Blazin' Saddles: Forget Froome – here are 11 things that made the Tour memorable
Chris Froome riding to his third Tour de France crown was the story of July but our cyclo-scribe Felix Lowe argues that it was the many subplots which kept fans on the edge of their seats.
Yes, he pedalled downhill while hugging his top tube; yes, he broke clear in the crosswinds with Peter Sagan; yes, he crashed on a wet white line but managed to extend his lead; and yes, he even ran up Mont Ventoux in search of imaginary Pokémon.
But that was not why the 2016 Tour de France was, at times, a vintage edition in a sea of otherwise quaffable plonk. Chris Froome's ubiquity in yellow – his apparent desire to inadvertently wrangle himself into the headline of every stage report – was all very impressive, but it shouldn't gloss over the other talking points from what was (besides the battle for the maillot jaune) an intriguing 103rd edition of the Grande Boucle.
1. First-time yellow jerseys
Before Froome took over the reins, the first three leaders of the race were donning the maillot jaune for the first time in their careers with Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet all writing their way into the history books in style.
Cavendish got his fairly tale win on Utah Beach having crashed out in Harrogate on the opening day two years ago, while Sagan – usually associated with green or rainbow stripes – was a worthy yellow for three days. Lastly, Van Avermaet's superb win in the Massif Central put him in yellow until the race hit the Pyrenees. Each one of these riders made a huge impression.
2. Cavendish out-badgering Hinault
Trailing Bernard Hinault's tally of career Tour stage wins by two going into the race, the Manx Missile finished two up on the Badger with only the great Eddy Merckx now in his headlights. After one solitary win last year and much of the season focused on the track in anticipation of the Rio Olympics, Cavendish was hardly most people's sprinter pick for their Fantasy Tour teams.
Cavendish and GreipelAFP
But four zippy sprint scalps saw the 31-year-old rediscover his ebullient form of old – and in doing so, Cav made Marcel Kittel – his replacement at Etixx-QuickStep and supposedly his successor as the peloton's fastest man on two wheels – look ordinary. With four wins to go until the Cannonball reaches the Cannibal, many are now saying it's a question of when and not if.
3. Taking things to a new Dimension
Fears that Cavendish's arrival at Dimension Data would rock the boat and cramp the progress and attacking zeal of his African Dimension Data team were finally laid to rest when Steve Cummings did what Steve Cummings does and won stage seven to Montaubun with consummate gusto.
Stephen Cummings wins on stage sevenAFP
Cavendish may have taken the headlines with his four wins, but the likes of Serge Pauwels, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Cummings had strong races – the Belgian coming close to a win half-way up Mont Ventoux. Most importantly, everyone at Dimension Data looked to be having fun – while riding for a superb cause. It's no surprise that the team has fast become one of the most popular in the peloton. Now they just need an upgrade on that dour kit.
4. Dumoulin's double
Having starred in last year's Vuelta and having made the Rio Olympics his main priority this summer, Tom Dumoulin has been a breath of fresh air in Grand Tours in 2016 – putting aside his GC ambitions (despite wearing pink in the Giro) in favour of picking up stage wins on all terrains, whether mountainous, hilly, flat or all of the above while racing against the clock.
Winning in the hail at Andorre Arcalis and then adding a second in the windy, lumpy ITT in the Ardeche was just rewards for a rider who is as promising as he is exciting. Only Froome's brilliance in Megeve stopped him from making it an ITT double and a Tour triple – and it was cruel to see such an entertainer crash out and injure himself in the Alps to derail his Olympic dream.
5. A different Colombian
All eyes were on Nairo Quintana but it was hard to see Movistar's climber from his habitual position in the slipstream of Froome's bony behind. Instead it was another Colombian – the IAM Cycling live-wire Jarlinson Pantano – who did his nation proud with a string of strong performances in the mountains, including victory in stage 15 to Culoz. That Pantano has been drafted in to replace Quintana in Colombia's squad for the road race in Rio is no surprise. On this form, he could well pick up a medal.
Jarlinson Pantano, Rafal Majka et Alexis Vuillermoz lors de la 20e étape du Tour 2016AFP
6. Race within a race
Pantano was one of a cluster of riders who seemed to dominate the second phase of the race – along with the likes of Rafal Majka (Tinkoff), Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) and Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep). At times it was as if we were watching the same protagonists battle it out for every stage – but with the battle for yellow so sterile this was a welcome tonic.
7. French and Spanish blushes saved
With just three days remaining the prospect of an unprecedented Tour without a French, Spanish or Italian winner looked very much on the cards. Romain Bardet ended France's wait for a win at Saint-Gervais and in doing so gave the host nation double reason to celebrate by moving up onto the podium, while Ion Izaguirre saved both Movistar and Spain's Tour with a last-ditch victory in the rain at Morzine.
Romain Bardet on the podiumAFP
Had Izaguirre not succeeded then Vincenzo Nibali – who finished third behind that man Pantano – may have stepped in for Italy. But in the end it was a rotten Tour for the Italians – as encapsulated by the bonking plight of Nibali's Astana team-mate and compatriot Fabio Aru on the penultimate day.
8. The Sagan show
If Froome was ubiquitous in yellow than Peter Sagan's been Mr Green since he made his first bow on the Tour. Towards the end of the race the Slovakian sensation made his 100th appearance on the Tour – 80 of which had been spent in green; 51 of which with him finishing in the top ten. He added a second place in Paris to move on to a record 470 points – 38 more than his previous record and just over double the tally of his nearest opponent, Marcel Kittel. And this in a race where organisers had gone lengths to make it harder for Sagan to run away with the green jersey classification.
We ran out of superlatives for Sagan years ago and yet he keeps on reaching higher planes. Present in breaks, in bunch sprints, on the flat and in the mountains, he will go down as one of the all-time legends not just of the Tour but of the sport.
9. Greipel at the 11th hour
Just when we thought we'd witness a Grand Tour without an Andre Greipel win the big German came round and reminded us of his enduring class. Out of sorts in the opening week of the race, Greipel instead worked for his Lotto-Soudal team-mates and helped set up Thomas De Gendt's win on Mont Ventoux. And when it mattered, the Gorilla delivered. With at least one victory in 11 consecutive Grand Tours dating back to 2007, Greipel has only Merckx (14), Hinault (13) and Fausto Coppi (13) in his sights.
André Greipel win the 21st stageAFP
10. Unpredictability rules
We all thought Quintana would, if not win, then push Froome all the way; we then all thought the Colombian would miss out on the podium. Wrong both times. In the end Quintana became the first person in history to finish on the podium behind the same Tour winner three times.
But it wasn't Quintana's wan unpredictability that entertained us. It was Cavendish rewriting the history books; it was white jersey Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchenge) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) surprising us all by pushing for podium positions; it was Alaphilippe attacking relentlessly in his debut Tour; it was new boys Dimension Data taking on the established giants; it was Ag2R-La Mondiale putting yet another rider on the podium; it was Michael Matthews using his Orica team-mates to thwart Sagan; it was, sadly yet captivatingly, a Dutch rider pushing for the podium of a Grand Tour only to be denied right at the death – Mollema following in the footsteps of Dumoulin in the Vuelta and Steven Kruijswijk in the Giro.
11. Bennett's bravery
Max Leonard's excellent book Lanterne Rouge writes the history of the Tour's last man but after Sam Bennett's exploits this summer, an epilogue may be in order. Having crashed terribly in the opening stage, Bennett kept on going – driven on, in part, by his 'failure' to finish last year's race after being knocked down by illness.
For a sprinter who should be contesting wins to be reduced to a footnote, battling every day merely to continue on the next, is bad enough once; but for it to happen twice must have been a severe mental and physical test for the Irishman.
That Bora-Argon18's Bennett held on to help ensure that this Tour featured the highest number (174) and percentage (88%) of finishers in history is admirable in itself; that he subsequently described himself as "the most last" rider in the history of the Tour deserves more than a comedy lanterne rouge to hang up on his wall.