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Analysis: Rewriting the script for the Tour’s buddy movie

  • By Ryan Newill
  • Published Jul. 22, 2013
  • Updated Jul. 22, 2013 at 11:01 AM EDT
Center stage, but not yet the star of the show, Richie Porte leads Chris Froome to the first of what could be many Tour triumphs. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

PARIS, France (VN) — It is a tale that’s been told several times over, but the Tour de France, ever cinematic, never fails to rewrite the ending.

The opening sequence remains remarkably consistent. The hero stands on the second step of the Tour de France podium. He is framed by the Arc de Triomphe and lit by the late afternoon Paris sunshine, yet still in the shadow of another man. The hero does not stand where he does because he has been vanquished by the man standing 10 inches up and to his left, but because he has given everything to put him there.

On the podium, thanks are extended, promises are made. For restitution, repayment on a debt of tempered ambition and dreams deferred.

The story ends the same as well. A year later, the hero stands triumphant on the top step of the Tour de France podium, gazing out over the throngs on the Champs-Élysées, cheering him. First. A Tour champion, a yellow jersey. Convincingly.

The part that changes in every remake is the story of just how the hero, once second, becomes first, and of how his story intersects that of the man who, the previous year, he helped to win the Tour de France.

In 1986, the tale was that of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond. The year before, LeMond finished second, sacrificing his own opportunities and quelling his own impulses to help deliver the French legend to his record-tying fifth Tour victory. Feeling magnanimous, Hinault promised to return the favor by guiding the young American to a Tour de France win. What followed the next year, of course, was less duet than duel, as Hinault attacked LeMond nearly the entire way to Paris. For his own good, to push him to victory, the Frenchman still maintains.

Ten years later, Dane Bjarne Riis unexpectedly toppled the next five-time Tour champion, Miguel Indurain, with the help of a young Jan Ullrich. For his efforts, Ullrich received second place, the white jersey of the best young rider, and, as the great German hope, a spot as heir apparent to lead the Telekom team at the Tour. Riis went a different direction from Hinault come 1997, shepherding Ullrich to a staggering 9:09 win over Richard Virenque. Riis finished seventh, more than 26 minutes down.

So when last year’s Tour champion Bradley Wiggins promised to help Chris Froome, second on GC and the man who had seemingly, and sometimes visibly, restrained his own ambitions to help deliver Britain’s Olympic hero to the nation’s first Tour de France title, the world waited to see which story it would get in 2013. Would Wiggins, with a little rest and more consideration, abandon the promise and try for another victory, as Hinault did? Or would he throw his considerable talent behind helping the ascendant contender?

Wiggins did his best to keep the suspense alive throughout the winter and spring, feeding the media a steady stream of vague rumblings about defending his title come July. Froome countered, issuing formal statements staking his claim to the full weight of Sky’s support. Like Hinault and LeMond, whatever warm feelings fueled the promises of last July seemed to have evaporated.

But the plot never reached its crescendo, the one where the former champion and the next reveal, on some Alpine or Pyrenean col, just where they stand. Instead, Wiggins rode abysmally at the Giro d’Italia, his stated goal for the season, and left sick and nursing a knee injury. Tour participation, much less leadership, was out the window. It would not be Hinault-LeMond, or Riis-Ullrich. It would be Chris Froome writ large.

Wiggins’ domineering Tour win was a buddy flick — peppered with occasional moments of friction, but overall, a story of cooperation and triumph. Froome drove for Wiggins over mountain ranges, discouraging attacks and making sure Wiggins stayed within spitting distance of the mountain specialists; Wiggins held up his end of the deal, and destroyed all comers in the time trials.

Without Wiggins in the race this year, we saw Froome as the action hero. He countered the Spanish onslaught alone when the peloton smelled blood in the water on the road to Bagneres de Bigorre, launched blistering assaults on the Ventoux and Ax 3 Domaines, and won the mountainous, technical time trial at Chorges.

That is not to say Froome was without a supporting cast. This year’s Sky team weathered adversity that last year’s never faced — a broken hip for locomotive Geraint Thomas, a crash and abandonment for the versatile Edvald Boassen-Hagen, and a missed time cut for mountain man Vasil Kiryienka. But despite being battered, the team rallied around Froome. It was not the Sky team that steamrolled the flats and climbs alike last year, but one that exerted a quieter, more strategic brand of control, helped by a race dynamic that forced other teams like Movistar and Saxo Bank to fight among themselves for Froome’s scraps.

Through it all, Richie Porte seemed to slot neatly into the role Froome filled for Wiggins last season, that of the right-hand man. But he also expanded the part, adding the extra depth of friend and confidant.

Early in the race, after Porte helped put Froome in winning position on the first mountain finish at Ax 3 Domaines, then followed his leader up the road for second place and second on GC, it looked like the leader-lieutenant story might repeat again. Two Sky riders on the podium, one-two. The next day at Bagneres de Bigorre proved differently, as Sky paid for its aggression the day before and Porte lost 18 and a half minutes.

Porte rallied again, first with a good ride at the Chorges time trial, and then in the Alps. He nursed a bonking Froome up the waning kilometers of L’Alpe d’Huez, to Grand Bornand the next day, and to the summit of le Semnoz during a torturous final week. Porte has earned chances of his own, and will reportedly take the helm at Sky for the next Giro d’Italia. Unlike last year, though, there was no question of who the strongest Sky man at this Tour was, no real opportunity for regicide, at least in the near future. Froome’s victory was a complete one, with a comfortable 5:03 margin over Nairo Quintana (Movistar) as the race hit the Champs-Élysées.

So, there will be not be another remake of the teammate-succession story next year. At the moment, the 2014 Tour is hard to envision as anything but a sequel, the next installment in a series of Froome victories. On Sunday, though, the drama played out so ably by LeMond and Hinault, Riis and Ullrich, and now by Wiggins and Froome, each pair adding their own twists to the plot, has ended again, and the parting shot was spectacular. Froome stands in the purple light of late evening, a special occasion dreamed up for the 100th Tour, having circled the Arc de Triomphe and finished first in the Tour de France, under the lights in the City of Light. Roll credits.

 

 

FILED UNDER: Analysis / Tour de France

Ryan Newill

Ryan Newill

Ryan Newill has contributed to Velo and VeloNews.com since 1999. He was drawn into cycling by the mountain bike boom, but a chance meeting with the 1990 Tour de France hooked him on the road for good. For VeloNews, he has covered races in a variety of disciplines and on both sides of the Atlantic, and contributes a wide variety of coverage, analysis, and commentary. See more of his work at www.theservicecourse.com.

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