Annecy 2009 and Alberto Contador has the cycling world at his feet after delivering a scintillating performance in the final individual time trial of the race. After storming rides to Andorra Arcalis and Verbier, the Spaniard has reached the zenith of his powers having conquered the route, his rivals and the enemy within his own team Astana.
Four years on and Annecy may perhaps come to represent the final resting place of Contador’s stage racing domination. On the final climb of the race the Spaniard’s vulnerability was brutally exposed as Froome and his fellow podium placers exposed the former king's weakening powers.
That bobbing-out-of-the-saddle style that had been such a consistent feature of Contador’s pedal stroke looked laboured this year and only for a brief moment on Ventoux did he look like his former self.
Contador is by no means finished, although this Tour certainly represents a seismic shift in the stage racing hierarchy since his return from a doping suspension. Even with a 2012 Vuelta title to his name, Contador is not the rider he once was.
Unquestionably the strongest rider in the race, Christoper Froome survived everything that his rivals threw at him and deservedly stepped onto the podium in Paris on Sunday night. His crushing displays at Ax 3 Domaines and Ventoux, coupled with his time trial win in Chorges blanketed the opposition with only Alberto Contador’s pride and Nairo Quintana attempting to wrestle free from Sky’s control.
When Sky did look vulnerable Froome stepped up, closing down his rivals as and when he needed to. Off the bike the challenge has been around how the Tour winner asserts credibility, both for himself and the race. His boss Dave Brailsford was perfectly correct when he stated that you can’t prove a negative and that any Tour winner would have faced this level of scrutiny in the wake of the USADA report.
At the same time Froome has been at pains to stress that the yellow jersey will never be taken from him. Ironically, Armstrong still has his seven maillot jaune hanging up in Austin too, but Froome, along with Sky, have done more - sometimes with their arms being twisted – to argue a level legitimacy. Every time a question is answered, another appears, systematic of the nature of suspicion and doubt that cycling has brought upon itself, a reality that Froome and his team will continue to face.
Sky's best signing?
In the wake of the USADA report, the damaging links with Geert Leinders and the zero tolerance linked departures, Sky needed a way of improving their message to the British public. An Irish writer with an unquestionably superb back-catalogue of hits seemed the perfect fit. After all he’d just seen years of toil and hard work vindicated by Armstrong’s demise and his word carried significant weight.
Cue ‘access all areas’ interviews as Sky appeared to open up to a journalist roughly three years after slamming the same door shut in Paul Kimmage's face.
David Walsh’s words in the Sunday Times are there for all to see – if you get through the paywall - and he believes Sky is clean. Whether the public chooses to agree with Walsh or not, the experiment seems to have worked from a Sky perspective: bring in a respected voice who fought against the doping tide, stream your message and deliver the verdict just as Froome steps onto the Paris podium. As they toasted and applauded the team’s win in Paris they can congratulate themselves on a job well done.
Cavendish misses out in Paris
Only time will tell as to whether this year’s Tour represents a changing of the guard among the elite sprinters. Marcel Kittel couldn’t have hoped for more with four wins and a day in yellow but Mark Cavendish certainly can’t feel too disheartened with his two wins. A beating on the Champs Elysees will have hurt but sprinting by its very nature is a cruel discipline.
The Omega rider was untouchable - albeit against slightly weaker opposition – at the Giro and picked up an illness on the eve of the Tour. Such a knock would have been a major factor in his overall health and in that light two stage wins represents a decent haul. It’s not the run of four (2008), six (2009), five (2010), five (2011), and three (2012) that he’s accustomed to but that run could not last forever. With Mark Renshaw on his way to the team Cavendish will have a stronger arsenal at his disposal next year and a full season with Omega under his belt will only help.
Kittel skittles sprinters
What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago Argos limped their way to Paris, reduced to seeing a plucky leadout man contest the sprints after Kittel was sent packing with a dodgy stomach and ailing knee.
Now the German stands alongside the best sprinters on the planet, a more polished and less error- prone sprinter than Greipel, and Cavendish’s closest rival in terms of speed.
Part of the success stems from Argos’ recruitment policy. They don’t necessarily sign the best individual riders - they can’t afford to - but each rider in Kittel’s train was solely at the Tour for one reason and one reason alone.
The question now is whether the team consolidates their position or targets stage racing ambitions too. First and foremost they must look to retain their best riders after a successful Tour will have only improved a number of riders’ market values.
A stage, the white and polka-dot jersey signify a huge return for the pint-sized Colombian in his first Tour de France. Once Valverde lost significant time in the opening week Quintana moved into the leadership role via default but his performances in the mountains eclipsed his veteran teammate and in truth Quintana was consistently the last man standing once Froome opened the afterburners.
There’s still areas in which Quintana can improve but don’t think for a second that he’ll be the only Colombian to trouble Sky in 2014 at the Tour. Betancur and the likely departure of Uran to Omega will all play roles next July.
Rodriguez swaps pyrotechnics for consistency
Katusha’s and Joaquim Rodriguez’ first podium finish in the Tour de France were achieved with a solid ride through Corsica and France. By the end of the first week of racing the 34-year-old was down in 9th, 2’31 in arrears and although he’d only moved up a place by the time the race crested Ventoux, Rodriguez was coming into his own and cementing a determined footing in the race. As those around him wilted in the third week, his endurance and tactical acumen paid dividends. There were few attacks as he watched Contador unsuccessfully tire himself and his team out, and by the foot of the final climb of the race there was even a chance of second place. July has seen Rodriguez complete the set of grand tour podiums, with another tilt at the Vuelta beckoning.
Heading into the Tour de France BMC had two potential GC cards to play and a world champion eager to win his first race of the year. As the sun rose in Paris on the morning after the Tour there was little for Andy Rihs to celebrate with Cadel Evans and Tejay van Garderen languishing in GC and Gilbert rarely displaying the fight and guile that has guided him to one day success in the past. With internal rumblings rumoured to be going on throughout the Tour there was little surprise to read that John Lelangue had left the team. A reshuffle will surely ensue, with Rihs needing to determine how his collection of individual stars can learn to function as a cohesive and organised unit.
The French collapse
Christophe Riblon’s stage win at Alpe d’Huez and the award for the most aggressive rider aside, this was a Tour to forget for the home nation. Pinot’s problems with descending and the subsequent mental pressure, Voeckler’s slow recover yfrom a crash earlier this year, Rolland’s failed attempt to win the KOM and Cofidis' blushes saved by Navarro all accounted for a disappointing race. Bardet managed 15th overall but it was all a scant consolation for the French.
A successful parcours
One may argue that the overall race was decided on the first summit finish of the race but this year’s Tour still provided a vast amount of excitement and intrigue that lasted all the way to Paris. Corisca added spice to the parcours, while the first African rider in yellow, courtesy of Impey, illustrated the new internationalisation of the Tour. The cross-wind stage to Saint-Amand-Montrond was one of the most gripping days of flat racing the Tour has seen since the Arenberg inclusion, but Christophe Prudhomme and Jean-François Pecheux deserve most praise for how they designed an action- packed final week that culminated with the final two podium positions and KOM jersey being decided on the final climb of the race. Spectacle ran throughout too, from Mont Saint Michel to Alpe d’Huez and Ventoux, with the final night in Paris set to be remembered as one of the most iconic stages in cycling’s history.