It was an excellent race, full of drama, and despite Froome clinging on to the jersey for a fortnight it looked like he could lose it for most of the race. I’m not going to talk about the race itself, rather having watched most stages these are a few of the things I’ve been musing on throughout the three weeks.
1. Grand tour cycling really is a team sportThere is only one winner’s name on the Trophy, but this year has shown us clearly how important a strong team is. One of the reasons Froome looked so vulnerable at times was his team mates had to work so hard to control the race that on some days there was nothing left in the tank to support him. Froome was, on more than one stage, left isolated. And those isolated moments are the things on which a race can turn. On stage 19 when Froome nearly bonked on the final hill, the super-domestique Richie Porte was on hand to supply him with fuel and water. Had he not been there, Froome may well have seen a couple of minutes of his lead slip away. It was probably too late in the race to make him lose it by then, but had it happened one hill earlier we could be celebrating the youngest tour winner for quite some time in Nairo Quintana.
Perhaps though, the clearest demonstration of how important a team is comes to us from Alejandro Valverde of Team Movistar. Valverde was a real contender, but a puncture early in the race left him stranded and losing too much time to ever be a contender after that. Had his team mates been there to help, they’d have offered him a wheel and he could be paced back to the peloton. And again, Movistar provide us with an example of how important a team is. Later in the race with Froome isolated he was in a lead group with Valverde and six of his Movistar team. With seven against one you’d think that it would be easy to put Froome under enough pressure to crack him. It isn’t quite that easy, as Froome is a tough nut to crack but it should be possible when you have the numbers. Unfortunately, for such a hard-working team, Movistar didn’t seem to have the nous to capitalise on their advantage.
It wasn’t just the Maillot Jaune contenders who relied on the help of their team mates. The sprinters too need a whole team to deliver them to the front of the race with 200 metres to go. We’ve seen Mark Cavendish mop up sprint after sprint for years. That’s partly because he’s incredibly fast. But, especially when he rode for HTC Columbia he had a superb lead out train that unfailingly delivered him in the right place at the right time, all that was left for Cav to do was win the race. This year, not only have other teams like Lotto Belisol and Argos-Shimano caught up, but Cav’s team, Omega Pharma Quickstep, have gone backwards. Too often they were disorganised, wandering all over the road, bullied, and broken up. Poor communication between his team and a lack of coherence left him off the pace. Argos-Shimano got it right though, often appearing late, but well drilled and knowing exactly what was needed. That’s why their man, Marcel Kittel picked up four stage wins.
2. You can’t win a race going downhill, but you can lose it
You’d think that going downhill is a simple thing. Just point the bike and let gravity do the rest. But, going downhill is one of the hardest skills to gain in cycling. It is one that improves over time, but a skill that you can lose in an instance. There is a saying that the rider who wins the race is the one who brakes the least. And this is true going downhill. There is a long line of riders demonstrating this over the last few years. We can look at the descent in to Pinerolo in the 2011 Tour de France where poor descending took Frank and Andy Schleck out of contention. They were not happy about it and complained loudly to anyone who would listen that going down hill is dangerous, not fun and no one wants to watch it. But, for those of us watching on TV it was full of drama. Then we had Bradley Wiggins losing acres of time in this year’s Giro when he went rubber side up on a wet descent; once back on the bike he descended so cautiously he effectively rode himself out of a chance to win the race overall.
The trouble is, descending isn’t about strength or power-to-weight-ratio, nor is it just about skill. The riders in the pro-peloton are all excellent bike handlers, and the actual skill in descending isn’t all that complicated. A few body position points, look for your exit, take the widest curve you can. It sounds so simple, but the real descending skill happens in the rider’s head. To descend well you need to have the confidence to stay calm, not over brake and believe you have the ability to maintain control of your bike. Once that belief is put to test, either with a near miss, or a fall, it can be incredibly hard to get back. Teams employ sports psychologists to help their riders who have descending crises of confidence. If it can happen to the best cyclists in the world, paid good money to ride, then is it any wonder that it is something so many amateur cyclists have difficulty with?
It is a real problem, the strongest your French rider this year, and White Jersey hopeful, Thibaut Pinot chose to abandon the race rather than contend with the tricky descent in to Gap. Apparently he had a nasty crash descending when a junior and still occasionally gets panicked now. His current panic was set off be watching his team mate take a spill and injure himself in the same crash that brough Wiggins down in the Giro. Pinot didn’t crash himself, but the mental energy needed to descend at speed is such that he’d rather abandon than face it. He’s an excellent young rider and a real hope for France who only won one stage in their own race this year and haven’t won the race overall since The Badger in 1985, so I hope the team management, the coaches and his sports psychologist work hard with him to help him realise the skills he clearly has.
3. Lots of bike shops would tell Chris Froome that he’s on the wrong bike
I like Chris Froome, I like the way he set out to win the race and was happy to attack to do it. I like the fact that he’s such a gentleman on the bike too. I also like the fact that he looks like a pterodactyl wrestling some metal pipes rather than a cyclist. He’s an excellent race, and an incredibly strong rider but no one would accuse him of being an elegant bike rider. He seems to have far more pointy joints than any one human needs. The bike looks tiny under him and he constantly looks like he wants to throw himself over the front of it.
If we took him to a pro bike fit shop, they’d put him on a jig, measure him up, tuck his elbows in, and do innumerable other tweaks to get him the best ride position possible. And he’d probably go on to lose the Tour de France. Ideal bike fit is just that, an ideal. None of us are ideal body shaped anyway. We carry with us old gardening injuries, legs too short for out body, a little too much weight in some places, or just find the ideal uncomfortable. Too often riders go in to shops, get fitted and then never tweak the ride again. It’s a shame, because generally there is a position that’ll be comfortable somewhere within your bike. You just need to experiment. Out on a ride, raise your seat a bit and see how it feels. Then drop it a bit and compare. Slide the seat forward. Move it back. Swap around the spacers above and below your stem. Try a different stem. Any, or all of these things can transform the way your bike feels. It is best to change only one thing at a time. And, measure the original position before you go out for your test ride so you can return things to normal if you need to.
Some riders are notoriously fussy about their bike setup. Eddy Merckx is the classic example. He’d have his mechanic check his saddle repeatedly, moving only a millimetre at a time. He was so obsessed by it that he’d take a tool out with him during races just so he could tweak the saddle a little if he wanted to. I’m not suggesting that level of obsession, but I do think the best way to get the bike fitting right for you is to fiddle around with it. Change things and see how they feel. It is only by riding our bikes that we know how our bikes feel. This needs to be tempered with some knowledge. Speak to the experts, ask them what’s correct, but be a little sceptical, and see how their knowledge relates to your experience. And think of Chris Froome, cycling like he’s disentangling himself from a deck chair, but doing it better than anyone else.