Saturday’s anticlimactic Tour de France stage from Megève to Morzine saw Team Sky’s Chris Froome secure his third Tour de France victory. After Sunday’s processional stage to Paris, the Brit pulled on the yellow jersey once again on France’s most famous street, the Champs Élysées.
The Tour’s twentieth stage was an exercise in control for his Sky team, with four teammates leading him up the final mountain of the race, the fearsome Col de Joux Plane. With a mammoth advantage of 4:05 over second-placed man Romain Bardet of AG2R-La Mondiale, he was never realistically going to be challenged, but what was more surprising was the lack of action in the battle for the podium.
Coming into this penultimate stage the rest of the top 10 was split by just 3:31. However, the only attacking riding we saw towards the end of the stage from a top twenty rider came courtesy of Katusha’s eleventh-placed man Joaquim Rodríguez. His attack saw him jump four places to seventh, moving into a top 10 separated by just 7:11, the smallest such gap in the history of the Tour de France (the second-closest is 7:55, in 1968).
So in a Tour bemoaned by many as lacking action in the General Classification battle, the big question is why? Why hasn’t there been an attempted challenge to Froome? Why haven’t there been any big, risk-everything attacks? Why wasn’t there a podium assault from the likes of Adam Yates or Richie Porte on the final mountain stage?
First, we have to look at the race route. Organisers ASO, seeking a close race decided in the final days, have in recent years tended towards backloading the route with hard mountain stages and time trials. It’s an understandable tactic on its face, as close battles are always the most exciting, the most watched, the most talked about. There’s a reason everybody remembers 1989.
Last July we saw how thrilling this backloading tactic could be, even if Nairo Quintana’s Alpe d’Huez assault ultimately failed. This year though, the plan didn’t come off, with Froome already out of sight in yellow as the race reached its final Alpine stages.
This Tour was billed as a battle between the big three Grand Tour champions — Froome, Quintana (Movistar), and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff). The Colombian looked off-the-pace throughout the Tour, reportedly due to illness and allergies, while Contador’s early abandon robbed us of a rider who is willing to attack whatever situation he may find himself in.
Too much to lose?
Route planning aside, it can also be argued that the Tour as an entity promotes conservative racing. It’s the largest, most-widely watched race on the calendar, and as a result the one with the highest rewards for riders, sponsors, and teams. These factors have traditionally seen riders and teams “settle” for lesser placings, rather than run the risk of attacking and possibly ending up losing time as a result.
Take, for example, Orica-BikeExchange’s Adam Yates. Coming into the final weekend he was safely in the white jersey of Best Young Rider and looking at a probable fourth-place finish. It’s a result nobody would have predicted three weeks ago.
So is it fair to expect him to risk those prizes and UCI points by attacking on the road Morzine, especially considering the treacherous wet descents? I would say no, especially when we saw what happened to Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, and others on the final descent of Stage 19 to Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc. Just look at what the riders had to say after today’s stage. There is a reason that late, risk-it-all attacks are more prevalent at the Tour’s less-visible cousins, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España.
Team Budget Disparity
Speaking of money, we come to the subject of parity, a topic that was often brought up on social media this July. Sky, the race’s dominant team, has the largest budget in the WorldTour with €35million, as reported by L’Equipe. That’s a whopping €20million more than Quintana’s Movistar team.
Sky’s staff and rider wage budget alone is €24million, a sum which dwarfs the entire team budget of many other WorldTour teams. Cannondale-Drapac boss Jonathan Vaughters recently pointed out this budget disparity, claiming that his highest-paid rider would rank seventh on Sky’s Tour squad. Meanwhile the boys in argyle have an estimated budget of €10million. It’s this financial chasm that enables Sky to hire riders, who would be team leaders elsewhere, as super-domestiques.
The sight of this Sky train — Wout Poels, Geraint Thomas, Mikel Landa, Sergio Henao, and Mikel Nieve — leading Froome and the rest of the peloton up the mountains was unavoidable this July. With such strength in depth, it’s hardly surprising that attacks were few and far between, especially when even escape attempts by men minutes down on GC have often been shut down by the team.
That’s not to say that attacks are impossible; Rodríguez was successful on Stage 20, as was the previous day’s winner, Romain Bardet, who moved into second overall. But short of other teams creating similar super-squads — a certain impossibility considering the reported budgets — it looks very hard to compete with Sky.
Several solutions to this financial dominance have been suggested by fans and journalists, as well as team owners, with the subject of a budget cap often coming up, though such a measure would inevitably be opposed by the rider’s union, the CPA.
Another idea, proposed by Tour boss Christian Prudhomme, is to reduce the number of riders per team, perhaps to eight, rather than nine. Such proposals are worth an in-depth look, but that is for another day and another article.
Of course Team Sky has every right to field a team which gives them the best chance of success. But on this occasion there can be no doubt that their dominance, along with the other factors already discussed (some adjustable, some not), diminished the GC excitement.
That’s not to say the 2016 Tour lacked action and interest. Despite of the absence of memorable GC battles, we witnessed a number of thrilling moments: the photo-finish sprints; the chaos on Mont Blanc; attacking riding from Thomas De Gendt, Jarlinson Pantano, and Peter Sagan; Froome’s infamous jog on Ventoux. They will all last long in the memory. I just hope that this time next year we’ll once again have an entertaining fight for the biggest prize of them all.