Reflections on the Tour de France 2017

There’s always a sense of loss the week after the Tour finishes. You have months of anticipation and speculation, three weeks of enthralling racing – yes, even the snooze fests – and then it finishes in a blaze of glory on the Champs Elysees. It doesn’t really hit you until the Wednesday, given Monday and Tuesday as extended rest days, plus the tv channels running various highlight programmes and everyone doing their lists of “Things we learnt from the Tour.”

Mind you after watching 21 stages from start to finish, I’m feeling catatonic. However, it was great to see the podium suspense maintained into the last week-end. As always, I loved the stages where riders enjoyed their “first ever…..” victory/grand tour win, seeing the winners’ emotions, watching the spectacular scenery, fabulous property porn and so on. I did not enjoy the many crashes and rider withdrawals, nor Peter Sagan‘s wholly unfair (IMHO) disqualification.

Five things are now patently obvious to me:-

  1. You cannot do well in both Giro and Tour
  2. You’re unlikely to end up on the podium unless you have the support of your entire team
  3. Money talks, though teams on limited budgets  – I’m looking at Ag2r, Sunweb and Cannondale – can still do well
  4. It’s not about winning big, it’s about losing small or not at all
  5. Unless you can time-trial well, you’re highly unlikely to win a grand tour

Each race always throws up some surprises, that’s one of the allures of cycling, its unpredictability. Before the event started I poo-poohed another blogger’s suggestion that Sagan wouldn’t win a sixth consecutive jersey. He said he felt his luck would run out. He was right, it did. Few cycling commentators would’ve accurately predicted the podium, a few may’ve picked Chris Froome and Romain Bardet – two out of three’s not bad. But I bet no one, other than his team, wife and family, backed Rigoberto Uran.

I did enjoy watching the stages from start to finish, though I may have been MIA or working during bits of them. I felt it was instructive to see how, where and when the break formed and appreciate the work some riders do on the front of the peloton for hundreds of kilometres. Riders like that are worth their weight in gold, cherish them. I was impressed with Froome’s closely fought victory. I thought his focus, coolness under fire, failure to panic and knowledge that he had the best team (mates and support staff) were the deciding factors.

Sunday, we also (knowingly) waived goodbye to Haimar Zubeldia and Thomas Voeckler, who completed their last ever Tours. I wish them well in their future careers. I said knowingly because there were probably others who have also ridden their last Tour de France but have yet to acknowledge it. It’s always exciting watching the peloton hurtle round Paris. I speak from personal experience when I tell you that riding over those cobbles is painful. I only had to do it once and after riding a mere 500km. However, it was a very special moment and one I will always cherish.

For me it’s not so much a sense of loss this week but one of realisation. The season is fast winding to a conclusion, there’s only one more Grand Tour to enjoy. Of course, there’s the bonus of one of my favourite races, the Clasica in San Sebastian – a place I don’t need any excuse to visit – which is held on the Saturday after the Tour concludes. It’s typically won by a rider who’s just ridden the Tour and has come out of it in great form. Looking at the start list, there’s plenty of likely candidates.

This year’s Vuelta is handily starting not too far away from us in the ancient Roman city of Nimes, a place we’ve yet to visit. We normally only see its cathedral and concrete sprawl from the motorway. So that’s something to look forward to though I’m hoping (and praying) it won’t turn out to be another Carcassonne. We’ll be in Madrid in September for an international Dental Exhibition  – I know, I lead such an exciting life! – and thereafter we’re heading to Valencia for a complete break, so sadly our path won’t cross again with that of the Vuelta. Which just leaves our annual pilgrimage to Lake Como for Il Lombardia, our last race of the season, which has such an air of finality about it.

You maybe wondering why I’ve omitted the World championships being held in Norway in late September. Aside from last year’s in Qatar, I’ve attended 10 consecutive championships. You may regard this a heretical, but I’m not a fan of Scandinavia – been there, have no desire to go back. Hamburg is about as far north as I like to venture. However, I will be going to the one’s in Innsbruck next year.


Pre-Tour chat with Trek-Segafredo’s Haimar Zubeldia

Typically I’ll make a point of talking to riders participating in their first ever grand tour, or their first Tour de France, because their slightly nervous excitement and sense of adventure is intoxicating.

The youngest (and coolest) rider in the race, Elie Gesbert (Fortuneo), handling French television with aplomb

This time though I thought I’d head for the opposite end of the spectrum and talk to the oldest, most experienced rider in the race, one taking part in his 16th Tour and who had been literally called off the substitutes’ bench at the last moment.

In previous additions of the Tour, Haimar Zubeldia (Trek-Segafredo) has managed five top-10 finishes almost without anyone noticing. The Basque cuts a tall, elegant figure in his all black casual clothing and he’s long been one of my favourite riders. I always enjoy watching him race in the Basque country where family and friends turn out in droves to support him and when, inevitably, he wins the prize for Best Placed Basque Rider, his two daughters, whom he refers to as his angels, love getting up on the podium with him and holding his bouquet and cup.

Pre-stage planning in the Village Tour de France (l to r Alberto Contador, Carlos Betancur, Haimar, Jarlinson Pantano)

It was clear that he was bitterly disappointed not to have been first-choice to race in what will be his final Tour de France, particularly as he’d ridden the recent Dauphine as road captain for Alberto Contador, with whom he’d participated in the Tour much earlier in both their careers (Astana in 2009 and RadioShack in 2010), and was keen to repeat the experience. However, he told me he’d suffered some dark moments before the telephone call summoning him to Duesseldorf.

My family like cycling a lot but last week was not easy for me when I was not selected in the first moments and my wife she really showed me something more.

I complimented him on the length of his career and asked whether it was due to anything in particular. He said not and, of course, at the start of his career he’d never dreamt he’d still be riding at this age. But he’d stayed fit and competitive and still loved riding his bike. He said:

I don’t know how I stay here this long but always I say I’m here now. Obviously, I do something well and I now can teach the younger riders, giving them advices like I received 20 years’ ago. For example, now I’ll say to them to try and sleep an extra hour each day because by the end they’ll appreciate the 21 hours’ extra sleep.

I asked whether he’d given any thought to what he might do after he’d retired from racing competitively. It was clear that whatever it is, cycling will still feature. He reiterated:

Fortunately, in my career, I have a lot of help around me and my idea is to have time to ride but at another level. I have a lot of experience and I would like to continue in cycling. I don’t know now in which side but maybe help in clothing?

I don’t know exactly when I’ll finish my career but afterwards I’ll need to organise my life, spend time with my family specially because in the last few years with the days spent racing and at camps, I miss a lot.

We also discussed neo pro Ruben Guerreiro, newly crowned road race champion of Portugal, who I’ve been following over on VeloVoices. He’s spoken appreciatively of the advice and guidance he’s received from Haimar with whom he roomed in the recent Amgen Tour of California. Haimar remarked that he enjoyed this aspect of his role and was one of the reasons he’d resigned for 2017 with the team. He spoke fondly of Ruben whom he said reminded him a bit of himself when he was younger. I can see the similarity neither talks for the sake of talking but when the floodgates open, stand back and listen.

I can’t help feeling that, given the nature of this year’s parcours, the team and Contador in particular, will be better served by Haimar’s presence on the squad.

(Header image: Haimar Zubeldia, stage 1 Tour de France 2017 ©Kristof Ramon)