Wednesday, 13 July 2016

TdF 2016-The story so far - Uncertainities and orthodoxies challenged...

So the Tour is at its half way point- how has it been so far? I could think of all kinds of adjectives and clichés, although saying I have already been accused of being inebriated by the exuberance of my own verbosity this evening (albeit in a slightly unrelated contexts) I will try and avoid this.

If there is one thing I hate about modern life it is "obviousness"- when people say or do things you know they are going to do, which you and they know isn't original but they still feel the urge to carry out. You can test this out in everyday life by simply carrying a box of chocolates or bunch of flowers past a group of people and time how long it takes someone to say "You shouldn't have"- the quickest I have experienced is 19 seconds. But cycling, and the Tour in particular, has its own problems in this regard. See the raft of "white shorts" articles that appear after every World Championships win, the "Tour can't be won here but can be lost" phrase, the people who only ever appear on cycling forums during these three weeks to roll out the stock "How can it be called a Tour of France if it goes into Andorra/ Spain/ The Netherlands/ Switzerland etc?" or "jokes" around doping (yes- we all know the one about "fair play to Lance- when I use drugs I can't even ride a bike"), stuff about shaved legs, Rule V and so on. Hopefully though, this year will finally kill off the most tired, lazy and inaccurate of myths- that of the "curse of the Rainbow Jersey" thanks to Armitstead and Sagan's performances.  While even Cav wearing the stripes winning on the Champs Elysees after being lead out by the maillot jaune couldn't stop the trope being recycled every year since, any hack spotted space-filling after Sep with this nonsense should be banned from writing about cycling and their race accreditation given to me!

And thereby hangs the link to the Grand Boucle so far- it has been a lesson in throwing out old uncertainties. Each year many journalists and writers, under pressure for print deadlines, contribute to various guides to that years events. This is often a problem since this is actually the first year I can remember that all of the big hitters promoted in the guides made it to the start of stage 1. Wiggins, Kittel and Matthews are just a few off the top of my head who stared out at me from the guides, despite, at that stage, sitting at home watching the Grand Depart. This year though generally everyone who was expected to be there was, but really in many cases that is the most accurate offering due to this TdF not going according to script.

 The challenge to certainities came straight off the bat. Stage One had Kittel and Griepel as favourites in nearly every preview I read. Cav barely merited a mention, or if he did appear, was favoured only if it didn't come down to a traditional sprint. Fast forward a few hours and suddenly many hacks were cursing the existence of internet caches. At least when predictions went awry in the past, it was in printed magazines that were either chucked or added to a pile that, despite best intentions, were never re-read. No such luxury these days!

Stage 2 probably did generally stick to the script, though again Cav bucked it a little by not losing as much time as other sprinters in his respectful defence of the jersey. Then to win another two sprints, including head-to-head with Kittel again- the Manxman's role in helping shape the narrative as a "Tour-unlike-others" has been large.

A few days later, the yellow jersey worn by van Avermaet, being allowed in the break, Cummings powering away from a group including Nibali to win and the flamme rouge collapsing, all added to the departure from the mean (well maybe not Cummings performance based on his other stage wins this year and the chance to stick two fingers up at the GB Olympic Selectors). The top of the GC standings included 3 Brits and an Irishman; three out of the four jerseys were held by those with UK citizenship; 5 of the first 8 stages were also won by individuals entitled to vote in the EU Referendum- (as an aside-if article 50 is invoked will they have to apply for work visas alongside the South Americans and Africans?). What odds would have been offered on Dimension Data leading the number of stage wins by the half-way point?

Also include Froome's victory after attacking on the descent and today's escape with Sagan to disrupt what all the guides say was a nailed on sprint stage, Contador's falls and abandon, Pinot and Porte losing time so early on (and the latter seemingly acting as a fifth columnist to distance van Garderen on the ride into Andorra), Nibali seemingly reverting to riding like a normal rider rather than a possible GC plan B or gregario deluxe for Aru... for some riders like Cav, a winding back of the clock. to others a fast forwarding of a calendar based on their form.

Yet despite all these surprises and deviation from the accepted storyline, is it really sucha shock? 2016 itself has been such a volatile year, when unpredicatabilty has ruled and many orthodoxies abandoned, why shouldn't the Tour follow suit?  Yet still predictions are being made based on old indicators. Froome has this tied down already reads the thread of dominant thinking, especailly after today and the fact the Ventoux stage has been truncated. But if I have learned anything over the past month- actually past 7 months- it is that things cannot be taken for granted. Remember Sky have been pulling everyone along, giving Movistar an easy ride. Week three is backloaded with 4 hard stages in succession- are Sky burning their matches too early? While Quintana has been accused of letting the race head up the road without him remember- even with his heroics today, Froome only took 12 seconds on Nairo. The energy he used today and on his great escape on stage 8 will have to be paid for eventually-  has it been worth it for a 35 second lead at this stage? The Time Trails are hillier than usual so the Colombian will not lose as much time as he would in more traditional chrono parcours.

So the lesson? Well as usual my Twitter feed is full of pessimistic individuals saying that the Tour is over already. But I say this- look at everything that is going on in the world, look at today's stage (number 11 Carcassonne to Montpellier) and embrace the chaos and uncertainity- if there has ever been a time in recent memory when we can discard the expected linear narrative it is now!

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