The Tour de France 2016 has been and gone, and we can say for certain that it was a remarkable year for the tour. The yellow jersey didn’t win a single mountaintop stage, but instead took a time trial and attacked on descents. Riders came and went from the podium in the final week, and fell in and out of the top ten until the penultimate stage. British riders won exactly one third of all stages, and five of those belonged to new kids on the block Dimension Data. Below we’ve grouped together a few more notable features of this year’s tour, and offer our reflections and a few looks forward.
This year we saw the longest time all the riders spent in the tour without an abandon, which only came with the stage 8 departure of Michael Mørkøv. Other than a fairly large crash right at the end of stage one, there was no horrific pile up in the early, anxiety-ridden days of racing — unlike recent editions. The biggest riders abandoned through freak and unfortunate crashes; most regrettably Alberto Contador dismounted after two unlucky falls, and Tom Dumoulin was sent out of the race late on after a completely routine touching of wheels. Amazingly, Sky, who controlled a large percentage of the race overall and who were always up the front in the finals, lost not a single rider.
Of course, safety is paramount in an Olympic year, and though the games finally drew Cavendish and Cancellara away from the Tour, they’d gambled successfully till late in the race — Cavendish took his stage wins, and both rode themselves into good form ahead of the Olympics. The same can’t be said for Dumoulin, who managed to take two stage wins and was showing the form of his life before he unluckily came down. The tentative bookmakers still have him as second favourite for the Olympic time trial gold, but he fell heavily on his hand and may not ride at all. The new favourite is a man who was barely targeting the Olympics at all, and Chris Froome now has a decent chance at taking both the hilly time trial and the mountainous road race medals. It remains to be seen what he has left in his body after a hard three weeks spent racing, but his form is undeniable.
The British dominance this year is noteworthy in its own right (who would have imagined such a results table even five years ago?), but in particular it’s remarkable because the stage wins for the most part didn’t come from Team Sky. Froome took two for Sky, with Cummings and Cavendish taking a further five for Dimension Data. Add to that the sensational general classification result and White Jersey win by Adam Yates, and Dan McLay’s consistently strong sprint performances, and it’s clear that British cycling is now much bigger than Sky. This is important when you consider that Sky’s exceptionally talented riders like Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe — placed overall in 161st and 151st places respectively — were used up during the early stage of each stage. Without a stage win or a breakaway appearance they were largely anonymous in this year’s tour (other than when the cross winds were hitting). Even Geraint Thomas, after last year’s successes, had fallen by the wayside, perhaps in the knowledge that he was playing third or even fourth fiddle in the mountains for his team. It’s tempting to imagine that a more relaxed Sky, with broader focuses than Froome’s yellow jersey, might have led to a handful of other stage wins.
In short, we’re glad that there are alternative routes into elite cycling for British riders than the well-oiled wheels of the Sky train. (It should be noted that in multiple cases, including McLay, Cummings, and Yates, these routes were made possible thanks to the excellent Dave Rayner Fund). Cavendish was never truly happy in his time with Sky, and his attempts to win the green jersey were put on hold in pursuit of Bradley Wiggins’s bigger goals. Cummings, with his big engine, would be put on rouleur duty with Stannard and Rowe, and would not be able to take the chancy, opportunistic wins that have made him such an impressive and successful rider. And whilst there was much discussion and speculation over whether Adam and Simon Yates would end up in blue and black livery after their spell at Orica, but it’s clear that riding for the Aussie team is doing them both great favours. There’s no way Adam would have been supported as a G.C. rider at Sky, and none, therefore, would have guessed he could peak at third place on the podium for so long. Simon will be getting his turn, albeit alongside Esteban Chaves, in the coming Vuelta a España. In many respects, Orica have matured into a general classification team just as Dimension Data have come along to take their place as the dominant stage winning team. Both represent very exciting and very different alternatives to the big G.C. teams.
Short Stages = Great Racing
For the past few years now, there has been an increasing tendency for designers of Grand Tours to throw in one or two short, sharp mountain stages just before the final sprint fest. These tend to be stages of around, or below, 140km, with several category 1 or above climbs thrown in in quick succession, and usually a summit finish. Often they even start on a high category climb, meaning the riders spend the pre-race hour or so warming up, and the racing happens from the gun. These stages great! The 2015 Vuelta proved to be one of the more memorable Spanish tours in recent history, and this year’s Giro d’Italia served up real excitement with the jersey changing hands in the final week. However, even the last four mountainous stages of this year’s Tour de France couldn’t derail Froome, and, in fact, the uphill time trial worked to his advantage. The course designers are going to have to go all out on the climbs next year to spice up the racing, or else Froome and Sky might threaten to make the Tour de France a duller contest than the Spanish and Italian equivalents.
Sprint Train Controversy
This year, for the first time, we saw sprinters and G.C. teams publicly criticise one another for their placement into the final kilometres of the first week of racing. Every year the G.C. teams show great anxiety about not losing time ahead of the mountains (spare a thought for Richie Porte’s terribly timed puncture), but it seems fair to say that in recent years there has been a move towards getting the G.C. riders right up the front during the frenetic race to the lines. It’s probably not unfair to suggest that this is a further product of Sky’s dominance over the race; after all, Froome is getting something of a reputation for finishing in the top 20, sometimes even the top 10, on days that suit the pure sprinters.
This year, though, Peter Sagan himself came out and spoke out against the “stupid” behaviour of riders who unnecessarily and dangerously throw themselves into the clamour of the sprint trains on such stages. Is risking the loss of time in the G.C. worth risking rider safety? The problem is, of course, that there are no rules in place to police such things, and it would be hard to imagine what a useful rule might be — only dedicated sprint teams at the front of the pack on sprint days? How do you define a ‘sprint team’ or ‘sprint day/stage’ (don’t forget that Sagan himself, with Froome, Bodnar, and Thomas, got off the front on what was meant to be a ‘sprint’ day and won from a late break). No, it has to come down to how the teams want to ride it, and what they prioritise. And for now it seems as though that will be protecting the G.C. riders’ standings by going full gas at the front.
The future of the Yellow Jersey
In closing, we should mention some of the surprises and fresh contenders we saw this year. Foremost amongst these was Bauke Mollema — in no way is he new to the peloton, but it’s been a while since we saw him ride so well. Indeed, his best performance in the Tour de France was sixth in 2013, the year Froome first one. For the most part he rode a consistent game, but he really played a strong hand on the Ventoux stage — which was only slightly hampered by the incident between Porte and a moto. He also rode a great set of time trials, but Mollema came unstuck — badly — over the past few days in the mountains. Will he be one to watch next season? Well, we’re not convinced. What we saw was amazing form from a rider who has had mixed luck over his career. We’d be surprised if he gets so close to the podium again.
However, Adam Yates represents a real challenge to the yellow jersey. Still young enough to qualify for the white jersey, Yates rode his first grand tour as captain with gusto. His style was extremely defensive — he rode a conservative, evenly-paced game and was nearly always hanging around at the back of the lead group. He matched the moves he needed to, but rarely attacked. His memorable descent ahead of the field was hampered by a falling flamme rouge, which is bad luck. However, the only other ‘attack’ he put in was at the top of Arcalis in Andorra, well after Dumoulin had won the stage, when he came in with Froome, Porte, Martin, and Quintana. Having held on to the other rider’s wheels, Yates nipped past Froome to lead across the line, but found no gap, nor bonus seconds. What we saw, though, was a rider doing his best to sensibly reel in the effort, to measure it out over three weeks, and to stay on the top of the pack without expending too much energy or going into the red. And damn, he nearly made it on to the podium. Expect big things in the future from Yates, even if it is still a few years before we can expect to see him in yellow.
A final interesting contender is Jarlinson Pantano. Pontoon’s impressive stage win came after he outfoxed Rafal Majka in sprint following a long and difficult day in the mountains. But Pantano brought himself close to a number of high mountain stage wins, both after descents and up ascents — and came second on two other stages. He showed great skill, versatility, and racing wits, and looks like a good bet for future stage wins. But for G.C. ambitions? Well, don’t be surprised. He’s got a skill set to match Rui Costa or Rigoberto Uran, both of whom have enjoyed the full backing of a world tour team. IAM are not known for their strong G.C. challengers, but they’d be crazy not to support Pantano, if his training suggests he could go the whole way. Expect to see him riding in one-week tours as a form test early next year — and don’t forget he already took a great stage win and fourth on the G.C. in a hotly contested Tour de Suisse this year.