Monday, July 17, 2017

The Tour, 2017, trois

Rest day today, with one week -- and the Alps -- yet to go, and I'm having to say it has been pretty terrific viewing, despite how it seemed unpromising at the start, when there seemed to be a dearth of new stars, the big-dollars Sky team seemed unbeatable, and we didn't have a Canadian to follow.

But in this race the Sky has wobbled though not fallen. Chris Froome has proved vulnerable on several hills, particularly to the young Italian Fabio Aru, who took the Yellow Jersey away with a bold break on a big hill.  Lacking a strong team to support him, Aru couldn't hold the jersey long -- but Sky may slip up again.  Only a handful of seconds separates Froome from several contenders, and one bad day in the Alps this week could change everything for him.

And a slew of exciting new riders are providing watchable days and hopes for the future. Way too many contenders have been eliminated in crashes this year. (The video at top is Richie Porte's awful crash on Stage 9. Dan Martin the rider in blue he took down, got up and continues to contend; Porte's doctor says he has a broken pelvis -- and should be racing again in about a month!).   But the survivors are feasing on the possibilities opened up.

Most hopeful: many of the young riders introducing themselves to the world are French. The French have been spectators at their own Tour for a long time, without champions in any of the big categories: no GC contenders, and few stars among the sprinters, time trialers, the breakaway specialists, even the super-domestiques (the guys who do amazing work to support a leader without getting anything for themselves).

But this year there are flashy young French contenders all over. Warren Barguil is holder of the "King of the Mountains" jersey, stage winner, constant contender on all the tricky stages that mix a lot of smaller hill climbs with a final sprint, and Lilian Calmejane has been right behind him.  Arnaud DeMaure won a big sprint finish, the only sprinter to beat Marcel Kittel this year, and Nacer Bouhani has also been contending. Fabien Bardet is challenging for a podium spot in the GC (total elapsed time) Yellow Jersey race. (Thibaut Pinot, who challenged last year, is off his stride this year.)

No so coincidentally, France has lacked an ambitious team and sponsor for a while. The major French teams seem to lack inspiration, or money, or the willingness to spend it. But an ambitious French sponsor could seize this moment to launch a national contender by recruiting several of these new stars, and adding some senior leadership from the likes of Tony Gallopin and Philippe Gilbert. No team is exclusively from one nation, and a big French team would be unlikely to get all of these. But the Tour needs French stars, and the best way to produce one is to have a French team willing to assemble the elements needed to properly support a star.  FdJ?  AG2R?  Let's step up the game.
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