The annual Tour de France is by far the most popular and probably the most arduous bicycle race in the world. It usually takes place in the middle of the European summer. This year the 103rd Tour started on Saturday 02-Jul-2016 in the shadows of Mont St Michel in the western Department of Normandy, along whose beaches the Allied forces had landed in Jun 1945 to liberate France from Nazi grips.
By the time the Tour ended on 24-Jul-2016, the intrepid participants had cycled over a distance of 3,529 kms. With just two rest days, the race comprised 21 stages that covered 9 mountainous terrain including the notorious Mont Ventoux in stage 14. However because of extremely high winds, the riders did not cycle all the way to the peak this time round as it was impossible to do so given the violent gusts.
Apart from the two time trials of 17 km and 37 km, the stages ranged between 113 km and 237 km, all to be run in competitive conditions come rain or shine. The climax eventually came on 24-Jul-2016 in the glorious Champs-Elysees with thousands of spectators lining the boulevards and cheering on the finishers, as many thousands had done all along the routes of the Tour.
For the uninitiated, every rider must be member of a team. The rules allow for a maximum of 9 riders per team, which usually has a leader whom the other 8 members must protect and help to win even at the sacrifice of their own personal ambitions. This year a total of 22 teams entered the Tour with 198 riders. They came from 35 different countries that included France, UK, Spain, Italy, Columbia, Germany and Holland — mostly from the Northern hemisphere. The South African Louis Meinties (Team Lampre-Merida) was the only rider to represent the South.
It is probably not always appreciated how dangerous competitive cycling can be specially in the fast mountain descents. The last cyclist to die during the Tour was the Italian Olympic Gold winner Fabio Castelli who crashed at 88 km/h while descending the Col de Portet d’Aspet in 1995. Worldwide in the last six years alone, a total of 12 cyclists have died during practice sessions or in competitions. By the time the Tour ended in Paris this year, 24 riders had withdrawn mostly due to injury.
It seems bookies rarely get it wrong. They had placed the British Christopher Froome (Team Sky) — who won the Tour last year and also in 2013 — at 8/11 on favourite. But hot on his wheels were the Columbian Nairo Quintana (Movistar) who had been 2nd to him both in 2013 and 2015 and the 2007 Tour winner Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) from Spain, among others. However due to injuries sustained in the earlier stages of the race, Contador was forced to abandon during the 9th stage in total disgust.
Contador thus out of the way, Froome’s chances of winning were further enhanced. A strong tactical rider, he employed his abilities and the help of his team members to keep advancing the opposition by seconds, then by minutes. By the 20th stage he had gained 4+ minutes over his nearest rival, and was well into the yellow jersey which is only worn by the overall leader.
Now tradition has it that the yellow jersey is never attacked in the final stage. So it was a very serene, smiling Froome who started out on the 21st stage with one arm linked with his team mates. All slowly riding the first kilometres side by side whilst sipping Champagne with their free hand.
As can be expected there were many incidents on the Tour; far too many to recount really. But a remarkable almost burlesque turn happened on Mont Ventoux which deserves a mention.
Christopher Froome was riding up the mountain along with Porte and Mollema when all three crashed into the back of a TV motorbike which had stopped abruptly probably to avoid a spectator. Mollema was able to pick up his bike and continue the climb. But with his bike in tatters after another motorbike had run over it, it was comical to see Froome taking to his feet and run uphill towards the finishing line.
Eventually a team-mate Geraint Evans came to the rescue and lent him his bike so that he could finish that stage. However with the time loss due to this fracas, he found himself relegated to sixth position in the overall classification. But the Commissioners later revised the results and gave him the same time as Mollema, thus restoring his lead once more.
For second year running it was the German national champion Andre Greipel who won the prestigious final stage on the Champs-Elysees. But the overall winner’s podium went to Christopher Froome who finished the Tour’s 3,529 km in 89h-04m-48s. However just to demonstrate how closely matched the Tour riders are, Romain Bardet (RB) who came second was only 4m-05s behind the winner, and the third man Nairo Quintana a mere 16s behind RB.
A very happy Froome was joined by wife Michelle and baby son Kellan at the presentation ceremony, acclaimed by an ecstatic Champs-Elysees crowd. As the American Lance Armstrong had been stripped of his seven titles (1999-2005) amidst a drugs scandal, Froome became the first man to win the Tour 3 times since 1995 when Miguel Indurain won his fifth and final victory in the Tour. Quite an achievement!
A total of €2.3m was awarded in cash prizes. The overall winner Froome received €500k, with the second placed Bardet and third Quintana getting €200k and €100k respectively. There were other prizes ranging from €5k to €50k for other categories such as best young rider and team classification winners. In the end all 174 finishers were rewarded with some money.
This piece would not be complete without a mention of the impeccable presentation. For those people who may have satellite TV, the Tour is presented live on FR2/3. It is managed and commentated from their studio in Paris, but there are teams of cameramen and commentators on wheels on the ground and in helicopters in the air to ensure a perfect broadcast of the event. Over the years these people have developed this into an art form.
Thus following on the wheels of the riders, the ground camera makes the viewer feel he is actually riding along with the peloton or the leaders, or even sprinting to the finishing line that normally takes place in the final yards of each stage. The aerial camera gives a panoramic view of the riders as they cycle through flat, hilly or mountainous terrain — now and then panning out to give a bird’s eye view of the surrounding landscape.
Apart from the cycling the commentators tell the viewer about the history and socio-economic activity of each region through which the race passes with aerial/ground view of ancient monuments, castles, monasteries, nunneries, cathedrals and much more. Many a time the commentary is accompanied by pre-recorded films of the historic monuments/place of interest and interviews with famous people of the area. The mountain scenery of the Pyrenees and the Alps are just stupendous.
The end result is a professional guided tour of many beautiful regions of France brought live to the viewer’s living room. I just can’t wait for Jul-2017!