On a day of drama packed into less than two and a half hours, we were on the Col de Portet trying to make sense of it all.
And there was plenty to discuss, both positive and negative, regarding a day of innovation, determination and aggravation.
Positives and negatives from stage 17 of the Tour.
Comme ci comme ca
The hotly-anticipated F1-style start grid turned out to be much ado about nothing. As many suspected, the front runners simply sat up and looked around, those with serious intentions of immediately attacking came to the fore, and normal service was resumed within a few hundred metres of the start.
Luke Rowe, for example, surged up from 135th spot to his customary position at the head of the Sky train in a matter of seconds.
Fair play to ASO for trying something new. Do not expect to see it return in 2019 though.
Another innovation from ASO, but this time with great success. The 65km from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Saint-Lary-Soulon was the shortest road stage of the modern era since split-stage days were last included in 1991.
Contrary to what the bloke above would have you believe, it provided non-stop entertainment, attacking from the gun, and a worthy winner – all packed into less than two and a half hours. Who needs three hours of ambling through the French countryside before racing proper begins? Chapeau Le Tour.
Making its Tour debut, the Col de Portet was everything you’d want from a Pyrenean climb: stunningly scenic, tough without being savagely brutal a la Angliru, and with a decent road surface.
Indeed, when we visited the Portet in April, we left scratching our heads over whether they could turn what was then an unrideable goat track into a passable road. Well, they did, and the Tour has gained another iconic climb for future editions. Bravo.
Nairo Quintana is something of an enigma, certainly when it comes to the Tour. Having won the Giro and the Vuelta at a relatively young age, success in France should surely have followed by now. Yet he seems no closer to that top spot of the podium in Paris than he ever was. Movistar’s three-pronged attack of Quintana, Valverde and Landa has only muddied the issue – less chiefs and more indians, especially in the new eight-man team format, might have produced better results.
If winning atop the Col de Portet was something of a consolation prize for the Colombian, then it was an eye-catching one and hopefully a sign of better things to come. You’d be hard pressed to find a more popular winner on the day
Dan Martin – or Tenacious D as we have decided to dub him – has been a joy to watch at this race. His win on stage 5 at the Mûr-de-Bretagne was classically Martin-esque: he goes early, we all start shouting at the TV: “You’ve gone too soon!” But he holds on and we gladly eat our words.
He’s been racing with a smile on his face, attacking on one stage this week “because I was bored”, and looked at one point on Wednesday as if he might actually catch Quintana.
As is often the way with Team Sky, there is no weak link in their team selection. Every rider in that eight knows what they have to do and does it to the letter.
If eyebrows were raised at the inclusion of 21-year-old Egan Bernal in the Sky line-up – too young, inexperienced, likely to burn out – then they are now firmly lowered. The gifted Colombian had been nothing short of sensational from start to finish. It might be worth double-checking the date of birth on his passport, as he has shown maturity beyond his years. A star in the making.
Peter Sagan crashing is rarer than Chris Froome swearing, but crash he did on the high-speed descent off Col de Val Louron-Azet.
Thankfully, the world champion was able to continue. It would be cruel to see the sport’s biggest star removed from the race two years running. Who else could describe their brush with race-ending injury with such aplomb: “I flew through the forest and I hit a big rock with my ass.”
Sagan rocks. Period.
Having seen Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel and Mark Renshaw all eliminated after missing the time cut on the brief 108km stage 11, there were concerns that the brevity of this stage might result in another swathe of sprinters saying goodbye to Le Tour.
Thankfully, the committee extended the cut, based on the winner’s time, to 25 per cent, due to “grande difficulté”. The fact Arnaud Démare, who finished one from last, almost half an hour after Quintana, was within the limit vindicated the decision from the judges: the Frenchman won the following day in Pau.
Seeing the gendarmarie recruitment vehicles in the publicity caravan led me to wonder what qualifications might be advantageous for a career in the French police force. Wllingness to pepper spray protesters – and therefore the peloton – in the face at point blank range without compunction? Ability to wrench Tour de France winners from their bicycles then claim mistaken identity?
To be fair to the unfortunate copper involved in the Froome incident, the race was still on and any member of the public attempting to ride down the mountain at that point would be taken aside forcefully – and rightly so. It was most likely the presence of Froome’s bodyguard cycling alongside him, who is clearly not a pro cyclist, that led to the gendarme thinking they were civilians, not racers.
More concerning was the spectator who leaned over the barriers and grabbed the arm of Geraint Thomas in the closing stages. It could easily have resulted in the end of the yellow jersey’s race. And that would have been a travesty.
What was overwhelmingly a good-natured, well-behaved crowd on the Cold de Portet – I saw very few ‘runners’ or drunks, and no anti-Sky behaviour whatsoever – was overshadowed by one moron.
Crowd control remains a problematic conundrum for ASO and the gendarmerie. There is no easy solution in a sport that so closely mixes its sportsmen and women with millions of spectators. Let’s hope the Tour finishes without further unsavoury incidents.