Chris Froome's 2016 Tour de France victory feels a lot different than it did a year ago. Then, he was doused in urine and called a cheat by bystanders, or else was accused of ruining cycling by effectively riding as the biggest cog among many in the Sky cycling machine. This time, critics haven't had the heart to shout dopeur very much, and Froome gave us too many instances of individual brilliance not to admit (begrudgingly, maybe) that the man has soul.
He attacked on his archrival's water break down the slopes of the Col de Peyresourde, finished in blistering crosswinds next to Peter Sagan, rode two perfect-down-to-the-watt time trials and literally ran towards the finish line up Mont Ventoux. Froome gave us one last iconic image Sunday -- crossing the finish line on the Champs-Élysées on a bum knee from a Stage 19 crash locked in arm with his lieutenants. While those who could challenge him rode cautiously to preserve their place on the general classification, Froome largely made things interesting throughout the Tour.
True, Team Sky successfully neutralized the competition over the second half of the Tour. (Romain Bardet's solo attack to save the Tour for the host country was a notable exception.) If Froome hadn't created so much goodwill over the first 12 stages, the criticisms about his team's disproportionate dominance might have been louder over the last nine. After Stage 20, the riders who finished just behind Froome admitted that they felt powerless to attack because of how high Sky set the pace in the peloton.
But then consider that Froome's 1 minute, 47-second advantage over second-place Bauke Mollema after Stage 13 was built almost entirely on Froome's guile, daring and legs. He won the climbing Stage 18 time trial comfortably to assert that, yes, he can do this by himself.
Froome's yellow jersey is his third, which means he has just done something that seven riders have ever officially (i.e., legally) done. The memory of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named will always cloud the Tour de France, especially in the United States, but for once The Lance Problem seems to be losing oxygen. That's a gut feeling, admittedly, but I am someone who believes this event to be unbelievably fun, and it's all the better when not everyone is convinced it's engineered.
Which is to say, it's okay to admit that what completely makes Chris Froome is unknowable -- and maybe that the whole discussion is pretty gray, anyway. Face value is still truth. Froome's 2016 Tour gave us some of the best moments since cycling's black mark. Froome is the first legend for a post-Lance generation. The feelings that those moments created are, like the man, unassailable. On the final podium, Froome praised the Tour, despite it's unpredictability, for the things that never change -- the passionate fans, the beautiful country and bonds created through a long event.
For three weeks, Froome was the strongest, smartest and most daring rider at the Tour de France, and he is on pace to define his generation if he hasn't already. Along the Champs-Élysées , that seemed to be all anyone cared to know.