ICYMI: The Tour de France Happened

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The dude at rest

{Photo via Bradley Wiggins Foundation}

Neither Andy Schleck nor Alberto Contador took part in the annual vault over the Pyrenees and Alps in this latest Tour De France, and I assured myself this was the best and worst thing for race watchability. It was bad because both men ride bravely, and do not like each other, and their rivalry has always been fun. It was good because of the possibility to discover a new champion. Intuitively, watchability would be highest when the best dudes are grappling on the alpine finishes, and not at home with a doping suspension (Contador) or a broken pelvis (Andy), because the race would then have the potential for more fireworks and less chance for someone to win simply by time-trialing well, which is monolithically boring.

Last year’s mountain duels between Contador, Andy Schleck, and Cadel Evans were full of hours of sustained uphill struggle that would break normal people in mere minutes. The thrills of watching the Tour—which is not traditionally riveting television—lie in strategy and displays of will that defy physiological realities. Watching the Tour is an act of emotional chiaroscuro, shading from brilliant feats of endurance and high-speeds-up-really-steep-hills-thing into the dark of doping and potentially deadly crashes. Within the first four stages this year, Mark Cavendish won his twenty-first career stage and then got swept up in a crash two days later, just three kilometers from the finish. The same thing happened to Peter Sagan, who won two of his first three stages ever at Le Tour, and crashed out close to the finish. Agony and Ecstasy, Lord Giveth and Lord Taketh, etc. Those dramatic principles work regardless of star power, so even without the big names riding, the 2012 Tour should have been refreshingly wide open.

With Contador and Andy Schleck on the sidelines, the consensus among Tour insiders was that Cadel Evans, a 35-year-old Australian rider, would defend his title. But some expected a free-for-all. Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwin were on my TV insisting that Bradley “Wiggo” Wiggins was the man to beat. Evans and Wiggins rode at the head of the virtual pack because of their abilities to climb as well as ride time trials at an elite level (this year’s course was heavier on individual time trials than usual). However, both have holes in their game. Evans can undeniably ball the fuck out, but he is 35 and already the oldest post-war winner. Wiggins has a pair of top five grand tour (The Giro D’Italia, Vuelta A Espana and Tour De France) finishes, but hasn’t shown a sufficient body of work to allay fears that he can hang when the pure mountain goats are attacking on the fourth big climb of the day. Plus he has that sideburn situation that I can’t decide if I love or if I hate and he is way into being a Mod. This is not to say that Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador are perfect cyclists. Last year’s penultimate time trial revealed a stylistic gap between pure climbers and all-around experts as Schleck’s small lead was gobbled whole by Evans despite Schleck putting forth maybe his best time trial ever. Contador is a maddening cyclist, seeming to exist in a head-scratching corner of space-time, where he can look the bravest man on the road one climb and then crumble with a whimper the next, which was the unfortunate case last year.

The rest of the contending pack this year was large, and on paper appeared to have the quality to lend the final week of racing an air of chaos. Pegged for third behind Wiggins and Evans was Fränk Schleck, the elder of the Luxembourger brothers, third place last year and likely the best pure climber in the field. Fränk also suffers the same time trial issues as Andy. I convinced myself Russian rider Denis Menchov could contendt, on account of his dual climbing and trialing prowess. He was my personal favorite, because of his insistent style as well as his history of winning and outdueling pretty much everyone on any given non-sprint stage (he has won high-mountain stages as well as time trials). Menchov has won a pair of Vueltas, one Giro and has a couple of Paris podiums as well. His team (Katusha) will never lend the elite support of a Radio Shack or a Sky (the squads headed by Schleck and Wiggins respectively), but the beauty of the Tour is that the winners are usually decided on the most grueling of climbs, where a rider is out there truly alone, sans domestics.

But Fränk Schleck and Menchov were just two of a whole damn derby of dark horses threatening to unseat Evans by the power of One Transcendent Ride. Vincenzo Nibali (All-Name Squad: First Team forever) had a good team in Liquigas-Cannondale backing him and focused all his season on riding high at the Tour, as opposed to the Giro D’Italia as is par for many Italian riders. Garmin-Sharp teammates Ryder Hesjedal and Tommy Danielson both had top 10 finishes on their resumes and Hesjedal looked primed after he won the Giro. Hell, between Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, Haimar Zubeldia, Pierre Rolland, Tejay Van Garderen, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Robert Gesink and Sammy Sanchez I had talked myself into hypothetically taking the field vs. Evans or Wiggins or F. Schleck. It almost always takes something greater than good form and strategy to win the Tour. The most essential quality is bravery. The contenders’ teams will set them up, the strongest men will race up the mountain together, but to win you have to give the one-finger salute to your doubts and concerns about how awful you feel and push past the pack or hang onto a breakaway attack.

With the field temporarily thinned of its two strongest (Andy and Contador) for a year, the Tour De France lost its capacity for chaos on top of the leaderboard and attacks upon attacks after the first time trial. The previous stage, Cadel Evans and other contenders had poked and prodded but none could get free of the peloton. Fränk Schleck himself was actually dropped on the first real mountain of the race, and later left the race under a cloud of doping charges. The tepid atmosphere was disappointing and nobody looked dominating. The eventual lead group had thinned to eight select climbers, three of whom were Wiggins’ teammates, and one of whom was Wiggins. Such an elite level of support assured that Wiggins would be well looked after and disappointingly wouldn’t really be forced to rise up and take the tour in the mountains, a la Andy Schleck on the Col du Galibier last year. In the time trial, Wiggins went hog wild and took a two-minute lead on Evans, heading into the Alps. His two-minute lead didn’t appear decisive immediately, but with another time trial looming in a week and a full staff of Sherpas, Wiggins could chill to a certain degree and let Chris Froome and co. look after him. On the last Pyrenean stage, Wiggins did break away from Nibali et al. and extend his lead on the field ever so slightly, but it was less of a defiant attack off the front than simply the act of holding onto Froome while the field melted away slowly.

The lack of parity on the 2012 Tour was disappointing. Wiggins is likely the world’s best time trialist, and he won his first Tour De France (and Britian's first ever) without a signature ride, without a brash display of guts and will. His team’s pedigree meant that the aforementioned chaos was snuffed out before it could express itself. The feeling was late period Armstrongian in its boring dominance. It’s brilliant cycling of course, but there is precious little heart in such a win. The peloton full of potential suprises never delivered on the promise. Wiggins morphed into the favorite that was lacking. But he asserted himself monolithically, with no flair. I want Andy Schleck back. Sometimes he can be disappointing, but he always makes me feel something. His style is a step beyond that of Wiggins or Evans in that he seems uncomfortable with stasis, and generally refuses to settle. The difference this year without Andy was that the main field appeared comfortable. Last year when he was on the hunt the peloton seemed shaken, wary that he would attack at every sensible opportunity. His climbing ability is such that he can make violent accelerations look effortless on steep inclines, and this allows him to get the jump on any who hope to hang on. Next year, with Froome perhaps riding his first tour for himself instead of Wiggo, Andy returning with a chip on his (very small) shoulder, the champ Wiggins back, and possibly the first year of Tejay Van Garderen riding to win, we could see a return to a wild Tour.

Patrick Redford lives in Berkeley, California, where he studies space and eats pizza. He tweets @patrickredford.

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