By David Ward –
What a Tour de France we were treated with. I think I say this every year, but really it is true every year. Each Tour has aspects unique to that year’s edition. And that is what makes it fun to watch the Tour year after year. I never feel, at the end of a given year’s Tour, that it is a race I have seen before. This was especially true for the 2018 Tour de France. I am a huge fan of the Tour, and it delivered once again.
But first, let me get something off my chest. I was really irritated by the repeated questioning of whether Chris Froome should be racing while the investigation of his salbutomol finding was ongoing. People had, and still have, differing opinions on this issue and its outcome. And it is not my intent to argue mine. But there is a system in place that governs professional cycling, and under that system Froome was given that right to continue racing. He chose to do so, and it was very disingenuous to suggest he was doing something wrong or immoral, or contrary to the good of the sport. And it was wrong to ask that he or his team be barred from competing in either the Giro or the Tour.
That being said, Team Sky faced a difficult situation. With the potential of a ruling against Froome hanging over his and Team Sky’s heads, and the threat that Froome might not be allowed to race if his case was not resolved, meant Team Sky had to have a plan B, and that plan B was Geraint Thomas. This was one of the factors that made this year’s Tour uniquely interesting. And it was what placed Thomas in a position to win the Tour.
To be sure, this was not the first time a team has had an incumbent Tour champion racing against a rival seeking to displace him as the next year’s Tour victor. I remember clearly the 1986 Tour when Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault, both on the La Vie Claire team, were trying to beat each other into submission. It was a tense and divided team, and not handled well by the team owner and directors.
Team Sky, conversely, maneuvered the Tour perfectly, capably letting Froome and Thomas determine the ultimate victor on the road, without dividing the team into factions. And Thomas and Froome. What class acts they were. Both were understanding of the other’s ambitions, both managed to keep the competition on the road, and to be gentlemen to each other. And while Froome was certainly depressingly disappointed to not win his fifth Tour, he was not only gracious in defeat, but genuinely happy for his friend.
That being the ultimate story of this year’s Tour, there was much else that made it exciting and unique. Stage 19, from Lourde to Laruns, was absolutely one of the most exciting stages in many years. The attack up the Tourmalet by Mikel Landa and Romain Bardet was classic, and kept us fascinated as we waited to see if Landa really could take the virtual yellow jersey on the road, and then hang onto to it till the end of the stage. Or to at least bootstrap himself onto the podium. It took till halfway up to the top of the Col d’Aubisque to find out the answer to that question was no.
Then on top of that, we also saw Froome struggle while Thomas showed no weakness, and we finally knew that, barring some catastrophe, Thomas would prevail over Froome, and would make this Tour his own. It is an exciting tale of a loyal lieutenant finally having his chance and taking it to climb to the top of his sport. Thomas’s victory made me especially proud that I trace my heritage back to Wales, and am 1/8th Welsh myself,
We also saw the daring descent by Primoz Roglic down the Aubisque and to the finish line to win the stage. It was a magnificent showing of strength and skill by Roglic, a man with his own story of rising from the ashes of a champion ski jumping career to become one of the top professional cyclists of the world.
Next to that was Stage 12 which finished atop Alpe d’Huez. I simply cannot remember watching a race finish at Alpe d’Huez where the top five contenders were battling and attacking right to the finish where Geraint Thomas put a real stamp on his claim as a potential Tour champion with his powerful sprint to victory. Re-watching the race up the Alpe to the finish is something I will repeat, it was so exciting.
There were also the moments of agony. Who could not feel heartbreak as they observed Richie Porte sitting on the side of the road holding his shoulder, his Tour prematurely ended in a stupid accident. Or Vincenzo Nibali brought down by a fan’s camera strap, reminiscent of Lance Armstrong on the climb up to Luz Ardiden in 2003, but with a much more dire result, a fractured vertebra that ended his Tour. And later, Philippe Gilbert’s spectacular crash over the rock wall resulting in a broken kneecap. Amazingly, both riders finished these stages only to be unable to start the next day due to their severe injuries.
Well, I could go on, having only hit a few highlights. But this will suffice to make my point. It was another grand Tour. A unique Tour filled with exciting racing, and both exhilarating and heartbreaking personal stories. The Tour is my Christmas in July, and it is only about another 340 days till another unique Tour de France will roll around again.