Admit it. You’d never share this with the guys, but there’s something about watching the Tour de France that intrigues you as a sports fan, if only it were a little more manageable and not an incomprehensible three-week slog past fields of sunflowers in which little seems to happen for days at a time.
Well, Thursday is your lucky day. Even if you haven’t watched a second of the race, you can get in and get out with just a morning’s attention as the Tour will almost certainly be decided during a massive stage in the high Alps that will either cook or coronate the race leader. The countryside will be breathtaking, the climbs and descents terrifying over the 111.5-mile course, and Chris Froome, going for his fourth Tour win, will have a pack of dogs chasing him all day looking to take a chunk out of his rear end.
If Froome can’t be cracked, he’ll ride into Paris on Sunday as the champion. Should he lose a few seconds Thursday or even the leader’s yellow jersey by a narrow amount of time, he would likely regain it Saturday in a time trial, a discipline at which he excels. No, if he is to be beaten, he has to be thoroughly broken Thursday on the flanks of the Col de Vars, a first-category climb, and then on the uphill finish of the brutal Col d’Izoard, a mountain rated as hors categorie, or beyond categorization. (It is cycling’s version of Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier.)
So, what’s going to happen? Not so fast. You’ve got to catch up a little. I know you have a few other questions. We’ll take them one at a time.
What’s the score?
Froome has a 27-second lead on Rigoberto Uran and Romain Bardet for the general classification (GC). Uran rides for Cannondale, a U.S.-based team that has three American riders in the race, the only American riders in the Tour. Bardet, of Ag2r, will become the first Frenchman to win the Tour since 1986 if he can overtake Froome. This would make him very popular in France, whose citizens are a little tired of the drought.
Fabio Aru of Astana, the Italian champion, is 53 seconds behind, which might not sound like a lot over a 111.5-mile course, but it is. Aru did drop Froome on an earlier climbing stage, so he has a puncher’s chance. Froome’s Team Sky bodyguard on the climbs is Mikel Landa of Spain. Landa is in fifth, 1:24 back, and he’d like to jump a couple of guys to get on the three-step podium in Paris, and might even have more in mind if Froome falters.
Has it been a good race so far?
For many of the riders, that would depend on whether they left the Tour in an ambulance, which quite a few have. Popular sprinter Mark Cavendish tried to slip through an impossible hole during a flat finish early in the race and landed in the barricades, with what appeared to be the help of an elbow from world champion Peter Sagan. Cavendish broke his collarbone and Sagan got booted from the Tour, which seemed harsh for what was probably an involuntary reaction in a mad sprint, but that’s what happened.
Froome himself went down in a pileup on another stage, but he recovered and went into yellow by the fifth stage. He lost a key team member a few days later, when Geraint Thomas, a Welshman who was earlier in yellow, crashed out on a greasy descent through the woods, as did contender Richie Porte of BMC, in much more spectacular fashion.
That was also the day that Froome had a mechanical problem and raised his hand to signal the rest of the peleton, which isn’t supposed to attack the leader under that circumstance. Aru took off anyway and some of the others chased him down and made him cool it. When Froome switched bikes and finally caught up, he gave Aru a shove as he went past him, but claimed it was an inadvertent slip (by one of the greatest bike-handlers on earth). At the end of the day, everyone said nobody meant to do anything, which was a howler.
Even though Aru was just 18 seconds behind, the Tour appeared over already. The Sky team was strong around Froome and he looked great, and continued to until the first climb in the Pyrenees when Aru dropped him and went into yellow by six seconds. That lasted only two days, however. Froome took it back when Aru lost contact on what should have been an unremarkable finish in stage 14, and that’s where we are. Aru slipped back farther Wednesday when the pack went over three ridiculous climbs, two HCs and a Cat 1, before a downhill finish. Uran and Bardet have the only really reasonable shot at Froome on Thursday’s epic stage, and they’ll be attacking relentlessly.
What happened to all the Americans?
To put it mildly, there is a lull in our production of grand tour riders. Taylor Phinney, Nathan Brown, and Andrew Talansky of Cannondale are the only U.S. riders in the Tour de France, and none are GC-quality riders. Tejay van Garderen of BMC, who finished fifth on two occasions, would have been in the race, but he opted to concentrate on the Giro d’Italia this season. It’s not as if he always wanted to see the Dolomites. He was just tired, after a DNF in 2015 and a 29th place in 2016, of getting frustrated in France. (He finished 20th in the Giro.)
Some blame the relative lack of opportunity and sponsorship dollars for developing riders in the U.S. on Lance Armstrong, who won seven straight Tours, but was stripped of each championship because his U.S. Postal and Discovery teams were the kings of systematic doping.
Maybe, but we’ve got the same number of riders in the race as Norway, which doesn’t seem right, and Australia, with a total population of 24 million, had nine riders in the Tour.
They’re all still doping, right?
Yeah, probably, in some form. The testing is a lot better now, but so is the doping. It’s all about micro-dosing and biological passports and the technology of the cheaters staying one step ahead of the law. It’s not like the old days, when they spun their blood in a centrifuge and stuck the red blood cells back in the body, making their hearts pump something with the approximate viscosity of Mrs. Butterworth’s.
Team Sky has always preached this cleaner-than-thou philosophy, but Bradley Wiggins, their Tour champion before Froome, was found to be taking a breathing aid for a “pollen allergy” when he won. He had a doctor’s note, though.
Earlier this year, it was discovered at a Sky training facility that significant amounts of corticosteroids and testosterone patches were in the possession of the team doctor, who claimed the stuff was sent to him by mistake. Well, yeah. That happens all the time. You send away for aspirin, and here comes a big box of testosterone patches. What’s a doc to do?
If Froome wins for the third straight year, there will be more mumbling about this, but he hasn’t tested positive as far as we know, and it isn’t a golden age for his competition, and, by the way, they are all doing the same stuff. You can let the doping thing bother you, if you like, but look into how many major-league baseball players suddenly applied for Adderall exemptions after serious drug-testing began in that sport.
OK, tell me more about Thursday. I’m thinking about it.
This is only one slice of the Tour, which will have traveled 2,200 miles when it finally ends on the Champs-Elysees. At the moment, 169 of the 198 riders who began on 22 teams are still in the saddle. Thursday (coverage on NBC-SN, 7 a.m.) will unseat a few more.
The last climb of the day up the barren walls of the Izoard is a back-breaker. The final six miles of the climb will take the riders from 5,059 feet of elevation to 7,742 feet, a vertical ascent of a half-mile. The entire climb from the descent after the Col de Vars is about 18 miles, and includes gradients that reach 10 percent in spots. And it comes at the end of more than 100 miles of racing, and with nothing less on the line than the championship of the Tour de France. Froome will likely have his hands full and, like all decisive, heroic moments in sports, this stage won’t build character. It will reveal it.
I’m in. But what’s with the fans being on the course? That’s kind of dumb, isn’t it?
Absolutely, and there is a lot of other stuff that makes no sense (don’t ask me to explain the polka-dotted King of the Mountain jersey), but the guts of the thing is that one guy is going to stare down another guy at some point Thursday and then kick his butt. It’s going to be dramatic and in a spectacular setting and all that, but there’s going to be a butt-kicking. Like any other great moment in any great event, we watch to find out which guy is which.