Blazin' Saddles

Tour de France 2013 Review: Time to swoon for Froome

Blazin' Saddles

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It hardly got off to the best start: edging through the neutral zone in Porto-Vecchio, the pre-race favourite clipped a Corsican curb and crashed, cutting his right knee and requiring a bike change before the 100th edition of the Tour de France had even officially got underway.

But if you're going to crash, you might as well do it when the cameras aren't rolling, when the pace is not high, and when the race has not started. Because after that, Chris Froome didn't put a foot wrong.

Sure, there was his Alpe d'Huez bonk and the scare on the second stage in the Pyrenees when his Sky team-mates were blown away on the first of five cimbs. But a combination of Richie Porte, illegal energy gels and Froome keeping his cool in isolation saw the 28-year-old overcome those wobbles.

And given cycling's recent tainted past, if the worst thing you can pin on the winner of the world's greatest cycling race is a couple of illicit sugar rushes, then surely that's cause for celebration in itself. Since the start of the Tour, fans and journalists alike had been slinging mud at Froome and his Sky team in the hope that it would stick.

You get the impression that there are many, many people out there who would actually prefer it if Froome was doping - which is a sad state of affairs. But Froome is a worthy winner in the post-Lance Armstrong scandal era.

Like Bradley Wiggins one year before him, Froome has had to deal with all the finger-pointing and innuendo - but he's done so with grace while letting his riding do the talking. On the morning of the stage to Alpe d'Huez, Froome's achievements were given the green light by French newspaper L'Equipe after Sky had handed over his performance data from the past two years. Later that day, Froome had his hypoglycaemic wobble while France went on to win their first stage of the Tour in some style through Christophe Riblon.

Funnily enough, the noise about the yellow jersey's superhuman performances seemed to quieten down after that. Although, L'Equipe's front page on the last day of the Tour showed a picture of Froome basking in the sun underneath the headline 'Le Roi Soleil'. Clever, seeing that the stage started in King Louis XIV's old palace at Versailles - although the undertones are clear: Louis's reign would come to an end in Revolution and a slice of a Guillotine. Many still have the knives out for Froome, it seems.

The rider got support from former Tour great Greg LeMond, however, who stressed on numerous occasions that "extraordinary performances are possible without doping". Froome and Sky were also given the thumbs up by the respected journalist David Walsh, who was so integral to bringing down Lance Armstrong. That speaks volumes.

Like LeMond and Jan Ullrich, Froome joins a small list of riders who have followed up a second place by winning the Tour for the same team one year later. Unlike the above, Froome did not have to do it with the podium-topping team-mate from a year before, with Wiggins foregoing the Hinault/Riis mantle because of injury and illness.

Given how Froome dominated the race, that was probably no bad thing for Britain's first ever winner of the Tour. Froome is a very different type of British winner, one who attacked, won stages with panache, excelled in the mountains and was polite and gracious. He even spoke to the French press every night in their language - not once calling them c***s. (That said, Wiggo's character and charisma was sorely missed this time round...)

Sadly, even when Froome faltered, some people doubted the veracity of his travails - and that of Porte, whose sudden collapse en route to Bigorre raised eyebrows. An attempt by Sky to humanise their leader and right-hand man and to assuage the suspicion around their stellar performances? Be careful what you say. It's one thing having doubts about Froome's uphill in-the-saddle attacks on the Ventoux, but once you start to doubt the sincerity of his moments of weakness, then that's entering dangerous territory.

Froome is the only rider in last year's top ten to be present in this year's, with Wiggins and Vincenzo Nibali not taking part, Jurgen van den Broeck and Janez Brajkovic crashing out, Thibaut Pinot withdrawing through illness and Cadel Evans, Tejay van Garderen, Haimar Zubeldia and Pierre Rolland chronically underachieving.

He was heads and shoulders above the rest of the field and it is right that we are now talking about the possibility of a period of domination in the Tour - because he has all the attributes to go on and join the five-Tour club. Ironically enough, after all the finger pointing, gossip and innuendo, he may be the cleanest of that illustrious group.

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FIVE RIDERS WHO MADE THE 2013 TOUR

If the final GC was decided by the last week alone then Nairo Quintana would be the yellow jersey such were the Colombian's eye-catching performances. No one since Jan Ullrich in 1996 has finished second in their debut Tour - and this was the best ever performance in the Grande Boucle for any Colombian rider in history. Froome may be eyeing a period of domination but Quintana is five years his junior and has targeted winning the Tour within two years. It's going to be fascinating to see how their rivalry develops over the years - and their position at the top of the podium at the expense of older, more experienced riders such as Alberto Contador does seem to mark a changing of the guard.

Talking of which, Marcel Kittel bagged four sprint stages in what was effectively his first Tour de France (last year's debut was curtailed after five stages because of illness). His victory on the opening day saw him take the yellow jersey but came after a huge crash in the peloton. There can be no arguments about his next three wins, however: one surging past Andre Greipel, the next past Mark Cavendish, and the third past them both and on the biggest stage, the Champs-Elysees. All four of Kittel's wins were a combination of individual brilliance and superb team-work from Argos-Shimano, the best train in the business.

Tony Martin deserves mention for his wonderful win in the time trial at Mont Saint-Michel. Yes, the German is the world time trial champion, but considering his injuries from the opening stage of the race, it was a marvel that Martin was even still in the race. The OPQS powerhouse fell unconscious twice in his team bus before being taken to hospital in Bastia with injuries that would keep most amateurs off their bikes for the best part of a month; instead, Martin rode around the whole of France.

The host nation looked as if it was not going to win a stage on the special 100th edition until Christophe Riblon went and did the impossible: like Rolland two years before, Riblon ended France's drought with a win on Alpe d'Huez. Unlike Rolland, Riblon had to negotiate the famous 21 hairpin bends of the famous Alpe twice, and recover from riding off the road on the arduous Sarenne descent.

Finally, a rider who did not win any stages but who was pretty much ever-present: Richie Porte's near-flawed ride made Froome's win a reality. Sure, Froome was the strongest rider in the peloton, but he benefited from Porte's tireless and selfless support. The Australian swashbuckling ride to Ax 3 Domaines had us all thinking he would emulate his leader and finish second on the podium in Paris. A disaster on the way to Bagneres-de-Bigorre followed - but it would be the only off day Porte would have. As Froome said on the eve of the race finale, Porte was probably the second best all-round GC rider in the Tour - and yet for a second year running, he was prepared to ride in the service of the overall Tour winner, whether it was thinning out the pack, hunting down escapees or fetching energy gels. Besides Froome, Porte was the only member of Sky's winning squad from last year to make it to Paris. Next year, the Australian will surely eye the podium.

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HONORARY MENTIONS

Losing 11 minutes because of puncture to a team-mate was cruel but Movistar's Rui Costa turned it to his benefit. Once out of the GC frame, the Portuguese all-rounder went on to secure wins in both the Alps and the Pyrenees - and was the only non-sprinter except Froome to win more than one stage on the race.

Peter Sagan's tally of one solitary stage win was lower than we all expected, but a string of second-places - four in total - plus some canny riding for the intermediate sprints meant the Slovakian won his second successive green jersey in only his second Tour with relative ease. In fact, the 23-year-old's experience of the Tour is pretty much entirely in green: 19 days last year were supplemented by 19 days this year, meaning Sagan has only spent four days in France in regulation Cannondale kit (which, after all, is green anyway). In the team departments, it was far from a Sky-strangled peloton, with Movistar, Saxo Bank and Garmin all fairly active on the front, while OPQS and Cannondale had their moments in the flatter stages, most notably in the crosswinds and for Sagan's solitary scalp.

Jens Voigt, in what was perhaps his last Tour, rode consistently aggressive and capped his 16-year Tour career with a wonderful break en route to Annecy-Semnoz. Days earlier on Alpe d'Huez, he even turned around and rode back down the hill to make sure an adult fan handed over a water bottle he had intended to roll over to a kid on the side of the road. A classy touch.

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BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS

He came into the race as Froome's biggest rival, but left not even gracing the podium in Paris. But while this was Alberto Contador's lowest official Tour finish since his debut in 2005, the Spaniard can at least be congratulated for his never-say-die attitude. He could have ridden conservatively into second place, but instead went all out and in doing so jeopardised a higher finish in Paris. But fourth place stands out amongst Contador's many '1's and 'DSQ's on his palmares and seeing him fail to topple Froome was a sobering experience. Lacking the killer instinct of old, Contador looks increasingly like an anachronism in the Tour peloton and it will be interesting to see whether he ever becomes a factor again.

Top tens last year, Frenchmen Rolland and Thibaut Pinot were pretty dire - the former reduced to an ever-increasingly futile attempt at winning the polka dot jersey while never featuring at any summit finish, and the latter retiring from the race because of a throat infection. Another French favourite, Thomas Voeckler, also had a stinker, with next to no sightings of his famous tongue on the front of the peloton.

Third in last year's Giro d'Italia, Thomas De Gendt's return to the Tour de France was largely uneventful, save for a solid ride in the opening ITT, while the man who won the 2012 Giro, Ryder Hesjedal, made more of an impression with his sunglasses than his riding.

Collectively, BMC were the most disappointing team - especially when you consider their huge budget and motley crew of stars. Cadel Evans whimpered his way through what may end up being his last ever Tour, Tejay van Garderen showed he's not ready for the team leadership just yet, while world champion Philippe Gilbert didn't even come close to getting a result. BMC were one of 12 teams not to get wins on the race, with Lampre, Cofidis, Euskaltel, Vacansoleil and the French wildcard teams (with the exception of Ag2R-La Mondiale) all under-performing.

JURY'S OUT

His seventh place was the best of his career so far, but Jakob Fuglsang was largely anonymous for Astana. Andy Schleck started solidly but then faded - but completing the race is at least a step in the right direction. Alejandro Valverde had some flashes of brilliance but an untimely puncture denied us the chance of seeing him at his best. Joaquim Rodriguez made the podium for his third successive Grand Tour but did so without making a huge impression. Belkin were the revelation of the second week before their duo Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam hit the wall.

AND DON'T FORGET

Orica-GreenEdge finally making an impression on a sprint finish by parking their bus over the line in the opening stage; the fluffy white dog with a penchant for peloton pile-ups; Jonathan Hivert for riding the last 60km of the stage to Mont Ventoux alone, finishing 50 minutes down and more than 17 minutes slower than the penultimate finisher; Peter Sagan outdoing Pierre Rolland in the bad fashion stakes by dying his goatee green; moustaches of varying bushiness from Jose Serpa, Jerome Cousin and John Degenkolb; Geraint Thomas riding with a broken bone in his pelvis; Joaquim 'Purito' Rodriguez trying to light a cigar in the Gardens of Versailles; Ted King getting kicked off his debut Tour after finishing the team time trial in Nice just seven seconds outside the cut-off; and an ill Lieuwe Westra becoming the first rider since 1977 to withdraw on the final day of the race, just 40km from the finish.

FINAL PLAT DU JOUR

Despite writing about all these sumptuous meals from the far-flung corners of France, Saddles has spent the entire race living off jambon and fromage baguettes and Sojasun yoghurts from the Eurosport canteen. So he's looking forward to dining out in some quality Parisian bistros when he has the next few days off in the City of Lights.

In fact, Saddles took advantage of the late start on Sunday to have a Salade Sud Ouest at the Bistro Solferino, fancying some regional food from an area not visited this year by the Grande Boucle. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but a hearty salad of foie gras, smoked duck breast, green beans and walnuts went down well with a glass of rosé. Restaurants on the horizon for the next few days are the Boucherie Rouliere in Rue des Canettes in the 6th which does the most delightful steak with bone marrow. Chez Prune by the Canal St Martin is a must for people watching, while the chocolate mousse at Chez Janou in the Marais - served in a large communal bowl - could take Cav's mind off losing his Champs-Elysees invincibility.

Thanks for following Blazin' Saddles during the Tour and make sure you keep reading throughout the year on Eurosport-Yahoo! and on Twitter.

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