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BRUSSELS (CT) — The Tour de France is open, they say. And they long for it to be true. You can feel the hope in the words and the spaces between the words that are spoken at the press conferences.
“Anything can happen without Froome racing,” Nairo Quintana said.
“Maybe people have a fear of Froome,” Richie Porte said. Maybe that’s why they didn’t attack.
The desire for an open tour, a free-flowing, attack-filled Tour, is clear. And understandable. Without the most prolific winner of the last decade — indeed, without two-thirds of last year’s podium — the lack of a clear favorite may indeed define this Tour. But the Tour’s dominant team remains.
Will this really be an open Tour de France?
Here’s the argument for an open Tour.
Three of last year’s top four — everyone except Geraint Thomas — are not in this Tour de France. Froome is out, Tom Dumoulin is out, and Primoz Roglic was never going to start. Apply last year’s Tour logic to this year’s race and at least two podium spots are up for grabs.
There are, depending on whom you ask, somewhere between ten and fifteen legitimate, on-form contenders for the vacated podium spots. Romain Bardet said ten yesterday. That fight will be fierce.
Plus, Froome’s absence opens more than a podium spot. It could change the way riders will approach the race. It could embolden them. They know what Froome could do – but can Geraint Thomas find last year’s form again? Can Egan Bernal handle the pressure? There is incentive to test both.
“It’s a bit special, more open, it’ll be a much different Tour than usual,” Quintana said yesterday, at his team’s pre-race press conference.
Porte echoed him, positing that riders were scared to attack Froome. “Last year they didn’t attack that much, it definitely changes it a lot. To have those two guys out [Froome and Dumoulin], second and third in the Tour last year, it’s a totally different ballgame.”
This argument is predicated on the idea that the “closed” feel of recent Tours was primarily caused by a fear of Froome, and his ability to follow almost any move. This led to defensive racing from the only climbers who may have been able to occasionally take time. Defensive climbing, in combination with a deficit to Froome and Thomas in time trials, led to their defeat. It also led to boring Tours.
Do we buy that?
Blaming closed tours on Froome alone requires a narrow definition of ‘open.’ It ignores the team and the tactics that, in less than a decade, sent three different riders into the Paris in yellow.
“It will be an open race, but we know that Ineos has in its court to always compete and control the race,” Trek manager Luca Guercilena told VeloNews reporter Gregor Brown yesterday.
There’s a saying I like. It goes something like this: Everything before the ‘but’ is bullshit. Which brings us to the argument that this Tour will feel like every other.
Guercilena is a smart man – he sees, and knows, that it wasn’t Froome or Dumoulin or any single rider holding the Tour together for the last half-decade. There were seven riders who rode in front of Wiggins and then Froome and then Thomas. A version of that seven are here in Brussels. Porte and Quintana know this too, as does Romain Bardet.
“I have no illusions about the collective strength of Ineos,” Bardet told l’Equipe. “I think there is not much that changes. This is the biggest race in the world: here, riders are at 100% of their potential. It would be offensive to those here to say that there are openings.”
Froome is gone this year, but Ineos remains. It will still have three or four riders left when other teams are down to one or two. Michal Kwiatkowski will still set a pace at the base of climbs that makes attacking impossible; Wout Poels will still slowly claw back attacks in the middle; Egan Bernal can pull them back at the top.
If we define an “open” Tour as one in which riders have both the desire and the ability to attack, a Tour marked by lead changes and dynamism and derring-do, then this Tour will not be any more open than any other in recent years, because the same team will be in control. At best, the door to this Tour is cracked open a little, but certainly not swung wide.
Two arguments, both compelling in their own way. Was it Ineos’ strength or a fear of Froome that clamped down on the Tour? The truth, perhaps, lies somewhere in the middle.
We’re about to find out.