Christian Prudhomme himself admitted that this year’s Tour de France route had been devised with the idea of making life difficult for Chris Froome and the financial might of Team Sky. Without making it anything personal, his hope was that changing the race might make things a bit less predictable than last year.
Downhill finishes replaced some summit finales, for example. One can only imagine the expression on Prudhomme’s face when the first of these arrived and Froome took off down the mountain sitting on his top tube, pedalling with his knees round his ears like someone who’d had his bike-fit done by a man with long floppy shoes and a spinning bow-tie.
There were other changes. There was more time trialling this year, perhaps in the hope that Tom Dumoulin would find a way to get some traction over Froome there. And there were shorter, sharper Alpine stages, with new mountains and new finishes. All to precious little avail. Froome and Sky were, if anything, more dominant than last year.
Here, then, is my theory. If M Prudhomme and the ASO want to help everyone else catch up, they should do the opposite of changing everything every year.
They should make next year’s Tour the same as this year’s. I don’t mean “similar”. I mean “identical”. Same starts, finishes, routes, everything. Tell everyone to change the dates on their road book with a felt-tip, phone the hotels and say, “Encore une fois” and we’re done.
The measure of a man
Think about it. On critical stages of the Tour, like the stage 18 mountain time trial, Froome had huge back-up from his team.
They ran computer models, they redesigned the equipment, they devised pacing strategies. No detail was left unmolested, no margin ungained. The team said that hundreds of man-hours had gone in to preparing for one man to ride 17km up a hill.
If the Tour ran exactly the same stage next year, everyone else could just copy them.
But that won’t happen. It will all get changed, and Sky will have the chance to get a jump ahead by using its considerable experience at dealing with new problems. Look at it like an exam: if you want to level the playing field, a great way to do it would be to ask the same questions every year.
It was the same with the UCI technology rules between the 2008 and 2012 Olympic cycles. In 2008, Team GB produced a lot of new, very fast tech for the track team. Much of it was banned because it gave an “unfair” advantage.
If the UCI had left the rules as they were, by 2012 everyone else could just have copied the Team GB kit from 2008. As it was, Team GB used its R&D ability to develop a whole new “unfair” advantage for the new rules of 2012.
It’s not just technology. If you had the same route every year, everyone would know where everyone else was at their most vulnerable. If you go on a regular chaingang ride, you quickly learn what upsets the other riders on it — on my local ride there was an innocuous-looking little rise after a junction that for some reason always just killed me.
Everyone else worked this out after a few weeks, and started to attack at the bottom. Froome’s vulnerabilities are few and far between, but they could at least take hope from the odd wet road-marking.
They’d know when he and Sky were at its strongest. That downhill attack wouldn’t work next year, that’s for sure.
Everyone would be ready, and there’d be a whole peloton of clowns twiddling down the hill towards Luchon. And if nothing else I’ve said has persuaded you of the merits of the never-changing Tour, I hope at least the thought of that has.