Sky perfect the art of the marginal win

Tour de France 2015 

Chris Froome wrapped up his second and Sky’s third Tour de France victory in four years on Sunday. While he was at pains to thank the contribution of his teammates and the wider backroom staff supporting the team Froome might also privately thank Nairo Quintana for his contribution that changed the narrative in the closing stages of the race. Even during the short period where he had worn the maillot jaune after his second place on the Mur de Huy, Froome had been assaulted by doping questions. Whether these were of the conventional nature asked during the post stage pressers or of a more accusatory nature hurled literally and figuratively from the ‘fans’ at the road side it felt at times as if any other discussion of the race had been drowned out by the arguments pro and anti Froome’s apparent dominance.

Tour de France 2015 winner - Chris Froome
Tour de France 2015 winner – Chris Froome

Because his apparent superiority was just that. Quintana may have left it until the final two stages in the Alps to take time out of Froome but the final analysis showed that over the stages run in the mountains; Quintana had the fastest aggregate time. The reality of Chris Froome’s 2015 Tour de France win is that he won it in the first week and on the first day in the Pyrenees. The stage win at La Pierre Saint-Martin was almost a carbon copy of the first day in the mountains in 2013 at Ax Trois Domaines. Froome had nearly two minutes on Quintana going into the stage and took another minute out of him on stage 10. The damage to Quintana’s and the other GC contenders chances of victory had been done on a week earlier and hundreds of miles away on the windswept roads of the Dutch coast.

I’ve admitted it already that I didn’t call things correctly as far as stage two was concerned and with hindsight it’s clear that the foundations of Froome and Sky’s victory were laid here. It was the start of a Tour nightmare for Vincenzo Nibali that plumbed the depths of lost time and suggestions that he should find a new team in 2016 until he woke up when Froome got a stone caught between brake pad and wheel rim on stage 19. Crucially, Zeeland was where Quintana lost two thirds of the time he was trying to make up on the yellow jersey for the final half of the race.

So how did Chris Froome really win the 2015 Tour. The facts have little to do with allegations of doping and everything to do with a finely tuned team performance where everything was geared towards a Froome win. Lets start with team selection. Unlike the squad that won Sky’s first Tour win in 2012 there was no suggestion of dual aims. There was no sprinter selected in 2015. The team did appear to be neatly split between the best of Sky’s classics squad (Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard) and a strong outfit of climbing domestiques including Froome’s close friends Richie Porte and Wout Poels. Of course no one really knew that Thomas was going to be quite so versatile that he would be mentioned as a possible podium late into the final week. Cast in the road captain role by Dave Brailsford as early as 2013 he was the ideal person to shepherd Froome through the first week that appeared to be designed to trip him up; wind, cobbles and narrow roads. In praising Thomas for a job incredibly well done as Froome’s shadow for much of the race it’s quite easy to lose sight of the fact that in all of the areas where Froome was supposed to struggle he actually thrived much of the time. While he remains vulnerable to self inflicted errors Froome had clearly decided that the best form of defence in week one was attack. With the ever present Thomas alongside Froome was already poised to take control of the race by the time of the first rest day with the first of the mountain stages to come.

Just as Froome’s stage win had echoes of 2013 so did the chorus of disapproval that followed. If Sky showed that they had absorbed the lessons of 2014 in winning this years race they were perhaps less successful in developing a strategy for a repeat of 2013’s doping allegations. There’s obviously a dichotomy between the team wanting to be seen to win ‘clean’ while at same time feeling unable to reveal the ‘secrets’ of their success. In the sometimes murky hinterland of performance enhancements that while not banned may not always fall inside the spirit of the rules it’s not always clear that Sky tread a path 100% on the right side of the line. How you feel about this is up to you. I can understand the dilemma of not wanting to reveal each and every one of your marginal gains set against the need to be able to disprove an increasingly volume of doping allegations.

It’s easy and a little facetious to suggest that the easiest way Sky could have dealt with the doping narrative that accompanied much of Froome’s tenure in yellow by handing his opponents some jokers to play. Once Quintana had found a chink in Froome’s armour the questions seemed to evaporate, at least within the media. I mentioned in my last post that I felt that Sky’s apparent ‘domination’ was creating a bit of a vacuum; a lack of story based on what was actually happening in the race that allowed the questions of 2013 to be remixed and rehashed for 2015. It’s clear now that this was the case. It remains to be seen if Sky (or Froome independently) release any data to counter the claims made again this year. My own guess is that the ‘story’ may be left to quietly slip away as attention turns to the next race.

A final thought on Chris Froome’s win. While their were parallels with 2013 I also think there was a nod to Bradley Wiggins win in 2012. Not withstanding that Froome is by far the superior rider in the mountains; he was shrewd in his defence of his lead in 2015 against a rider who (in the mountains at least) was his superior. Froome has the climbing chops to control the race in the absence of support but I was reminded of Wiggins in the way he and the team kept a lid on things.

Quintana finishes the Tour with his reputation further enhanced. If the race had spent another day or two in the Alps it’s entirely possible that he would have caught the yellow jersey. It’s easy to come up with ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. There wasn’t another stage and Movistar may reflect on a race that they lost by not attacking Sky earlier. It’s likely that the conflicting agendas of the teams would have prevented an anti Sky alliance to upset Froome’s train but it does feel like a missed opportunity that Movistar failed to use Alejandro Valverde as a one two punch with Quintana often enough. In 2013 Movistar missed out due to backing the wrong horse in Valverde. Having put everything on Quintana this year they failed to back up his strengths with the right tactics.

For Alberto Contador the Tour proved to be a grand tour too far. He was never that far from the sharp end of the race but was very soon too far from the lead to be much more than a spectator. He has dealt with his result philosophically but it’s difficult to see his race program being anything other than Tour focused in 2016.

Vincenzo Nibali salvaged his race with a stage win late on. Some of the more jingoistic Sky fans were critical of the timing of Nibali’s attack during ‘stonegate’ but for me this was the move that finally cracked the Sky carapace and made the race. Of the big four Nibali was surprisingly the one that coped worst with the opening week. The issues seemed to be in his head rather than his legs and the stage win will have been an important psychological boost as far as his next tilt at a grand tour is concerned.

Away from the GC battle the final day saw another Andre Greipel stage win. It was a fitting tribute to the form that the Lotto sprinter has shown in this years race but I can’t imagine it will be repeated again. Mark Cavendish finished down the field (it was revealed afterwards that he was struggling with a fever) and it will be interesting to see if he contests his next sprint finish in Paris in Etixx colours. One possible berth that has been mentioned is with MTN Quhbeka and he would be a great marquee signing for the team that seemed to have been dealt the perfect hand in this years Tour. Steve Cummings taking the teams first Tour stage win on Nelson Mandela’s birthday was a script writers dream. This result, backed up with the KOM jersey in the opening week and a solid team and individual performance on GC made MTN my team of the race.

The final stage was preceded by the second edition of La Course TDF; the womens crit event run on the finishing circuit on the Champs Elysee. I’m still not certain the event is the best showcase for women’s racing (why not a stage race?) but the bad weather on Sunday morning provided enough of a variable to ensure that the race was exciting (probably more so than the men’s). I would like to see ASO develop the format in 2016, perhaps shadowing the final week of the Tour rather than a single event.

We will not see another Tour like 2015. Next year everything will have changed. Sky continue to morph from a predominantly British outfit and Froome will have lost the services of Richie Porte next year (he may well line up against him). It’s hard to imagine that anyone will go for a Giro / Tour double next year (or any year). While we may not see the ‘big four’ (or five) line up for Grande Depart in 2016 the riders who began this years race will ensure that the Tour remains head and shoulders above the other grand tours in terms of profile. I would expect to see Froome joined by Contador and Quintana but suspect Nibali will target the Giro in search of his next win in a three week stage race.

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