Category: Commentary

Commentary: The French resolution

Editors’ Note: Samuel Abt was a long-time sports journalist and columnist for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. He covered the Tour de France and other professional cycling events in an inimitable, signature style for more than 30 years. He has also written numerous books about the sport, including detailed biographies of Americans Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong. A long-time resident of the Paris area, Abt retired several years ago and rarely writes now, but he is still widely recognized as the “dean” of American cycling journalism. We were pleased that he recently sent over this piece on the state of French professional racing.

Sigh. Another Tour de France is behind us, another page torn from the calendar, and another failure by French riders to win their home race. How long has it been? Not since Bernard Hinault finished first in 1985 has the military band on the Champs-Élysées been able to break into “La Marseillaise” to honor the victor’s country.

It’s not for lack of trying; a few French riders showed flashes of the will, if not often the ability, to win. But the Frenchmen who gave their all for victory were really the Tour’s organizers. The worst kept secret this year was that the route was tailored for a specific French rider, Romain Bardet, who had finished on the final podium in the previous two years.

Because Bardet is a good climber, in came fierce stretches in the mountains. Because he is a lame time trialer, out went all but one relatively short individual race against the clock. (He finished 22nd.)

All to no avail. The highest French finisher was indeed Bardet, sixth overall in his fifth top 10 in five Tours, including second place in 2016 and third in 2017. See why the course was built for him? More than that was needed, however, as bad luck dogged him: a costly mechanical breakdown in Brittany, three flats in the Roubaix stage, the early loss of Ag2r teammates. It became painful to watch his daily interview on television as he tried to sound chipper about his dwindling chances, smiling — sort of — through the tears.

Who else did well and may yet do so again? Nestled in 33rd place overall in Paris was Julian Alaphilippe, winner of two mountain stages and the polka-dot climber’s jersey, enough of a haul to stir the sluggish national pulse. It doesn’t take much.

Nearly two generations have come of age without the chance to wear anything like the blue T-shirt proclaiming “We Are The Champions” that sprouted after the soccer World Cup. It’s been 33 years, folks. Hinault is such a distant memory that he is now known mainly as a television pitchman for a plumbing company that transforms bathtubs into showers.

Bardet pledges to do better next year and so, no doubt, do the race organizers. They have long been hunkered down to design the stages from the start in Brussels, which will honor both Eddy Merckx on the 50th anniversary of the first of his five Tour victories and the 100th anniversary of the introduction of the leader’s yellow jersey.

When the 2019 route is announced in October, which French rider will it be tailored for? There seem to be few choices other than Bardet and Alaphilippe.

Much will depend on which way the race heads out of Belgium. If it follows the tradition of Alps-first this time, Pyrenees-first next time, the 2019 edition should head left across the north of France before plunging toward Spain. That trajectory would favor neither Frenchman. What would is a route south out of Belgium toward the Alps and, first, the Vosges Mountains, which are not strenuous enough — the Grand Ballon is its top peak at 1,424 meters — to demand a strong support team for a climber. That fits Alaphilippe, whose Quick Step roster is built for stage victories on the flat or nearly flat. (The Vosges terrain should benefit Alaphilippe, as he showed by winning the up and down Clásica San Sebástian in August.)

Quick-Step, or whoever is the main sponsor next year, should also excel in the second stage, a team time trial, giving Alaphilippe an early psychological edge. If he needs a booster shot in the Alps, perhaps the organizers, the Amaury Sport Organization, could eliminate a massive climb or two. Despite his polka-dot jersey, he showed signs of strain late in this year’s mountains.

Moreover, he is a mediocre time trialer, so don’t expect an abundance of races against the clock. There will be no prologue. Forget the cobblestones next year. Forget the inane Formula One starting grid. Climbs, climbs, climbs, well spaced and less than dominating, that’s the ticket to building a French contender.

Alaphilippe? Bardet? (Him again?) Thibaut Pinot, third in 2014 and a no-show in 2018? Somebody? Anybody?

As Geraint Thomas reminded the crowd in his victory speech, he finished 140th and next to last in his first Tour in 2007. Perhaps there was an obscure French rider sunk deep in the overall classification this year who will bloom like Thomas. Be patient. Give him a dozen years to break the hex. Sigh.

Read the full article at Commentary: The French resolution on VeloNews.com.

The Outer Line: Athletes have a right to a voice

Editor’s note: Over the last several years, The Outer Line has frequently called out the lack of a cohesive and influential voice in the sport for the professional cyclists themselves. In comparison to most other major international team sports, cycling suffers from a virtually complete lack of athlete input into the management and governance of the sport. Largely lost in the news cycle before and during the Tour de France was the fact that both the Dutch and the Belgian national rider associations have recently withdrawn from the CPA, citing dissatisfaction with management, a lack of financial transparency, and insufficient leadership on issues of key importance to the riders. At the same time as this is going on, a new women’s union is rapidly gaining momentum and visibility. From a broader historical perspective, it is clear that sports begin to achieve more robust economic conditions and stronger governance policies when athletes assert their voice and their rights. The Outer Line remains strong proponents for the creation of a stronger athlete role in pro cycling.

Play the Game (PTG) is a Denmark-based international conference and communication initiative that The Outer Line has worked together with in the past. PTG aims to strengthen the ethical foundation of sport and promote democracy, transparency, and freedom of expression in sport. What follows below are excerpts of a speech recently given by Jens Sejer Andersen, Play the Game’s international director, to elite athletes at the WADA Global Athletes Forum held in Calgary, Alberta, June 3-5, 2018.

The voices of athletes have never been more needed than today. Those leaders charged with responsibility at the highest political level to safeguard the values of sport have failed. They have not been able to prevent the moral breakdown that has come with the immense commercial success of elite sport over the past 40 years. On the contrary, many of today’s top leaders have been accepting or driving the decadence, or been passive bystanders as it happened before their eyes.

At a time where international sport is met with public mistrust, many of these leaders may now find it attractive to push athletes before them and benefit from your credibility and prestige, without really sharing their powers. There is the risk that you will be positioned as foot soldiers for the army of well-paid propaganda consultants in sports, and for the generals behind them.

The voices of athletes have never been more needed than today.

Nobody can better protect your independence and credibility than yourself, and one of the best ways you can avoid being used is by making your voice heard in the public domain.

Play the Game has set a stage for the international sports debate for more than 20 years now. Speakers at Play the Game forums have been first movers in uncovering corruption among the leaders of football, volleyball, handball, weightlifting and a number of other sports. They have warned against illegal doping trade, match-fixing, sexual abuse, abuse of public and private money, trafficking — issues that were for many years taboo, but are now all over the public agenda.

We have engaged journalists, academics, government officials, and even a few — sometimes reluctant —sports leaders, but when we look for active elite athletes, we unfortunately often search in vain. There may be many good reasons for this: any elite athlete is extremely busy focusing on his or her career, caught up in a tight competition schedule, or committed to side events organized by sponsors, managers, federations. Many elite athletes are young, inexperienced and often unaware about the wider context within which they are working.

But it may also be that athletes are afraid of speaking up. In many countries, in many organizations, in many commercial settings, sport is driven top-down as a very authoritarian system. Indeed, even the most prominent of all athlete representatives — the 15 athlete members of the International Olympic Committee — have to swear an oath of loyalty, declaring that they will never appeal IOC decisions and defend in all circumstances the interests of the IOC.

Shouldn’t all athletes, from an early age, be invited to take an interest in and responsibility for how their sport is run?

Elite athletes are trained, sometimes from a very early age, not only to swim, run, jump, and play the ball, but also to follow rules, to take orders, to obey the parent, the coach, the manager, the sponsor, the club president, the sports federation, the minister, the anti-doping regulator — to do whatever these authorities tell them to do. And not to do.

Over and over again, we hear sports officials tell us that sport is so wonderful because it teaches us respect of the rules. Indeed, without respect of rules, it would be difficult for human beings to live together. But wouldn’t sport be even more wonderful if it taught us not only how to obey the rules, but how to create more equitable rules together, how to change unfair rules, and how to administer them in the best interest of everyone? Shouldn’t all athletes, from an early age, be invited to take an interest in and responsibility for how their sport is run?

This would obviously require some fundamental changes of the way we organize sport — and this is the heart of the matter. In today’s world, sport yields way too much power to government, industry, sponsors, the media, and particularly to the sports institutions. So, how can we do more to empower the athlete, the human being, independently of his or her talent, fortunes, race, gender or creed?

Competitive sport as we know it today is not an eternal phenomenon given by some kind of almighty creator. It is just one among many human-initiated variations of movement culture that has unfolded since we rose on our two feet and started dancing. In our history, there has been a constant exchange between the rules and norms that guide our lives, and the movement culture we practice. Modern sport is similar: at one and the same time, it expresses and shapes our norms. In a very real sense, sport is a battlefield about human values.

This is why freedom of expression is so important in sport — everybody must have a voice. This is why we must talk about sport and human rights, and why we must discuss athletes’ rights. This is why democracy is such an important value in sport, although it may not always be in demand. Facing the global confidence crisis in sport, and confronted with such strong institutional powers, how can we practically strengthen the rights of every athlete?

Jens Sejer Andersen, speaking at the Play the Game conference. Photo: Thomas Søndergaard/Play the Game

First of all, almost every international sports federation is built on the understanding that every voice counts. In theory, the hierarchy in international sport is democratic from the top to bottom. In theory, the FIFA President has a mandate from around 300 million players who give a vote in their local club, which leads to a vote in the regional federation, leading up to the national federation and ultimately, FIFA. In all the federations that govern Olympic sport, the principle is perfect. It is the practice that fails. For this reason, elite athletes in Germany, Canada, and other nations have decided to break out into independent associations to safeguard their rights and the values of sport. This is freedom of association, a fundamental democratic value. It is also completely legitimate to seek influence from the inside of the organizations. Either approach can strengthen the chance for success when athletes speak out for themselves and for their colleagues at all levels.

Bear in mind, you are in a privileged position. You are not just athletes, you are elite athletes. You are, at the sporting level, backed by a relatively wealthy, powerful, and complex structure that has been essential for developing your talent and your career. I am not saying that you lead an easy life or that you have not earned your privilege, I am just asking you to accept that your situation is special.

Elite athletes are entitled to fight for their self-interest in better working conditions: their competition calendar, share of the revenues, commercial rights, safety, education, and their life after sport. But there is a broader perspective and responsibility, which elite athletes must reach for. The political and economic structures that elite athletes may confront or help to define also rule all other athletes in the sport.

Hence, elite athletes have a lot of new potential supporters and a lot of terrain to gain, if they commit to improving the democratic governance of their federations. Because that is an essential task.

Together with experts from six European universities, Play the Game has developed a benchmarking tool called the Sports Governance Observer and have employed it to analyze the governance of the 35 international Olympic federations. The results were alarming:

– Only one-third of the federations published their annual financial reports on their websites.
– None of the federations published reports on remuneration of board members and senior officials.
– In only two out of three federations, elections took place according to clear and objective procedures and secret ballots were used.
– Only 11 out of 35 federations had some form of limitation on terms for elected leaders.
– And even if almost all federations have an athletes’ commission, only two-thirds of Olympic sports allow athletes representatives into their decision-making body. In only eight federations, athletes are allowed to elect their own chairperson.

Since the first report in 2015, some progress has been made, especially in athletics and football, but the overall picture has not changed fundamentally.

The problem with bad governance is not only does it open the door wide for corruption and crime, it also leaves the federation inefficient, unable to meet its goals, unable to serve the athletes and the wider public.

But fortunately, improving sports governance is not exactly rocket science. Transparency, open dialogue, democratic voting are not expensive or difficult to introduce. Elite athletes have a unique opportunity to advocate for a more democratic sport.

Even more critically, elite athletes must work to create a broader and better understanding of the real social and cultural values of sport

But even more critically, elite athletes must work to create a broader and better understanding of the real social and cultural values of sport — and to remind the public that sport is not just about winning competitions, championships and gold medals. Too often, ordinary people have been discouraged from taking part in sports because of this blind focus on extreme competition. Hence, it is also incumbent upon elite athletes to convey the pure fun and beauty of competitive sports, and inspire more people to become active and engaged. It is noteworthy that today most of the physical activities that are growing are outside the realm of organized sports — things like jogging, yoga, mountain biking, street basket, parkour, skateboarding, climbing, and so on.

One recent source of inspiration that can help guide political perspective on sport and physical culture, namely the recently revised UNESCO charter on Physical Education, Physical Activity and Sport. This charter is not another contribution to the war on charters. It was written in consultation with all stakeholders in sport and is a catalog of actions that governments, sports organizations and others should take to pursue a fundamental right of every human being: the right to be active in sport and physical activity. The UNESCO charter covers a wide range of areas from child protection to environmental sustainability, non-discrimination and integrity, and responsible planning of major events for less privileged groups.

When one looks at all the challenges today in sports politics, it often feels overpowering. But elite athletes — and all the rest of us — can also view those challenges as the richness of sport that reflects so many dimensions of human life. If we bear that richness in mind, we may in the long run find more meaning in engaging in sport. Elite athletes must continue the fight for better working conditions, for better governance and for the life quality that can be achieved through sport and movement culture. That fight is not just for the rights of athletes, it is a fight for the rights of everyone.

Read the full article at The Outer Line: Athletes have a right to a voice on VeloNews.com.

Roundtable: Did Tour de France 2018 live up to expectations?

Another season, another Tour de France in the books — so how does the 2018 vintage stack up? With cobblestones, a short stage, and plenty of mountains, this Tour promised unpredictable, exciting action. Did it deliver? Can we put this high on our list of favorite Tours in recent memory? Let’s roundtable.

Describe your emotional arc during the three weeks of the 2018 Tour de France.

Spencer Powlison @spino_powerlegsThere were lots of ups and downs. Of course, the first week brings a lot of anticipation, but with a somewhat uninspired first eight stages, lots of top favorites losing time in stupid crashes, and those painfully long sprint stages (7 and 8), I needed a jolt of energy. Stage 9 on the cobbles gave me that, and then excitement kept ramping up through the Alps and into the Pyrenees. Yes, Sky was in control, but it felt different without Froome in yellow.

Chris Case @chrisjustincaseMy emotional arc followed a traditional curve: pre-race jitters and first-week butterflies — the anxiety behind frantic sprint finishes — were followed by day after day of fidgeting in my seat, hoping someone, somehow, could break the Sky stranglehold. By the last few days I was resigned to the fact that another year would pass with unbelievable domination.

Dane Cash @danecash: The first week was pretty exciting on the ground in France but with plenty of ups and downs thanks to all the crashes. Heading into the Alps, I started to get nervous that my pre-Tour opinion piece saying that Chris Froome wouldn’t win the race might turn out to be on the garbage end of the hot take spectrum. In the Pyrenees, I realized that Froome’s Tour campaign would fall short. Then, I was able to enjoy some fresher faces (Thomas, Dumoulin, and Roglic) making the Tour GC battle interesting.

Vincenzo Nibali
Vincenzo Nibali crashed out of the Tour on Alpe d’Huez due to unruly roadside fans. Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

What was the high point, and what was the low point of this Tour?

Spencer: I couldn’t get enough of Julian Alaphilippe’s breakaway exploits — winning two stages, bombing descents, sprinting for KOM points, and giving the French something to cheer about. The low point for me was finding out that Vincenzo Nibali had abandoned after a fan’s camera strap caused him to crash. I think we missed out on a lot of potential action in the third week without him.

Chris: Dare I say some of my favorite moments in the three weeks were watching Chris Froome’s tongue dangle from his mouth as he struggled to keep the pace with the other GC stars, and I knew he wouldn’t win his fourth grand tour in a row. Cruel, maybe, but we need variety in this world, and we also need to have some indications that these riders are human. The low point? Somewhere in that second week, when most of the big GC hopes like Quintana and Bardet started to show the signs that they just didn’t have it in them again to make a run for the yellow jersey.

Dane: The high point of the Tour for me had to be John Degenkolb’s Roubaix win. That was a long time coming for the 2015 Roubaix champ after the horror crash he and his Sunweb teammates suffered while training in 2016. Stage 9 also delivered the low point for me: Yet another Tour de France mishap for Richie Porte. I was really hoping to see Porte put his talents on display this July. As a climber and a time trialist, he’s one of the few riders who might have challenged Sky. But once again, he was out of the race before the GC battle heated up.

Norwegian Fans were out to cheer on the peloton. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Was this Tour enjoyable to watch as a fan?

Spencer: I enjoyed the thrill of Fernando Gaviria’s first Tour stage win, the anticipation as Toms Skujins kept the polka-dot jersey until the Alps, the uncertainty of Steven Kruijswijk’s bold solo breakaway to Alpe d’Huez, and his teammate Primoz Roglic’s fearless descent off the Aubsique to win stage 19. I did not enjoy the utter domination by Team Sky that limited the GC race to a few tepid attacks through the Pyrenees. On the whole, yes, it was enjoyable.

Chris: The Tour is some kind of fun. There’s the pageantry, the tradition, the sense of hope, the routine of it all. But I just don’t see it as exciting as many other races on the calendar, especially the other two grand tours. That said, I still watched because hope springs eternal!

Dane: I thought so. I know people complain about the lack of attacks in grand tours, but at this point, I think you need to accept that Tours are not going to be raced like they were in the ’90s and ’00s anymore, and that’s a good thing. The fact that we didn’t know who was going to win until the final mountain stage is a really big deal compared to recent Tours, so I am coming out of the race very pleased with the entertainment value.

Geraint Thomas stood next to Tom Dumoulin and four-time winner Chris Froome atop the final podium in Paris. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

How did the Tour change our view of Geraint Thomas?

Spencer: I’ll cop to being a real Negative Nancy when it comes to super-domestiques that try to take on GC responsibilities, but gosh darnit, Geraint Thomas stole my heart this Tour. For all my dislike of Sky’s Borg-like domination of pro cycling, G has a humble, laidback manner and he races with aggression and panache. Plus, he likes to knock back a few beers now and again — don’t believe me? Read Fred’s story on the guy!

Chris: Well, I must admit I’ve never paid much attention to Geraint as a GC contender. He’s clearly been a very solid rider on the road for years, but he’s never seemed to have much success when racing for himself. There’s been hype, whether it be the classics or the Giro. But it’s never quite panned out. All that’s changed. From what those who know him well say, he’s as dedicated as they come. Chapeau, for that. Good things come to those who wait.

Dane: Thomas had already proven to be a super talent in the one week races, both as a climber and a time trialist. All that was left was to prove that he could stay sharp through an entire grand tour, and he did that with aplomb after years of uncertainty. He’s already 32, so I doubt he has a decade of Tour domination ahead, but he’ll certainly be a huge contender for a few more grand tours after putting it all together this July.

Read the full article at Roundtable: Did Tour de France 2018 live up to expectations? on VeloNews.com.

Commentary: Moscon must go

CARCASONNE, France (VN) — By now you’ve likely read about Gianni Moscon and the punch seen ’round the peloton.

Moscon, for some unknown reason, punched Frenchman Elie Gesbert in the head during Sunday’s stage 15 of the Tour de France. The peloton zipped along in a tight group. An errant flick of the handlebars could have sent dozens of riders crashing onto the tarmac in such a situation. Yet Moscon looked back to his left, swerved to his right, and swung his fist. Whack!

Cycling is dangerous enough without fists flying at the riders’ skulls. The race jury agreed and gave Moscon the boot, classifying the incident as “particularly serious aggression.”

Sky has been opaque on how it will deal with Moscon after this latest incident, releasing a statement that simply said: “We will address this incident with Gianni once the Tour is complete and decide then if any further action should be taken.”

It’s perfectly clear to me that Sky should fire Moscon, and yes, I do realize the seriousness of calling for a rider to lose his job. He’s a repeat offender—in the past 16 months he has insulted a fellow rider with a racist slur, cheated, and been accused of intentionally crashing a fellow rider (the UCI acquitted him of the final offense due to a lack of video evidence). The punch, in my eyes, is a step too far. Moscon put riders in danger and embarrassed a global sport that is trying to bring riders of various cultures and nationalities under its umbrella. Boot him.

Plus, Moscon’s actions also show a remarkable lack of judgement when it comes to his team’s objectives at this race. Sky entered this Tour with three likely objectives: Win, avoid bad press, not get mobbed by angry French fans. On the rest day press conference, the team and its yellow jersey wearer Geraint Thomas didn’t dwell on the loss of a domestique.

“Obviously disappointed, there’s nothing we can do,” Thomas said. “What’s done is done. All we can do is focus on this next week.”

Now, Thomas and Sky must ride into the Pyrenees with one fewer support rider. Moscon was chosen to pull the peloton across flat and rolling terrain. Now, that job could go to Jonathan Castroviejo, Wout Poels, or Michal Kwiatkowski — three men who are also valuable in the mountains.

And if you thought winning the Tour de France was difficult, try resuscitating Team Sky’s battered image in the eyes of cycling fans. Keeping Moscon on the squad is not a winning PR move.

On Sunday night the buzz around the medieval French town of Carcassonne was whether Sky should terminate its contract with Moscon after the incident. Keep him or can him?

Yes, there is still a debate on this topic. I can assure you, the “keep Moscon” camp is dwindling. Allow me to give my best summary of this position: To boot Moscon from the peloton’s richest team would likely spell disaster for a young rider with otherworldly talent. He would be banished from cycling’s top league, and wallow in the lower ranks, squandering his talent. His possible victories at Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders would be lost forever.

There are other arguments: Moscon simply made a mistake. He was provoked. He released a YouTube video and looked genuinely apologetic. “What happened was wrong and was a bad example coming from me to everyone,” he said. “I want to publicly apologize for what happened, to my teammates, to everyone involved in Team Sky, and everyone involved in the Tour de France.”

Monday’s rest day press conference was supposed to be the usual question-and-answer exchange about race tactics. Instead, an army of pushy journalists arrived at Sky’s press conference to pester David Brailsford and Co. about Moscon.Brailsford, who often pushes back against such questions, fell on his sword. He apologized to the race. He apologized to Fortuneo-Samsic, and to Gesbert.

Sorry Sir Brailsford, I’m not convinced. Send him back down to cycling’s bush leagues. Take a stand and make him pay the consequences.

Brailsford has had several opportunities to fire Moscon, and thus far he has passed on each one.  April, 2017: Moscon is suspended six months by Sky for verbally abusing FDJ rider Kevin Reza with an unspecified racial slur during the Tour of Romandie. September, 2017, Moscon is ejected from the UCI world road championships for holding onto a team car. October, 2017, Moscon is accused of intentionally crashing out Sebastian Reichenbach of FDJ, who had called Moscon out on Twitter after the Reza incident. A UCI jury later acquitted Moscon due to a lack of video evidence, something Reichenbach said would prove his case.

The Reza incident alone would have led me to drop Moscon off at the nearest rest stop, pink slip in hand.

Sky must now ride back into enemy territory — the rural backroads of France — with its public image further tarnished. Thus far, this Tour de France has seen French fans act like a mob of teenagers toward the Sky train. They have booed and hissed, thrown water and even pushed Sky riders on the road. On Monday, a Sky driver said fans threw a bucket of water into the open window of his truck atop l’Alpe d’Huez.

Brailsford chalked the abuse up to the French fans. Perhaps it’s all just a “French cultural thing.”

Sorry, Sir Dave, it’s not a French thing. It’s a Sky thing. And with Moscon aboard, it’s not getting better.

Read the full article at Commentary: Moscon must go on VeloNews.com.

Tour roundtable: Leadership questions, sprinter slaughter, and a fight

There is plenty of intrigue on the Tour de France‘s second rest day, before the race heads into the pivotal Pyrenean stages. For starters, this question of who is leading Team Sky is not going away. Froome hinted that he’d be cool if Thomas carried yellow to Paris, but that seems a bit questionable. Dumoulin also called out Sky’s double-leader tactics. And of course, there’s Gianni Moscon, cycling’s enfant terrible — what should Team Sky do with this brawling bad boy of the peloton? Let’s roundtable!

Froome said on Monday, “As long as there is a Team Sky rider on the top step in Paris, I’m happy.” How do you interpret this quote? Is he being genuine?

Spencer Powlison @spino_powerlegsThe stars are aligned right now for Froome to make history with the first Giro-Tour double in 20 years and a record-tying fifth yellow jersey. There’s no way he’d be happy on the second step of the podium. Froome’s politesse, cultivated over the years as an unflappable leader, is the perfect mask for this little trick. He inviting rivals to attack Thomas this week, and then he’ll follow the moves to win.

Chris Case @chrisjustincaseTo me, Chris Froome is like Two-Face, the fictional supervillain adversary of Batman. His British sensibilities will not allow him to say anything disparaging about anyone or anything when confronted by the media. On the other hand, on the bike, he is a savage — ruthless and cunning. You’re telling me that after the year of abuse he’s received for his adverse analytical finding for Salbutamol, that he’s just going to roll over and play gentleman to a teammate, when he’s on the cusp of tying the all-time record for Tour wins no less? I call bulls—t.

Dane Cash @danecash: Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas are friends, and Thomas has put in a lot of work for Froome over the years, so I assume Froome will be able to find some joy in his loyal teammate winning the Tour de France this year. Happy as that might make him, however, I’d bet he would be happier to be the one standing on the top step of the podium. Under the calm exterior, Froome is a diehard competitor.

Tom Dumoulin
Tom Dumoulin crossed the line on stage 14 alongside Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas. Photo: Justin Setterfield | Getty Images

Dumoulin pointed out how Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas neutralized each other on the stage 14 finish to Mende. What’s your assessment of Sky’s tactics — did they play the wrong cards?

Spencer: Fortunately there wasn’t enough time to be gained or lost on the short hill to Mende — about 10-20 seconds, worst-case scenario for the GC men. But I see Dumoulin’s point. Why waste the energy? It feels a little bit like Froome and Thomas are each testing the water to see if they can put to bed any questions about who is leading Team Sky.

Chris: It makes sense for Sky to keep other teams guessing as to its tactics as late into the race as possible. Maybe Thomas or Froome has a bad day after the rest day. Maybe Froome starts to fizzle from his Giro efforts in the third week. In any case, if they both ride like protected leaders and keep their rivals from fully grasping what they plan next, then they could ride one-two all the way to Paris while the others keep waiting for something to reveal itself.

Dane: I’m fine with Sky’s tactics. Better to have both yellow and second overall than to potentially have one rider with just a few more seconds over Dumoulin at the risk of another losing time via a failed attack.

Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford said he will deal with Gianni Moscon after the Tour is over. How should Sky handle the Italian, who was kicked out for punching another rider Sunday?

Spencer: Wow, Moscon really cannot get out of his own way, can he? This is one of many incidents. They all have something in common though — they are usually perpetrated against French riders or riders on French teams. Brailsford should punish Moscon by sending him off to race with French development team VC La Pomme for the rest of the summer. Give the Italian a taste of how it’s like to come up in the cutthroat amateur ranks in France. Failing that, he could just forbid Moscon from ever racing in France again.

Chris: At this point, it’s pretty clear that Moscon needs more than anger management classes. Four strikes you’re out? Five strikes you’re out? Clearly, Brailsford is unfamiliar with baseball rules. Furthermore, the greedy Brailsford can’t let go of the young, highly talented kid with huge potential because he’s good for the team — he’ll keep him around as long as he can, all the while doing that “oh, we’ll deal with him later” bit.

Dane: I’m a strong believer in second chances but I’m less interested in third or fourth chances. I’d have no complaints if Sky booted him from the roster.

Rick Zabel
Rick Zabel was gassed after stage 11, when he narrowly missed the time cut but got a reprieve from the jury. Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

The field of sprinters has been decimated at this Tour de France. The remaining flat stages and the race for the green jersey aren’t nearly as exciting as they should be. What can be done to avoid this anticlimax in future Tours?

Spencer: It is pretty simple, ASO just needs to be more generous with the time cuts on mountain stages. What’re an extra 10-20 minutes in the grand scheme of things? The cuts are arbitrary already, so just find a way to keep things exciting for the Champs-Élysées stage.

Chris: I’d rather see more rolling, tough intermediate stages where the contenders for the green jersey have to get creative to secure points, than languid sprint stages that last six hours and end with two minutes of excitement. What am I saying? Let the sprint stages wither on the vine, and let the best riders get creative with their tactics and form to try and challenge Peter Sagan.

Dane: If a reduced field of sprinters is the cost of tough mountain stages, so be it. The GC battle is what people are really tuning in to watch. That may weaken the list of compelling contenders for the remaining flat stages, but maybe the solution is just to go all in and cut some of those late flat stages out (with the exception of the sprint on the Champs-Élysées) for even more mountains!

Read the full article at Tour roundtable: Leadership questions, sprinter slaughter, and a fight on VeloNews.com.

Commentary: The beauty of defeat at the Tour de France

MENDE, France (VN) — Cycling is often a game of miles or inches. On Saturday’s 14th stage of the Tour de France, it was a game of a few feet of elevation.

Jasper Stuyven rocked back and forth as he pedaled up the final pitch of the Cote de la Croix Neuve, the final pitch of the 188km stage across France’s Massif Central. Stuyven rode at a rate that was much faster than you and I could sustain on such a steep itch. Alas, it was not fast enough.

Within sight of the climb’s summit, Stuyven was caught by Astana’s Omar Fraile, perhaps the best climber from the day’s breakaway. Stuyven grimaced and gritted his teeth as he tried to match Fraile’s pace. It was not meant to be, and Fraile surged away, crested the hill, and descended toward the stage win and a place in the Tour’s history books.

Stuyven was understandably crushed by the near miss. In his post-race interviews, the Belgian struggled to find joy in the situation.

“I think if [Fraile] would have passed me maybe 200 meters later I could have stayed with him,” Stuyven said. “It’s really disappointing but what can I do? It was just too steep and too long.”

Could he have done something differently to preserve his lead?

“Maybe I could have lost another five or six kilos before the Tour,” he said. “I’m one of the heavier guys in the peloton and it’s hard for me when it gets steeper.”

Brutal.

In cycling, we often laud the victors while the defeated fade into history. That won’t be the case for me with Jasper Stuyven on stage 14. Stuyven’s defeat was one of those dramatic, edge-of-your-seat moments that only cycling can create. His 40km solo breakaway came after an entire day spent on the attack. At one point he owned a two-minute advantage on his chasers with less than 10km to go. But with the big climb looming, everyone knew his survival was not guaranteed.

No cheering in the pressroom, be damned. As the chasers bore down, I found myself urging Stuyven on. Others did too—I heard more than a few “come on!” whispers from the journalists. It’s human nature to cheer on the doomed break, right?

Stuyven was worth our cheers. It was Belgium’s national holiday, for starters, and one of the brawniest Belgians in the WorldTour peloton was battling an impossibly steep climb. Had he been born in Iowa, Stuyven the linebacker would have terrified quarterbacks all across the Big 10. But Stuyven comes from Leuven, in southern Flanders, where strong, athletic kids like him either play soccer or race bicycles. He’s at home on the Oude Kwaremont, not the Alps. So come on, Jasper, dig deep and make it over that climb!

The fight was pure entertainment, even if it ended in defeat for the hero.

Cycling has too many heartbreaking near-misses to remember, and Stuyven’s loss brought back images of some of the greats. Mara Abbott in Rio. Jack Bauer in Nimes. Jens Voigt in Colorado Springs. Just three stages ago Mikel Nieve almost stretched a solo breakaway into victory atop La Rosiere, only to be passed in the final meters by his ex-teammate Geraint Thomas.

In his post-race interviews, however, Stuyven sounded crushed. Journalists asked him if an earlier attack would have made the difference. No? Then what about a later attack?

They asked if he regretted his move.

“There are only one or two chances in a grand tour for a rider like I am to win,” he said. “The other chance was [stage 9 to] Roubaix, and then today I made another chance out of it.”

One journalist told him he should be proud of his effort.

“Or course there are a lot of guys who will say that I have to be proud and that I was strong, but at the end of the day I have been riding strong all year long, and no victories,” Stuyven said. “I’ve been riding strong races and so far a victory hasn’t happened.”

I hope there is wisdom to be gained by such a disappointment, and perhaps after some reflection, Stuyven will come to appreciate his ride. He gambled and lost, but he still played his cards, and fans appreciate the risk. His was a beautiful, wonderful defeat. He entertained us and thrilled us, and I’m guessing made new Jasper Stuyven fans out of more than a few viewers.

His Trek-Segafredo team manager Luca Guercilena agreed.

“Sometimes the way you ride is more important than the result itself and this is one of those cases,” Guercilena said. “You attack with from a breakaway of 30 and be by yourself for 40km and fight against a headwind and a bunch of riders chasing you, and give everything until 1km to go, and finish 3rd. I think that is something nice to see.”

It was nice to see. Maybe someday Jasper Stuyven will see it that way too.

Read the full article at Commentary: The beauty of defeat at the Tour de France on VeloNews.com.

Tour roundtable: Who is actually Team Sky’s leader?

The Tour de France is devolving into a two-man race — Sky versus Sky if you will. Geraint Thomas now leads the overall with his teammate and presumptive leader Chris Froome 1:25 behind after a display of dominance in stage 11’s uphill finish. There seems to be a little confusion. Froome says they’ll defend yellow. Thomas says he’s racing for Froome. So who is the leader? We’ll get this sorted out on today’s roundtable and discuss how rivals on teams other than Sky can shake up the race.

First, the million dollar question: Who is Team Sky’s leader and why?

Chris Case @chrisjustincase: Chris Froome. Given his track record, as well as Geraint’s lack of leadership experience, it will be no surprise when Froome chips away at his teammate’s lead in the mountains, and puts the nail in the coffin in the final TT. Plus, Froome is the chosen one, and he needs to win so Team Sky can rub in all our noses the fact that Froome was cleared of any wrongdoing at the Vuelta.

Dane Cash @danecash: Froome-ish. I don’t expect Sky to burn too many resources if Thomas has a bad day at any point in the coming mountain stages, but at the same time, it’s not like he’s going to intentionally lose time to put Froome in yellow. Froome will be “protected” because of his track record. Thomas’s strong GC position at least earns him the right to keep plugging away in pursuit of the win though.

Spencer Powlison @spino_powerlegs: Thomas. Yes, it’s unknown how he will handle a full grand tour as an outright leader, but it is also unknown how Froome will perform after winning the Giro d’Italia. Can he achieve this feat for the first time since the EPO era? Seems like a stretch. Geraint’s in yellow and it suits him.

Soler
Marc Soler did a huge turn to help Valverde extend his lead. Photo: Tim de Waele | Getty Images

Evaluate Movistar’s tactics in stage 11 — poorly executed or poorly conceived?

Chris: Neither. I think it was a reasonable tactic to send Valverde up the road. Problem is, they came up against an incredibly strong Sky team. When a team has six guys riding at the front of the group, and one after the other rides tempo until he detonates, how do you beat that? Especially when Nairo then proceeds to bungle a response to Dan Martin’s move which took Froome with him.

Dane: Poorly executed. It would have been a nice attempt by Valverde if Landa or Quintana had been able to capitalize. Sky was pretty short on riders for the final few kilometers, but Froome and Thomas were clearly way stronger than the Movistar duo.

Spencer: Poorly conceived because of that long gradual descent off the penultimate climb of the Cormet de Roseland and the fact that the finish climb up to La Rosière was gradual enough to encourage groups to work together. I honestly don’t think any team — even Sky! — could pull off this ambush. The terrain just didn’t allow for it. Should have saved those matches for Alpe d’Huez, hombres!

Why do you think Nibali chipped in to help Team Sky chase Alejandro Valverde?

Chris: Racing for third?

Dane: Valverde did have a decent gap there for a little while, so it’s hard to blame Nibali for wanting to chip in just in case of the disaster scenario (for everyone not on Movistar, that is) where Valverde surprises everyone and snatches the race lead. That said, Nibali probably was hoping to protect at least a podium spot too.

Spencer: Wow, this one truly baffled me. Perhaps he’s already racing for the podium, not for the win. … No, it can’t be! Nibali would never do that. I think it was a matter of principle. He was too proud to sit back and let Sky do everything. Sorry Franco Pelizotti, that means you’ve gotta take a pull!

Romain Bardet
A chase group of five formed after Froome escaped late in stage 11. Photo: Chris Graythen | Getty Images

Sky put six men on the front for today’s final climb. What can their challengers do on Alpe d’Huez to break the stranglehold?

Chris: 1.) Get a good night’s sleep; 2.) Taunt them in the coffee line; 3.) Pray; 4.) Throw tacks in front of their wheels; 5.) When all else fails, attack, attack, attack!

Dane: I still see Movistar’s approach as a viable strategy. Sky’s six riders were down to two by the final kilometers. Unfortunately, those two guys were the strongest riders in the race in stage 11. For all the hoopla that is made about Sky’s domestiques being too strong, the team’s biggest asset is how much better Froome (and apparently Thomas at the moment) are than their rivals. It’s not like Froome and Thomas aren’t suffering just as much when Sky sets that high tempo. They’ve proven strong enough to benefit from it so far, but they’re not immune to bad days.

Spencer: Boy what a pickle. Sky’s riders asserted themselves so much on Wednesday that even if a rider is willing to attack them on the Alpe, I doubt another would have the courage to make a counterattack. I think their best strategy is to avoid losing any time in stage 12 and hope to regroup and go on the offensive in the Pyrenees.

Read the full article at Tour roundtable: Who is actually Team Sky’s leader? on VeloNews.com.

Commentary: Pavé is the solution to a boring Tour

Every few years I add another video to my Bike Racing Video Hall of Fame, the collection of YouTube clips that I watch on repeat while procrastinating at work. These aren’t just any old bike race videos, but rather the Grade-A select stock of YouTube videos. Fabian vs. Tommeke on the Muur in 2010. Contador vs. Lance to Verbier in 2009. Chris Horner on l’Angliru in 2013.

My friends, I believe Sunday’s ninth stage of the Tour de France will be a first-ballot inductee to my YouTube hall of fame. Years from now, I will still watch the video with intrigue as the heroes of the 2018 Tour bounced their way across the cobblestone roads to Roubaix.

The 15 sectors of pavé created chaos within the peloton — every sector saw crashes, punctures, and a reshuffling of the group. Nearly every major GC contender was forced to battle back from a crash, mechanical calamity, or biological explosion. And somehow, those efforts paid off — the overall remained relatively unchanged, due to the Titanic struggle of a few teams to fight back.

Romain Bardet suffered a litany of mechanicals, chased all afternoon, and lost just seven seconds, calling his comeback a “miracle.” Chris Froome tangled with teammate Gianni Moscon and tumbled into a ditch, just inches away from yellow jersey holder Greg Van Avermaet. EF Education First-Drapac mount a heroic, all-hands-on-deck chase back to the group after its GC man, Rigoberto Uran, tumbled at perhaps the worst possible moment.

We were gifted amazing photos and video clips of the carnage. Olivier Naesen bunny-hopping his bicycle over Rafal Majka. Chris Froome doing the “Superman” leap off of his bike. Let’s all rejoice that both men were able to continue with the race without suffering major injuries.

Long story short: Sunday’s stage jolted us awake after several days of snore-worthy sprint stages.

We’ve seen the Tour rumble over cobblestones plenty of times, however Sunday’s stage established a new level of mayhem. At no point during the stage did the outcome feel predetermined or inevitable. It was wild.

The inclusion of such a stage raises several important question: Should legit Roubaix-grade cobblestones become standard issue in the Tour de France? Should the race make it a point to include a punishing, chaotic stage like this every year to upend the general classification? Are the crashes and mechanicals simply too extreme for a race that should be decided in the mountains?

Look, I am completely sympathetic to the plight of the pro riders, and the last thing I want is for injuries to determine the outcome. The race will undoubtedly miss Richie Porte, who crashed out on a seemingly innocuous stretch of asphalt and broke his collarbone. And I wonder if the Tour dodged a bullet on Sunday — there were broken bones, bruises, and bumps, but no life-threatening injuries.

Still, I must admit that Sunday’s stage created compelling drama — the type that glues viewers to their seats for an entire five-hour stage, and yes, gets them to re-watch the stage for the 1,000th time during a boring conference call. Could Bardet battle back? Would Nibali attack? What was Jakob Fuglsang doing?

That level of drama and unpredictability is what Tour organizer ASO is looking for, right? In recent years, the race has given us shortened 100km stages, and bizarre, perhaps gimmicky courses that are designed to inject action into the race. It’s no secret that ASO has embarked on a quest to upend the boring, controlled racing style that fans often blame on Team Sky and its army of talented domestiques. The Tour has become a battle for seconds; gaps are earned in time trials, and only on the hardest summit finishes. Swashbuckling attacks are no match for a $30 million team of all-star support riders, who can simply snuff out the aggression.

As we saw on Sunday, Sky’s army of domestiques could not tame the stones. Sky tried, and kudos to the team for riding at the front for much of the race. Even the richest team in the bunch was no match for the stones. Egan Bernal, Michal Kwiatkowski, Moscon, and even Froome all kissed the ground at some point in the race, and Sky spent much of the final 30km fighting to keep its riders in position.

That’s why, as a viewer, I welcome more cobblestones stages — why not have two during the race? Does each journey over the pavé need to contain the bite of Sunday’s course? For the sake of the riders, no. Perhaps ASO’s course designers can strike the right balance between carnage and drama.

The Tour will continue to seek out new formats and courses to inject drama into the race. We’re all waiting to see how next week’s 65km stage 17 to Bagnères-de-Luchon plays out. But perhaps the Tour organizers needn’t rack their brains to determine the proper parcours for drama. The simply need to look north, to the cobblestone roads to Roubaix.

Read the full article at Commentary: Pavé is the solution to a boring Tour on VeloNews.com.

Trend watch: At Eurobike 2018, batteries are included

Sometimes the bike industry has no chill.

Case in point: In 2016, you couldn’t walk two feet through Eurobike without stumbling upon another fat bike. Big 5-inch tires, big frames, big Q-factor … and now, a big disappearing act. Sure, there were still a few kicking around the halls this year, but it’s a good reminder that when a trend catches fire, it burns hot. Fat bikes were supposed to be the next big thing, but they simply became the next other thing.

I went to Eurobike 2018 with the intention of spotting what’s next in the industry — not just the temporary fads, but the long-term trends. After spending two days walking the massive zeppelin hangars full of bike wares from around the world, it seemed clear there were five trends steering the cycling industry’s ship: E-bikes, the “road bike question,” gravel, bikepacking, and of course, mountain biking.

Put a battery on it

While there was more than one trend taking over the halls this year (more on that in a moment), it was clear that sticking a battery on your bike is the new hotness. Commuters, mountain, road, and even gravel e-bikes littered the show floor with batteries affixed, integrated, and otherwise advertised.

Cue the lack of chill. (Read: extreme enthusiasm!)

Just about every booth had an e-bike in it. Have you heard? E-gravel is now a thing! While some companies approached the trend with a “stick it on and see what happens” attitude, others truly took the time to consider integration, weight, performance, and all the other factors that could make e-bikes stick. Lapierre’s eZesty was one of the better executions: its battery capacity is much smaller than its competitors, which means it’s probably intended for shorter rides (or longer rides with less assistance). The motor and battery can also be removed, and you can ride the bike normally. Pretty nifty.

Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com

The question is, will the battery thing be the future of bikes, or is this the industry’s most recent fat bike moment? My guess is the former. Batteries are coming, and while it’s easy to turn your nose up at it, there are plenty of benefits to our forthcoming battery-operated overlords.

For starters, there is the potential to get more people on bikes. That, generally speaking, is a good thing. We’ve waited for the “If you build it, they will come” paradigm to play out regarding bicycling infrastructure, and the results have been tepid at best. Perhaps if they come, then someone will build it. E-bikes will undoubtedly encourage bicycle use.

Of course, the e-bike revolution brings along its own baggage. Trail access, existing infrastructure, and bike weight are all big concerns. And don’t forget to ask yourself: where do all those batteries go when they’re used up? While e-bikes have massive advantages, the drawbacks are also more problematic than, say, the advent of 29ers or fat bikes, or mid-fat. Will the fad become a trend? I think so, but the road winds uphill.

That analog sound

What about the sans-battery bikes, which have (somewhat annoyingly) gained the industry-ism of Analog Bike? Yeah, there were a few of those, but there weren’t a lot of skinny tires to be found. That’s not too surprising, given the litany road biking eulogies we’ve seen over the last few years.

Let me state this clearly: Road bikes are not dead. I repeat: Road bikes are not dead. The lull is undeniable and the problems are real. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the road bike is going away.

First off, the road bike is classic. There will be demand for skinny tires as long as paved roads exist. Even if those paved roads crumbled, the road bike will survive. There’s romance to it. There’s history. Sure, roads can be scary places to ride these days. Cycling deaths are up significantly in the United States according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Yet brands like Trek are collaborating with Ford to create safer roadways (despite ignoring the fact that we could simply be building separated bike lanes, but I digress…). Trek is also one of the few companies claiming growth in the road bike category.

Jasper Stuyven rolls to sign-in during stage 1 of the 2018 Tour de France aboard Trek’s revamped Madone. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com

Second, Europe exists. It’s easy to forget that over here in the U.S., where road cycling peaked during the Armstrong era and has been erratic at best ever since. But in Europe, road bikes are alive and well. The lull in road bike enthusiasm in the United States seems most significantly tied to the lack of infrastructure that protects cyclists from increasingly inattentive drivers. That problem can be solved.

Third, there are some darn cool road bikes out there. While neither Trek nor Specialized had booths at the show, both companies released cutting-edge aero bikes shortly before the Tour de France: Trek with its updated Madone and Specialized with its totally redesigned Venge. Ridley got in the aero updates game too with its new Noah Fast. There’s reason to be excited about road bikes because, while it may seem there’s not much revolutionary technology coming down the pipe, it’s fair to say we’re currently experiencing the best road bikes that have ever existed. From here on, small refinements will make big leaps.

In the grips of gravel

I’m just going to go ahead and say it: Gravel is just road riding by a different name. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Road bikes aren’t dead; they’re just getting dirty.

Need even more proof that gravel is the next big thing? Look is launching an e-gravel bike, combining two of the biggest themes at the Eurobike show. Fad or for real? When you compare gravel to fat bikes, it’s easy to see gravel has more staying power, largely due to its versatility. Ride it on the road, ride it on dirt, ride it to the coffee shop. Load it up with bikepacking gear and head to the woods. Ride it year-round. Even smaller brands like Voodoo and Parlee are investing time and resources into the gravel segment, indicating that gravel is, in fact, a response to consumer demand.

E-bikes are everywhere at Eurobike. The debate rages: are E-MTBs the future? What about E-road bikes? Not many folks were talking about e-gravel … until now. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com

Take it with you

In keeping with the broad explosion of the gravel category, bikepacking bags are in high demand as well. This is perhaps the biggest indication that there’s a shift in what consumers want: less racing, more adventure.

What do racing and adventure have in common? They’re often both aspirational. In other words, the vast majority of consumers won’t actually do either, but they do often want the gear to be able to do it.

That means brands you’ve heard of — but not in the bikepacking context — are now in the bag business. Take Birzman, for example, a company most known for its tools. It showed off a full array of bikepacking gear in the Birzman booth this year. Zefal, most known for its pumps, also has a line of bikepacking bags. Even big boys like Shimano have caught the bikepacking bug.







So is it a fad or a trend? Given that bikepacking has been around for a long time, it’s fair to say it’s not going anywhere. The recent explosion of bikepacking enthusiasm is likely to wane over time, but it’s once again an opportunity to get new enthusiasts on bikes at a relatively low price point: Get an inexpensive steel bike, a few bags, and go. This is one more opportunity for new cyclists to get a sense of the fun and adventure without the fear of car traffic nipping at them.

Only the strong survive

And boy are mountain bikes ever strong. Knobby tires abound. WTB released updated tread patterns and sizes on its mountain bike tires. Scott Bikes showed off Nino Schurter’s XC bike whenever the opportunity arose. Kona Bikes was on hand with its updated range.

And perhaps most exciting, the crowd got its first real up-close look at Fox’s Live Valve system. While details are still scarce and Fox isn’t talking yet, the system essentially dictates shock movement electronically. Strategically placed accelerometers help the electronic system open or close the damping, which hypothetically means you should be able to truly live the proverbial “firm on the climbs, supple on the descents” paradigm. The system senses bumps and reacts within milliseconds to prepare the shocks to react.

It’s clear that e-bikes are the top trend of 2018. Voodoo has its own version with the Zobop E. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com

Marin has taken a different stab at the same problem with its Wolf Ridge, which features Naild R3act 2 Play suspension. The idea is once again to limit suspension movement when it’s not needed and make it as plush and long as possible when it is needed. But the Wolf Ridge aims to do so without electronics, relying instead on the kinematic movement of the rear suspension elements entirely.

So it’s fair to say that mountain bikes have remained extremely popular, and much of the technological advancement we’re seeing in the cycling industry is taking place on the dirt side. That’s once again an indication of the shift from race to adventure.

Read the full article at Trend watch: At Eurobike 2018, batteries are included on VeloNews.com.

Tour roundtable: Was it worth it to ride the cobbles?

Cobblestone chaos! Pavé pandemonium! The Tour de France‘s stage 9 was billed as a wildcard with 15 sectors of real-deal rough Roubaix cobblestones. Before they reached the stones, Richie Porte (BMC) crashed out. Then scores of riders, including numerous GC men hit the deck. Was this crazy spectacle worth having in the Tour? Which of the skinny climbers punched above his weight on the rough roads of Northern France? Let’s roundtable!

Stage 9 was a highly anticipated day on this Tour — did it deliver the blockbuster action we were promised?

Fred Dreier, @freddreier: It delivered, and then some. After several stages of boring flats, we were given an edge-of-your-seat stage on the pavé. Nearly every GC contender had to battle some type of crash or mechanical, and every sector of cobbles saw people fighting to stay on their bicycles. The drama of watching these riders fight back — Rigoberto Urán and Romain Bardet, for example — gave fans something to cheer. Look, I am extremely understanding of the perspective that these stages are lotteries and that the fate of the bike race is decided by luck. That may be, but it also requires so much skill to survive. We saw impeccable skill today by a number of riders.

Spencer Powlison, @spino_powerlegsIt did, but the action was limited to the final 20-30 kilometers of racing, so for me, it wasn’t what I’d hoped for. Plus, that excitement was limited to the stage-hunters. None of the GC men really took risks to gain time, which I found disappointing. Ideally, you see two races on a day like this: One for the stage and one for GC time.

Dane Cash, @danecash: It feels weird saying but … not really. It mostly just delivered crashes, and several of those were on the asphalt. John Degenkolb’s stage win was great to watch, but the big GC stars did not seem all that interested in trying their luck with attacks on the cobbles.

Romain Bardet
Some crashed, others like Romain Bardet suffered multiple mechanicals. Photo: Getty Images

Which GC contender surprised and impressed you most on the cobbles?

Fred: I was really impressed with Chris Froome on the stones. Yes, he crashed, but he also spent most of the day near the front. He even marked attacks on several occasions. And unlike some of the other GC men who went down, Froome was back in the front group in a matter of minutes. I was also impressed with Nairo Quintana, who I predicted would lose time. Like Froome, Quintana was in that front group for much of the day.

Spencer: Quintana is the obvious choice for this honor, given how unproven he is on the pavé. However, I’m going to doff my cap to Chris Froome. He finished with the lead group, but more notably he did so after a crash that forced him to chase. Plus, he marshaled his Sky team to ride a blistering tempo across most of the cobbled sectors and even put in a few digs of his own toward the end.

Dane: I expected Dan Martin to really suffer on the cobbles, and that was before he crashed hard on stage 8. Instead, he even snatched some time on his GC rivals thanks to a sneaky bonus second sprint. Super impressive ride.

What is your evaluation of the GC race now that we’re headed to the mountains with Porte out of the race and Urán minutes behind overall?

Fred: I still think the compelling GC story will involve the true leadership at Sky between Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, since Thomas owns a minute advantage on Froome. [Here’s Fred’s take on who should lead Sky -Ed.] Behind them, Tom Dumoulin, Romain Bardet, and Mikel Landa are all still in great position to challenge for the win.

Spencer: I think the GC race will be pretty conservative through the Alpes without Porte and BMC to take the initiative. I also worry that Urán is too far back to really make an impact if he goes on the attack. However, I’m optimistic that Movistar will take the fight to Froome. Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde are essentially even with him in the overall, and Quintana is 1:08 behind the defending champ. They need to attack, and they will attack. It might not happen until the Pyrenees though.

Dane: Porte getting knocked out of the picture is huge, as he was looking like the top yellow jersey contender not named Chris Froome. Urán I’m less worried about as he’d done a nice job through the first few stages and therefore only finds himself 1:11 down on Froome. The big winner today is Movistar. Getting Quintana, Valverde, and Landa safely to the mountains is huge. Now they can start applying some pressure on Sky.

Dylan Groenewegen
Dylan Groenewegen (left), winner of the last two Tour stages, came to grief on the cobbles. Photo: Getty Images

Was the cobblestone stage a net positive or net negative for this year’s Tour?

Fred: Tough question. I really did want to see Richie Porte take on Chris Froome since Porte looked incredibly strong at the Tour de Suisse. I’m bummed for Porte. Twice in two years, he’s out on stage 9. But alas, staying on one’s bicycle is simply part of the Tour de France.

Spencer: It was a negative overall. This day was just such a crash-fest and a lot of those incidents were senseless, especially Porte’s. I’m torn because I strongly believe that the GC guys should have the chops to ride cobbles and handle their bikes, but on Sunday, everyone was crashing. Even Michal Kwiakowski went down, and he’s one of the best bike handlers in the peloton!

Dane: The loss of Porte is a huge bummer so the stage is a net negative in my mind, but that didn’t really have anything to do with the cobbles. That crash could have happened anywhere. The cobbles themselves were at the very least a push, even without any great GC battles on the pavé, because we got to see a great battle between Degenkolb, Van Avermaet, and Lampaert in the middle of July.

Read the full article at Tour roundtable: Was it worth it to ride the cobbles? on VeloNews.com.