PARIS, France — As Chris Froome stepped off the podium with another Tour de France champion’s yellow jersey Sunday, his rivals were left asking two questions.
Firstly, how could they beat the triple Tour champion; and what can be done to stop his team’s domination that stifled the three-week race of excitement.
Make no mistake, the Tour remains the world’s biggest and most prestigious bike race. It is also an event that far exceeds its purpose as a sporting event; as race director Christian Prudhomme reminded on Saturday. At Morzine, he first spoke of Sky, comparing them to the Paris Saint Germain of French football, but then directed his thoughts to the Tour’s social impact on society.
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“On the road of the Tour there are hundreds of thousands and millions with smiles on their faces,” said Prudhomme, adding in reference to recent terrorist attacks such as the July 14 Bastille Day tragedy in Nice.
“We had smiles on the faces [of those fans], but it was not only for the champions. They said, ‘We want to live as we want to live in our western world.'”
However, turning back the face of the Tour as a sporting event, many believe this year’s race will not go down as one of the memorable because of Sky’s stranglehold. That is not to detract from the achievement of Sky and Froome and even his main rivals.
Sky selected a Tour team stacked with ‘winners’ in their own right. They protected Froome in every front; especially in the Pyrenees and Alps where they rode at a tempo so strong that it stifled anyone’s ability to attack. Prudhomme believes reducing team sizes to from nine to eight riders would animate the Tour.
“More than ever, it’s time to have teams with one less rider,” said Prudhomme who, like many, felt that Sky’s collective strength basically “shut down the race in the mountains.”
Nevertheless, Prudhomme expects many team managers would need convincing of this proposal that would also need the ratification from the Union Cycliste Internationale.
“The biggest teams would not want to even like to hear of this talk,” Prudhomme said. “But perhaps they can understand that it is about the greater interest of cycling.”
Matt White, head sports director of the Orica-BikeExchange team that saw Briton Adam Yates finishing fourth overall and winning the white jersey as the Tour’s best young rider, was all praise for Froome.
“He is a Tour great,” White told ESPN. “But it is not just because of his results. A lot of riders win the Tour. What stands out is the way he has handled unfair criticism of their team and the alleged ‘this’ and alleged ‘that’ …”
But White believes several things have led to a lack of excitement in a Tour dominated by Sky. He cited Sky’s superior annual budget, the stage lengths, and a peloton cleaner than that of the dope-fuelled 1990s and early 2000s.
Asked if he is better versed on how to beat Sky and Froome now that Orica-Bike Exchange has gone up against the Briton in the race for general classification with Yates, White said: “They have very few weaknesses and I guess ours is our bank account.
“It is hard to compete with those guys with the budget they have got. Seven of their riders here would be our highest paid athlete. Then you have got guys like Leopold Köenig who was sixth in the Tour last year is not even here … Nicolas Roche too.
“Every single rider on Sky [in their Tour team], except for the two work horses — Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard — would be a leader of any other team. That is what we are dealing with.”
During this year’s Tour, four of 21 stages were longer than 200km. “We don’t have to keep racing the same distance as we have been since time began,” White said. “It’s been proven that shorter races make more exciting races. Team time trials are a great event. They should be included every year in the Tour.”
White also believes less doping has impacted riders’ ability to attack.
“The sport has changed for the good, but it shows now that people are human,” White said. “That’s a good change but maybe that has made the racing a bit more negative because people are human. People can’t do super human things any more, and we have seen that.
“Take Froome out of the equation with his super team … between second and 10th places it would be the closest Tour in modern cycling. Why? All those riders are on a similar level.
“When things are so close [on the general classification] people are cautious. That is because they’re not super human. They have to make more judged analytical decisions.”
Charlie Wegelius, head sports director of the American Cannondale-Drapac team, lauded Sky its iron clad and talent rich structure that is based solely around the annual goal of Froome winning another Tour.
“I can understand that the race hasn’t been interesting for people watching Sky smother things.”
“I don’t agree it is a gamble because if you have Chris Froome in your team you have a very clear objective,” Wegelius told ESPN. “If you don’t keep him upright or the air doesn’t stay in his tyres you just wait for next year. It’s so easy to look at their strategy as an example but … the resources are unlimited.”
“I think they have managed them very well and they are very smart, but it’s very easy to make a strategy when you don’t have to make a Plan B, C, D, E and F. Nobody wants to spread themselves thin, but the reality at the other end of the table is quite different.
“Somebody in the management of that organisation makes sure that nine highly paid and highly motivated athletes with short careers stay in the order in which you out them. There is probably financial and security aspects to that, but everybody knows that bike riders are ambitious, and to keep that discipline … I can’t imagine that is straightforward.”
Wegelius understandably rates Froome highly. He said: “[Froome’s teammates] can make the tempo, but if he is standing there with one leg up and one leg down because he hasn’t got the legs, it is useless. He gets the best possible ride, but at the end of the day when those riders have exhausted themselves he can still go which means he must be pretty strong.”
But Wegelius empathises with those who lament this Tour’s lack of X-factor, saying: “I can understand that the race hasn’t been interesting for people watching Sky smother things. As a kind of old fashioned cycling fan I just can’t watch it. Even though I’d like to see him do it in a more attractive way for the sake of it, he seems to be the best.”