At Tour Colombia, proof that exciting stage racing still exists

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The impromptu near-trackstand competition with less than one kilometer to go was the icing on the cake. Superman Lopez and his arch-nemesis, Ivan “The Terrible” Sosa, stared each other down, weaving across the final climb to Alto de Palmas in a tiny-man match sprint played out at 8,500 feet.

Around the corner came Nairoman and he, too, joined in the games, briefly, before punching it up the left-hand side in the same moment Superman tacked right, cutting off Ivan The Terrible (I don’t think he has a nickname yet, so this is my suggestion) at a crucial moment. Nairoman flew, alone, over the crest of the climb with his arms in the air to chants of “NAIRO, NAIRO, NAIRO.”

Even with a fan-induced incident, the finale of the Tour Colombia sparkled in a way most European stage races don’t, these days. And not just because organizers handed bags of confetti to everyone in the final few hundred meters.

The racing was just better. Makes me wonder why.

I try to avoid falling into the downward spiral of anti-Tour de France negativity, because I have a deep love of le Grand Boucle, but it’s difficult when it sometimes feels like I could fall asleep in the last 20 minutes of a mountain stage and wake up no more ignorant than if I’d kept my eyes open. The dominance of a single team for seven years now makes it feel a bit rote. Fans are very rarely surprised by what unfolds. You know this as well as I do.

I’ve covered eight Tours. My favorite, I think, was 2013, and the best stage that year finished on Mont Ventoux. It was Nairo’s first Tour, and Chris Froome’s first as captain. As they hit the treeless moonscape of the final kilometers, it was just the two of them. Nobody really knew what Nairo could do. He wore no expression, hiding his pain away. We had some inkling of Froome’s future, but it wasn’t yet clear. I crouched down with my knees digging into Ventoux gravel so I could see the tiny TV set up in the Vittel water tent, used by soigneurs, and tried to shield my eyes so I could see each attack, each claw back, and counter. People were cheering and muttering, half to themselves, like they were trying to cast a spell through the screen. We were transfixed by the uncertainty.

The years since have been, well, certain. Overcast by an overwhelming sense of inevitability, which molds into certainty as the rider, at least the team, we all knew was going to win does so. Sky, and Froome in particular, have at times been spectacular and aggressive. But rarely have they been out of sorts.

On Saturday, in Colombia, Julian Alaphilippe, Ivan Sosa and Dani Martinez jumped in a big, day-long breakaway, and rode it to the final climb. The other favorites closed in: Egan Bernal, Superman Lopez, Nairoman Nairoman Nairoman, as the announcer said. As they rounded a left-hand bend, Sosa laid down an attack harder than anything I saw in any grand tour in all of 2018. Martinez slowly clawed his way across. The two young Colombians traded pulls in that familiar, desperate pact, while a select group chased behind. I counted thirteen individual attacks on that final climb, and probably missed some. The lead changed half a dozen times. Alaphilippe, after a day in the break, took the win, but only just.

(Unfortunately, the only video I can find skips over Sosa’s attack. Note how he’s suddenly up the road with Martinez.)

Why can’t the Tour be like this?

There are structural elements at play that make this chaotic, uncertain sort of finale difficult to translate directly to top-tier European stage racing. Cycling, like politics or business or just about any other form of competition, is a game of incentives and power — or control, another way to put it. Both were different in Colombia than they will be at the Tour de France.

Control is the easy one. The teams are smaller in Colombia, but, more importantly, the field’s fitness is all over the place. Chris Froome loudly and proudly trained right through the race; he pulled for about five minutes at the base of the final climb for Bernal and Sosa, then swung off, playing the domestique equivalent of Michal Kwiatkowski. Every Colombian from every WorldTour team showed up, and showed up fit. It’s at altitude, too, adding to the stratification between February fitness haves and have-nots. Control that? Good luck.

Incentives are a bit more nuanced. Tour Colombia isn’t a massive race, so from an international perspective, an overall win doesn’t mean much. For the Colombians at the front, it’s all about putting on a show, winning a stage, showing your country what you can do. That puts the incentive on showmanship and attacks. So not only would any team find it difficult, nay impossible, to control the Tour Colombia like the Tour de France, but there’s no real incentive to do so. When Bernal stepped onto the podium after finishing fourth overall, the crowd below erupted in chants of “Egan! Egan! Egan!” It doesn’t matter that he didn’t win.

At the Tour, and across much of the European calendar, there’s more incentive to avoid losing than there is to try winning. Fourth place is better than 10th, not only from a publicity standpoint but also thanks to the perversion of the UCI points and rankings system. The racing itself is often a victim of the race’s own success.

Where’s Ricky Bobby when you need him? You ain’t first, you’re last? A bit more of that ethos would probably help.

These elements are why it’s a fool’s errand to blame Team Sky for making the Tour de France so damn certain. They are, as Dave Brailsford and others have pointed out numerous times, simply really good at winning the Tour de France. If the best way to win the Tour is to take away as much of its uncertainty as possible, that’s something wrong with the Tour, not with the team that wins it.

This isn’t to say that racing style and culture doesn’t play a role. I think it does, and a dominant, controlling style is boring. Effective, but boring. In contrast, watching the Colombian contingent through the European race calendar is proof that there’s another way. Lopez raced most of the Vuelta just as aggressively as he raced the final stage in Colombia; Bernal finished in the top-ten last year almost as often as he finished outside of it, which is an incredible stat if you think about it. They race like there is something to win, not just something to lose.

Reports this week claim that Brailsford met with the heads of Colombian cycling, and the Colombian president Ivan Duque, to discuss the possibility that state-owned oil company Ecopetrol might take over the team’s sponsorship. It seems like a good match — Sky already has Colombia’s two brightest young talents on board, and is surely salivating at even earlier access to the country’s development pipeline. Should fans of that Colombian style worry it would be tempered by the pragmatism that’s won Sky so many Tours? Probably. But fans of Colombian cyclists would probably get the country’s first Tour victory out of that deal with the devil.

You can blame the last few years of certainty on Sky’s money, or on power meters, or race radios, or simply on the European style of racing. There’s probably a bit of truth to all of it. But Tour Colombia was a reminder that if the incentives are right and some measure of control is removed, bike racing can still sparkle. We want more mid-mountain match sprints. More counter attacks. More chaos.

Some of the Tour’s modernizations have helped. Short stages, smaller teams — both good. Grid start? Not so much. Surely it can do more.

The fun’s in not knowing. The question for the sport’s leaders is simple: How do we get the uncertainty back?

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