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A Tale of Two Races?

Was it the best of races or was it the worst of races?

Probably not the former given the withdrawals and certainly nowhere the latter since it was exciting on a daily basis and full of talking points. It was however a tale of two races.

Up front, Vincenzo Nibali was in a race of his own and from stage 9 onwards was only racing against the spectre of the absent Froome and Contador. He continually had to set out his stall to counter the ‘What if..’ merchants but arguably from Stage 2 onwards he’d proven that he had the class to be there or thereabouts in this Tour. Whilst the stage into Sheffield demonstrated the Sharks racing nous and ability to think quickly, it was the cobbled Stage 5 that had the world sitting up and thinking that here was a rider who’d turned up with overall victory on his mind. The tactics and positioning of Astana were exemplary, Nibali’s ability to suffer in poor weather were amply demonstrated and yet again he proved to have abundant bike handling skills. It was a Classics masterclass that begged the question why he doesn’t get more involved in the spring? Even though Froome was already out he’d put enough time into Contador to suggest this was going to be a great race.

Once Contador had withdrawn then the only thing Vincenzo could do was control, dominate and eventually destroy the also rans. Which he did – again and again. Nibali fans will be well aware of his attacking sensibilities which he underlined this year whenever the road went upwards. The strength and speed of his tactics tore the field apart whenever he went full gas and netted him some brilliant stage wins. Undoubtedly his dominance also drew questions about the purity of his performance especially given that he ended up with the biggest winning margin for 17 years. Obviously his dominance was aided by the 2 biggest favourites withdrawing as surely it would have been a totally different podium otherwise, but for us one of the most telling stats is the climbing times displayed this year. On the Hautacam, The Shark of Messina did not make the top 25 climbing times of the last 20 years. On a league table dominated by dodgy dopers (Riis is number one by the way) – his average time was nearly 2kmph down on the fastest recorded and not many of the other finishers this year scraped the top 50.

 

So – put away the cynicism, look at the facts and raise a glass for a superb athlete.

 

Race 2 was all about the rise of the French and the Youngsters. Time and again we were treated to the likes of Pinot, Bardet, Konig and Van Garderen trying to kick lumps out of each other and who could not be moved by the emotion displayed by the oldie Peraud on clinching second on GC? For the long suffering French fans they must also have been delighted with the class and tactics repeatedly displayed by both the FDJ and AG2R teams.

Probably the best example of this was on Stage 16 from Carcassone to Bagneres-de-Luchon that included the ascent and descent of Port de Bales. Chasing the White Jersey, and looking to kick Valverde off the podium, Thibaut Pinot put in a really strong climbing display towards the top of the the Port de Bales. Aided and abetted by his teammate Jeannesson (who seems to have regained some of the climbing skills that netted him 15th on GC in 2011) and perhaps mindful of what was to come the FDJ pair slowly turned the screw and dropped all the leading contenders towards the top. And what was to come?  – only the twisty, narrow and dangerous descent into Bagneres-de-Luchon.

Not normally a problem unless, like Pinot, you lose your bottle the previous year and pull out as you genuinely fear descending and cannot compete. Luckily for Pinot he’s got a great team around him – brother Julien is coach and in team manager Marc Madiot, FDJ have a wily old manager who believes in his charges and backs that with support. What does the canny Madiot do? Well, in a brilliant case of lateral thinking, just book some racing car lessons to give Thibaut a new taste for speed and bring back the nerve to corner at full pelt. The canny thing then in a race situation is to have a teammate further up(or down in this case!!)the road who really can descend. Cue Jeremy Roy, placed in the days break and waiting on the descent for Pinot to catch up so he can offer his back wheel as guide and show Thibaut the best lines. Brilliant tactics and brilliant execution that set up Pinot for third overall.

Another telling moment for me was not a racing moment as such but a post race interview. At the end of the ITT on stage 20, having punctured and lost 5th on GC by 2 seconds the reaction of Bardet was telling. Here was a 23 year old, who time and again threw everything at the race (and might have done better had his team not also been supporting Peraud) and yet he was beating himself up. I don’t doubt he’ll come back fighting stronger and give us plenty of chances to admire his super fast cadence!!

Two Frenchmen on the podium, with 6 in total in the top 20, best team in AG2R(who were also best team in the Giro), 2 stage wins and a Frenchman in Yellow on Bastille Day. Of the 4 teams who finished with all 9 riders 3 were French. Plus Tommy still gurns better than anyone!!