competition, and the decision to have only one intermediate sprint and then award a larger number of points for it was an inspired one, giving us a race-within-a-race virtually every day – as opposed to the old system, where the day’s break would always mop up the meagre points on offer.
The changes in the mountains classification lent greater weight to the big summit finishes, meaning that the jersey would be decided by someone who was prominent on the key climbing days rather than a tactician who mopped up points on lesser days and won the jersey by stealth. Samuel Sánchez had a win and two seconds on the four Pyrenean and Alpine summit finishes. There was no argument that he was a worthy winner, and even if the polka dot jersey is still something of a consolation prize and a poor relation to its yellow and green cousins, at least it was won in a deserving and visible fashion.
3. Is the Giro/Tour double now impossible?
I commented after last year’s Tour on the fact that those top riders who had ridden in both the Giro and the Tour all had much poorer results in the latter race, and that was even more the case this year. It is now virtually impossible for a cyclist to shake off the fatigue of a tough Giro in time to be 100% for the Tour, even assuming that he is capable of managing to hit peak form twice in quick succession. Alberto Contador trounced his rivals at the Giro, but looked heavy-legged for much of the Tour and could only finish fifth – this from the man who had won his previous six Grand Tour participations. Contador has already stated that he will not ride the Giro again.
In all, only two of the top 35 finishers at the Tour also competed at the Giro. AG2R’s Hubert Dupont finished an anonymous 22nd, having come 12th in Italy.
Increasingly now, it is a case of either/or. The serious Tour contenders now sit out the Giro, which weakens the field at the earlier race. Cadel Evans skipped it this year, having attempted both last year, and it seemed to pay off handsomely as the resultant freshness in his legs allowed him to lead two massive chases in the Alps which ultimately provided the springboard to his eventual win.
It is increasingly an issue, though. The Giro and the Tour are both wonderful races, but with all the top riders now splitting their efforts it is a problem which is to the detriment of both races.
4. Why so many crashes?
Particularly in the opening week, there was a larger than usual number of crashes, particularly ones involving top GC contenders. Bradley Wiggins, Alexandre Vinokourov, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Janez Brajkovič and Chris Horner all crashed out before the first rest day, with Andreas Klöden following later. There were a number of factors at play here. The stage one accident which delayed Contador by over a minute put everyone on edge and desperate to ride on the front, and a combination of narrow roads and windy conditions contributed to several of the crashes. Damp roads towards the end of the first week didn’t help either. And neither did camera bikes and media cars, which brought down Nicki Sørensen, Juan Antonio Flecha and, most dramatically of all, Johnny Hoogerland.
The fact is crashes will always happen in a giant race such as the Tour de France. And the ones involving the intervention of other vehicles were certainly avoidable. But arguably the nerve-inducing effect of Contador’s initial crash had the biggest impact of all. Thankfully at least there was no repeat of Weylandt’s fatal Giro crash or the one involving a police outrider which killed a female spectator two years ago.
5. Will the French ever win the Tour again?
Everyone got very excited over Thomas Voeckler‘s ten days in yellow, but brave though his defence of the jersey was it should be remembered that he only earned it by being in a successful breakaway rather than taking time in a direct head-to-head. The reality is that Voeckler, for all his undoubted talents, does not have the right set of skills to be a genuine Tour contender. Nonetheless, with five riders in the final top 15, there is reason for optimism that one of Pierre Rolland, Jérôme Coppel or Arnold Jeannesson – all 25 or under – can develop into a real force in the next couple of years. If it’s going to be any of them, my money’s on Rolland.
Voeckler is certainly capable of another top ten finish, but riding for the GC does not play to his strengths. Give me the swashbuckling, attacking, never-say-die rider we are accustomed to seeing rather than one who is content to follow wheels to finish in the relative anonymity of ninth or tenth place.
6. A race of champions
Helped by a fantastic parcours and the evenness of the competition, the 2011 Tour provided an even greater quota of champions and heroes than the usual. The four jersey winners – Evans, Cavendish, Sánchez and Rolland – require little explanation. But you can add to those Andy Schleck and Contador for their long-range mountain attacks (even though Andy loses points for his tentative attacking in the Pyrenees and constant whining whenever the stage finished with a descent). Gilbert was the hero of the first week, Voeckler the second. Thor Hushovd won two unlikely stages courtesy of his superior descending skills. Edvald Boasson Hagen and Jelle Vanendert emerged from the shadow of injured team leaders to take maiden stage wins. Johnny Hoogerland became the spiritual successor to Jens Voigt as the Tour’s tough guy. And Voigt himself provided his own typical Jens Voigt moment, crashing heavily before remounting to explode the peloton on a subsequent climb.
In truth, though, all 167 finishers were heroes one and all.
7. Will Andy Schleck ever win the Tour?
He has some way to go before he matches the record of Joop Zoetemelk (six) and Jan Ullrich (five), but Andy Schleck already holds the dubious honour of being the only man to finish as runner-up in three consecutive years. He may yet be awarded the 2010 edition retrospectively, depending on the outcome of Contador’s twice-delayed hearing at CAS, but will he ever win the Tour on the road?
I am beginning to doubt it. His physical talent is prodigious. No one, not even Contador, can sustain an attack on a climb for as long as Schleck can, and as he showed with his attack more than 60km out en route to his solo win atop the Galibier, he has stamina too. But, even in an era where the pendulum is swinging away from time trial specialists, his weakness against the clock and his dislike for descending and cold, wet conditions are well-documented and considerable handicaps. Against the likes of Contador and Evans, he effectively starts every Grand Tour with a 1½-2 minute disadvantage, and in the modern sport where even the three-week Grand Tours are now won by seconds rather than minutes, that is too big a head start to give his rivals.
Even more worryingly though, is the feeling that he lacks the sheer bloody-mindedness of a great champion. Evans has it. Contador too, and before him Lance Armstrong, Bernard Hinault and all the other great champions. Schleck looks over his shoulder too often, complains too often and seems too content with coming second to suggest he lacks the searing hatred of losing and that crucial all-consuming desire to win at all costs. Cycling’s greatest champions have all been driven by their flaws as much as their strengths. With Andy, I get the feeling he is restrained by them, and I genuinely fear whether we will ever see this talented and likeable young man wear the yellow jersey in Paris.