I split my time yesterday afternoon between the conclusion of Stage 9, with the cyclists rising and falling (and rising and falling – it was a Reggie Perrin of a stage) in Pyrenees, with the beginning of Andy Murray’s match at Wimbledon.
There are similarities between what Murray achieved yesterday and the feat that Sir Bradley Wiggins completed last year, and both deserve their places in the annals of sport history – both were utterly compelling even if both were completed, towards the end, with an element of inevitability.
Sport is highly regarded because it has the ability to surprise. You know that Manchester United are a better team than Exeter City, and you know that they’ll most likely beat them, but there is always a hair of doubt that they won’t, always a chance that the apple cart will be upset.
Towards the end of Murray’s victory yesterday, even if he ended up stumbled over the line, there was a crushing obviousness that he would win from the middle of the third set. With Wiggins, so well marshalled was he, that from the moment he stepped into yellow in La Planche des Belles Filles it was never really in doubt – helped by the Stage 9 time trial a couple of days later.
In truth, both contests became more human contests than sporting contests, and both victors (though thoroughly deserved) were fighting themselves, and history, more than their opponents by the end – witness Andy Murray’s final game.
It is that context of Wiggins’ victory I was holding going into this year’s Tour de France, hoping we got more of a competition than last year’s.
It has been a delight over the first week, however, and genuinely exciting – every day telling a different story. Stage one brought an epic crash serving to delay the anticipate sprint battle, stage two saw Bakelants survive the peloton by a second. Peter Sagan’s first day in the sun was robbed by Simon Gerrans on stage three, while his Orica-Greenedge team remained buoyed enough to clinch the Time Trial in Nice.
Mark Cavendish won in Marseille to soothe his temper a little, only to see it sear again the day afterwards when Greipel came pipped him. Sagan’s team were impeccable in the last pre-mountain stage, before Sky performed the same trick into the Pyrenees burning themselves out to leave Chris Froome in yellow, but under threat yesterday.
Yesterday’s stage was the most gripping of the lot, I think. Seeing Richie Porte, Visili Kiriyenka (who I’m informed missed the time cut-off yesterday) Ian Kennaugh and Chris Froome battle their way to lead team leader Froome to victory on Saturday brought to mind last year’s tour, if not in the way Froome powered away from Contador at the summit.
There’s something of the evil genius about Dave Brailsford. His cycling squads are designed to peak (if you’ll pardon the pun) at exactly the right time, and seemingly Saturday was targeted as Sky’s important stage.
Yesterday, however, Team Sky really paid the price for their efforts. Froome is talented enough, and in form enough, that he managed to stave off Quintana’s attacks but Porte looked to be going backwards, Kiriyenka had obviously blown a gasket and Kennaugh was deeply (literally) unfortunate to fall like he did.
Sean Ingle (whose summer I am incredibly jealous of) discusses exactly this in today’s Guardian and how that shell of humanity that Team Sky displayed is probably for the good of the sport in the long run.
Nobody doubts that Brailsford’s charges are talented and well drilled, but they’re not superhumans, and making ‘superhuman’ sacrifices will bring about a future cost. So it did yesterday.
This year’s Tour de France is unfolding beautifully, then. There’s something for Sky supporters, and something to hold onto for Sky detractors, and while Froome was still 1/8 (1.125 for all you foreign gamblers) to win the Tour before yesterday’s stage started, it feels nothing like as etched in stone as Wiggins’ victory last year.
Watching Froome bomb away from the field on Saturday left me not just a little surprised, but also wishing that Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali was in the race. Contador looks (though I’d love to be proven wrong) to be not quite at the top of his game and Quintana, and by virtue of that, Valverde weren’t quite a good enough double act to break Froome yesterday.
I just feel that the mountainously explosive and irritatingly insistent Nibali would have been a valuable ally to those trying to scupper Sky’s plans. I understand the decision to race the Giro, but this is a Tour designed to Nibali’s strengths.
I also know I’ve tweeted about this before, but I’m also really disappointed with Lampre-Merida this tour. There just seems to be absolutely no reason for them to be there – with a performance almost as poor as their colour scheme.
Highest position for each:
GC 24th – Jose SERPA
MV 23rd – Roberto FERRARI
KoM 38th – Przamyslaw NIEMIEC
MB 17th – Elia FAVILLI
I shall be keeping my eyes on Lampre; hell, in that garish pink, I can hardly miss them.