The Tour de France, which wrapped up Sunday in Paris, is a great bicycle spectacle, featuring the world’s biggest names, spectacular scenery, and hours of TV commentary. But it’s a lousy race. Every day it offers 4 to 6 hours of spinning through gorgeous European countryside. For all that, we’re lucky to get 4 to 6 minutes of actual significant competition.
When the same guy leads day after day, week after week without winning a single stage, and when hour after hour passes with clumps of riders huddling to escape headwinds and keep from being dropped, the Tour is not so much a race as a series of Sunday club rides where only a few wind up being capable of, or even caring about winning.
Veteran Tour-watchers long for the days of Merckx the Cannibal, Hinault the Badger, Pantani the Pirate, and Greg the LeMond. Guys who attacked early and often, not sitting on each other’s wheels until the final kilometer. Guys who rode away on their own, who didn’t hide behind teams, or play it safe, waiting for someone else to make a move.
This year, we had bunches of maybe-contenders seemingly incapable of dropping the hammer. And have you noticed — along with any personality, rider nicknames are gone. What would we call this year’s all-knees-and-elbows winner, anyway? Froomstick? Bobblehead?
The fact is, there are no nicknames because no one really inspires in the way riders of old did.
I don’t know any cycling enthusiasts who are happy with the Tour’s status quo. Most say the real action is at the Giro d’Italia or Vuelta a Espana.
So what can be done to resuscitate the granddaddy of them all? Here are five humble suggestions.
1. Incentivize attacks: Get riders to take more chances jumping off the front. If someone rides away and is separated for at least a minute, then for every kilometer he stays away, give him a 10-second bonus. So if he’s out there for 60km (or more) as some of the early flatland riders were, he gets 600 seconds. That’s 10 minutes. If you think that’s too much, then how about 5 seconds each kilometer (5 minutes in our example)? In any case, do something to reward those brave souls who goose the peloton.
2. Do away with teams: I haven’t liked the team system since LeMond’s “devil’s bargain” with teammate Hinault cost him the 1985 yellow jersey. The team system basically comes down to this: The one that spends the most money wins the Tour. Admittedly, disbanding teams would have untold financial implications for the Tour and the sport. But it would make for far better racing.
3. Run shorter, more diverse stages: This year’s shortest stage, a 63-miler on Bastille Day with three nasty Cat 1 climbs, was the most entertaining. There were multiple attacks, the pace was constantly being pushed, and on-the-road strategies were far more compelling. Throw in one of these every few days and you’ve got a chance for some real racing in the Tour.
4. Offer bigger bonuses: A rider guts out a grueling mountain stage win and gets — wow — 10 whole seconds as his bonus! How about 2 or 3 minutes? That might get Team Sky’s attention and force Froomie to break a sweat. The same goes for second and third — hey, as long as we’re shooting for the moon, how about bonuses for the top 10 finishers each day? At least let’s make race organizers do a little math.
5. Put time trials in the mountains: Guys in aero helmets and space suits pedaling like they’re on stationary bikes for an hour or so is about as exciting as watching tubular tire glue dry. Put the TT in the mountains, though, and you’re going to get real drama. Plus you’ll be separating the men from the boys.
Okay, I know. We should all live so long. But consider this: If just a couple of the above suggestions were in place at this year’s Tour, it would have been an entirely different beast. And yeah, Froome might not have gotten his boringly predictable win. Instead it probably would’ve been Warren Barguil.
You’re saying he didn’t deserve it?