There seems to be quite a disconnect between the reception in Britain, especially Wales, to Geraint Thomas’s Tour de France victory, and the reception elsewhere to yet another win by Team Sky.
Last Sunday in Paris saw the British team’s sixth Champs-Elysées coronation in seven years, achieved with three different riders. Only Cyrille Guimard’s Renault team – seven Tours also with three riders between 1976 and 1984 – have a better record. “The reign without end,” read the front page of L’Equipe on Monday morning, and it wasn’t hard to detect the weary tone.
The fact there was a fresh face on top of the podium offered some consolation, but there was no getting away from the fact that it was not an open or a particularly close race. As they have done in each Tour since the dynasty began, in 2012, a Sky rider took the yellow jersey on the first mountain stage and held it, more or less, until Paris.
The impression is of an unhealthy stranglehold on the Tour – unhealthy because TV viewing figures are reportedly down throughout Europe, even in Britain. Only in the Netherlands was the audience higher, perhaps thanks to their poster boy, Tom Dumoulin, who was second.
A common complaint is that Sky are squeezing the life out of the race, and someone who wants to change this is David Lappartient, president of the world governing body, the UCI. This week, he took time out from his feud with Dave Brailsford, the Team Sky principal, to spell out how he might loosen the British team’s grip on cycling’s greatest prize.
Ideas spilled from Lappartient, who was clearly in post-Tour brainstorming mode: smaller teams, a cap on budgets, a ban on power meters. “They win, and they’d be wrong to do otherwise,” he said of Sky, “but the public sees things differently, they want a show. Sky are like a football team that plays very well but without exciting its fans.
“When the viewer sees eight riders of the same team dictating the pace and locking down the race, they quickly change channels to watch a soap opera. The ball is in our court, it’s up to the UCI to make sure that its races are attractive.”
One problem with his intervention is that it is difficult to untangle Lappartient’s comments about Sky’s domination of the Tour from his quarrel with Brailsford, or his public comments about Chris Froome’s salbutamol case. That case, from the Vuelta a España, which had just finished, was the first thing that landed on the new president’s desk when he was appointed last September. Shortly thereafter the information was leaked to a newspaper. During the Tour, Lappartient was forced to deny that the source of the leak was the president himself.
A few days before the Tour, Froome was cleared: no case to answer. Yet this news came just 24 hours after the Tour de France organisers, ASO, sought to have him excluded from their race. They made this move, Lappartient confirmed this week, in the full knowledge that Froome would be cleared before the Tour. “We had informed them [of our verdict], but they [tried to exclude him] anyway,” said Lappartient.
“We’ll never know if it was a fortuitous or intentional manoeuvre,” he added cryptically, “but it put us in difficulty because the UCI was considered the villain because we cleared a rider that a race organiser wanted to exclude.”
All very fishy. And of course it also put Froome and Sky in difficulty, because the move by ASO, a huge story just a week before the Tour started, only increased public suspicion about the defending champion and in turn fuelled hostility towards his team. Lappartient did not ease the situation in the opening days of the Tour, making a series of ambiguous comments about the Froome case, appearing to distance himself from the decision taken by the organisation he leads and implying that justice had been bought. “If you have more money, you can afford more lawyers and more experts,” he said.
Given previous accusations of UCI presidents being too close to riders and teams – see Hein Verbruggen and Lance Armstrong as the prime example – perhaps we should welcome the antipathy between Lappartient and Brailsford. But it does seem a little farcical. In Lorient, at the start of stage five of this year’s race, as Lappartient talked to journalists in the Village Départ, Brailsford spoke to another group of journalists outside the Sky bus, five minutes’ walk away.
It was playground stuff, each appearing to use journalists to convey messages to the other. Remarkably, Lappartient and Brailsford have never even met, nor spoken to one another. If they were schoolchildren, we’d be asking whether it was mutual loathing – or mutual affection.
But there is a serious point. Lappartient’s concern that Sky’s domination is bad for the Tour may be genuine, but given his other comments, it looks agenda-driven and that doesn’t seem very presidential, though admittedly there’s a low bar for that these days.
If he has other grounds for concern about Sky and how they operate, he should investigate and call it out. But his proposals are ridiculous. It seems, well, unusual for the president of a sport entirely dependent on sponsorship to be suggesting that sponsors pay less. His ideas were widely condemned and met with sarcasm by the Belgian rider Thomas De Gendt on Twitter: “Only 65km stages, no training camps allowed, no dinners, no feedzones, only 2 bottles per day, max 2000 calories per day. Cyclists can’t draft for longer than 20 seconds. Only 4 gears allowed. No brakes, F1 starts everyday and pepperspray before each start.”
Lappartient also fails to understand that a rider does not win the Tour because he has the strongest team. A team as powerful as Sky can certainly affect how a race is ridden, but they cannot make someone win if he is not the strongest in the race. Dumoulin acknowledged this himself; if Thomas had shown any weakness, he would have attacked him. When Froome was dropped, the fact that a Sky team-mate, Egan Bernal, waited for him made little difference: he was still dropped.
Yes, the battle for the yellow jersey might have been a little boring for neutrals. The contests for the other jerseys – green for points and polka-dots for mountains – were also one-sided. But to contradict L’Equipe, this will not go on forever. The Tour will get truly interesting when Sky have the strongest team but do not have the strongest rider. Given Dumoulin’s trajectory, that could be next year.