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The best and worst of the Tour de France, including Geraint Thomas, stupid fans, and incredible racing

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The 2018 Tour de France won’t be forgotten for a long time.

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At the first rest day of the 2018 Tour de France, I couldn’t believe how long the race had already felt, and how much was left to go. It’s a trick that all journeys play, in which in the midst of the thing you forget the truth that hindsight always reveals — that in the end, you’ll wish there was more.

This year’s Tour was my favorite as long as I’ve been covering this race. Which, admittedly, isn’t very long. I traveled along and covered the last nine stages of the 2014 Tour, writing about it for this here website, and the memories of that journey are special and everlasting. But no Tour in that time has been as compelling as a race as this one.

With that, there is one thing to say before all else: This may be the most perfect win I have ever seen, in any sport. Geraint Thomas is an imperfect rider, and yet he was flawless for three weeks. There was no move he couldn’t cover, no sprint he wasn’t game for, and most importantly, he was upright and poised even when chaos unfurled around him.

Thomas is one of cycling’s bigger shlimazls, someone haunted by misfortune on the biggest stages. That he was the one to win like this is the biggest miracle of all. The biggest accomplishment of his yellow jersey was to disprove the idea that Cycling Gods exist, and that there are some riders they just don’t like.

Or if they do exist, then at least they change their mind on occasion. Either way, chin up Richie Porte.

Here are the best and worst things from three weeks around France:

The Best: Friendship

Chris Froome bravely attempted to become the first man to win the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in the same year since Marco Pantani in 1998. Then he proved why no one has done it since. Even a four-time yellow jersey winner didn’t have the legs, cracking for good on Stage 17 and the brutal climb to Saint-Lary-Soulan.

And yet, he really and truly never seemed down, even while his own teammate stole what had come to seem to be his right to the yellow jersey. As it became more clear that Thomas, and not he, was Team Sky’s best chance at winning the Tour, Froome even said he would ride for Thomas, and that he was happy as long as a Sky rider was on top of the podium in Paris.

Thomas has ridden in service of Froome for six Tours. It shouldn’t be surprising that Froome would be so gracious. And yet, this sport has groomed us to expect drama and in-fighting. We’ve seen seemingly ironclad relationships fall apart in front of our eyes before. We watched Froome vs. Thomas hoping for delicious palace intrigue to foment.

It never happened because, well, Froome and Thomas really do seem to be good blokes.

The Worst: Everything else about Team Sky

Chris Fontecchio laid out the beauty of Sky’s teamwork already. To watch the team work together and break the will of their competition is breathtaking, even if frustrating at times.

This Tour might have even built up some goodwill for cycling’s evil empire, if not for everything else about the team.

Doping allegations have chased Sky since the days of Sir Bradley Wiggins, and the 2018 Tour began with Froome being cleared of his salbutamol bust just days before the Tour began. The decision reeked of money’s influence. And if Froome really did take a normal dose of asthma medication at the end of the 2017 Vuelta a España, no one could possibly be willing to give the team the benefit of the doubt after the way team general manager Dave Brailsford acted.

The longtime Sky director accused UCI president David Lappartient of having a “French mayor” mentality and stoked the already charged-up French spectators along the road. No one involved with the salbutamol case looks good — not Sky, not Froome, not UCI, nobody — but Brailsford’s whinging was a particularly bad look.

He created an even more dangerous atmosphere for his riders and further isolated his team in public perception, despite all of the great efforts of its riders.

The Best: The indestructibility of bird people

Not only did Philippe Gilbert get up and keep riding after going ass over teakettle into a ravine on a sharp descent, he did so with a broken kneecap.

Peter Sagan, meanwhile, had to grit his teeth to make it to the end of the Tour, suffering a hard fall on Stage 17. The best and toughest rider in the world called Stage 19’s monster mountain stage “the worst day of my life on a bike.”

The winner of the Tour’s unofficial strongman competition has to be Lawson Craddock, however. The 26-year-old Houstonian suffered a broken shoulder on Stage 1 and somehow finished the Tour. That includes bouncing his way over the cobblestones of Stage 9.

The Tour’s last-place rider was also by far its bravest.

The Worst: The fragility of bird people

This is really just a lament for Richie Porte. The Australian rider is the Tour’s most notoriously unlucky modern rider, as confirmed when he crashed out of the Tour on the cobblestone stage before the cobblestones even started. Porte, for the umpteenth year, was a favorite to win the yellow jersey. And for the umpteenth year, he didn’t even make it to Paris.

How someone like Sagan can be bulletproof to the Tour’s chaos, and Porte so fragile, is a mystery to me. Cyclists come in all shapes and sizes, but none of them will ever be linebackers.

Surviving crashes are a big part of cycling, however, and the ability to bounce up from them will forever be an important, though inexplicable, physical advantage.

The Best: TRACTORS

Tractor art is indeed art, as excellently chronicled by @nyvelocity:

Truly a tradition unlike any other.

The Worst: The fans

Yeah, the rush of adrenaline you get from watching riders climb maniacally steep mountains while spectators are screaming inches from their faces is something. It’s one of countless things that separates cycling from any other sport on Earth.

But that adrenaline rush isn’t worth the safety of riders. Vincenzo Nibali suffered fractured vertebra while riding through flare smoke on Alpe d’Huez and catching his handlebars on a camera strap he couldn’t possibly see:

But at least that was an accident. There is no excuse — none, zero, abso-fucking-lutely zip — for trying to push a rider off his bike like one spectator did to Froome:

Tour riders have enough to worry about on the road without some jackass attacking them. I wish this aspect of cycling could change more than anything. How, however, I have no clue. I’m sure there’s a lot more that the Tour’s organizers, ASO could do, but no one can possibly properly police 2,100 miles of road.

The Best: Racers racing

Grand Tour racing has been criticized in the recent past for becoming too robotic. With the advent of earpieces and instant power data, there’s been a lament for the death of instinctual attacks and Bernard Hinault-brand grittiness.

That lament has always been a bit too loud. The poster boy for the power meter-era is Froome, and yet he has always been a braver rider than people want to give him credit for.

Still, in 2018, it was nice to see those long, foolhardy attacks once again. Dan Martin was a deserved winner of the overall Most Combative award, making good on his promise to race the Tour like 21 one-day races.

My favorite attack was an ill-fated one. On Stage 12, Steven Kruijswijk time trialed his way out of a breakaway group up to the Col de la Croix de Fer and took on Alpe d’Huez by his lonesome hoping for a stage win. It would have been well-deserved after the Dutchman was robbed of a Giro d’Italia win because of a crash in 2016.

He was caught with just 3.5 kilometers to the finish by a charging group of general classification contenders, but I hope the legend of that effort never dies.

The Worst: Flat stages

Stage 7 was maybe the dullest Tour stage I have ever seen. Let’s move on.

The Best: Cobblestones

Cobblestone racing is exquisite. The Ardennes are mysterious and beautiful, and the challenge of staying upright on jagged clumps of rocks is unique and yet an essential part of the sport. If cobblestones were a part of the Tour de France every year, I would be ecstatic.

The Worst: Cobblestones

And yet ... I understand the argument against them. Bernard Hinault once called Paris-Roubaix “bull shit” despite excelling on pavé. And this year, at least as it pertained to the yellow jersey, it seemed like it only made riders lose time through bad luck. Rigoberto Uran, last year’s second overall finisher, was the biggest loser, giving up nearly two minutes because of a late crash that eventually forced him to pull out of the race.

Cobbles may be an important part of cycling, but Tour winners are increasingly smaller, climbing types ill-suited for the parcours. Chaos in the Tour can be fun, but whether cobbles during the Tour simply create chaos for chaos’ sake, and whether that’s a good thing, is something I’m still not sure of.

The Best: Peter f’ing Sagan and Julian Ala-f’ing-philippe

Cycling can be a dull sport, especially to the uninitiated. No one did more to make the race fun than the green and polka-dot jersey winners.

Sagan is, simply, the best cycling talent in the world. And he was involved at the front of every non-pure mountain stage, contesting every finish and coming away with two stage victories and 10 top 10 stage finishes. It’s too bad that young Colombian rider Fernando Gaviria was pushed out of the race because of a time cut — the young sprinter should make the points competition exciting again for the next several years — but Sagan was magnificent nonetheless.

Alaphilippe, meanwhile, injected more importance and style into the King of the Mountains competition than any rider of recent memory. He rode a perfect climber’s campaign, entering every big mountain breakaway and beating back all comers, usually with a smile on his face:

One of the best moments of the Tour was when he consoled Adam Yates on Stage 17. The day before, Yates slipped on a steep descent to lose the stage to Alaphilippe, who won his second stage of the Tour.

I can’t wait to see Alaphilippe develop even further as a rider and perhaps put those climbing skills towards a yellow jersey campaign.

The Worst: Cops

A chaotic Stage 16 began with a farmers’ protest that was broken up by police, but not before they accidentally pepper sprayed the peloton.

But even that paled in comparison to the cop who somehow confused Chris Froome — that’s four-time yellow jersey winner Chris Froome — for a crazed fan and shoved him off his bike.

The Best: Tour de France announcers

I listened to Robbie McEwen and Matthew Keenan prattle on for six hours a day on NBC Sports Gold for 21 stages, and somehow not only 1) never run out of things to say, but also 2) somehow never lose their enthusiasm.

I can’t talk for five minutes in a 30-minute meeting without feeling physically and emotionally drained. I can’t say that a lot of what they said contained much substance, but I enjoyed it. Chapeau to their effort. I can’t wait to do this again next year.

The Worst: What could have been

Thomas rode flawlessly and won by less than two minutes over Tom Dumoulin. He could have easily lost that time with one slip, or worse been knocked out of the race altogether.

Those dropped seconds were everywhere, especially in the first week:

  • On Stage 1, Froome crashed and lost 51 seconds, as did Richie Porte. Nairo Quintana lost one minute 15 seconds with mechanical problems.
  • If there hadn’t been a team time trial, this Tour could have been very different, as well. Movistar lost 50 seconds to Sky (that’s more than two minutes lost in two days by Quintana). Romain Bardet and AG2R La Mondiale lost more than a minute. Fourth-place Primož Roglič would have been on the podium if LottoNL-Jumbo hadn’t dropped 1’12”.
  • Dumoulin dropped 1’ 23” on Stage 6 — 63 seconds because of a late crash, and another 20 seconds because of a penalty for drafting too long behind his team car. Throw in the eight seconds that Sunweb lost to Sky in the time trial, and the final time gap to Thomas was almost entirely lost in the first week.
  • Stage 6 winner Dan Martin lost 1’ 16” because of a hard fall on Stage 8. He was niggled by mechanicals and other mishaps throughout the Tour, and still managed to finish a gutsy eight overall, just over nine minutes down on Thomas.
  • Stage 9 cost us Richie Porte and, effectively, Rigoberto Uran, too.

That’s just one week in a race that can be shaped by an unplanned event at any second. The timeline that we got is a mini miracle in itself, but it does make one pine for what could have been.

The Best: Humans

My two favorite moments of the Tour came from post-stage interviews.

The first was John Degenkolb’s tears after winning on the cobblestones of Stage 9. The German rider seemed to release two years of pent up feelings, from his near career-ending crash to the recent passing of a good friend.

The second was Geraint Thomas after Stage 20 and his individual time trial to win the Tour. He could barely form words. “The last time I cried is when I got married,” he said. “I don’t know what’s happened to me.”

That phrase — I don’t know what’s happened to me — sums up the Tour well. Because as much as teams prepare for these three weeks (and no one has ever prepared for the Tour as meticulously as Sky) winning the yellow jersey is nonetheless something that has to happen to you. It’s a blessing to stay upright, to not be failed by your body, to mentally withstand the unceasing stress.

I don’t know if Thomas would have won if he didn’t have the umbrella of Froome — if not for the fact that for most of this race, most everybody who watched assumed he was holding the yellow jersey for his team leader. That gave Thomas the leeway to ride as brilliantly as he did, with strength and calm. And I don’t say that to knock him — from his interview, I don’t think he had intentions of winning the yellow jersey, either.

The Tour de France is the most physically and mentally exhausting sporting event I can think of. It is lived in and personal — Thomas spent more than 83 hours on the saddle — to the point that we often come to think we’re learning who the man is himself as we watch him ride.

And in turn, the sport takes on another importance for the riders, making it not just another thing to be won, but a validation of their being.

The 2018 Tour de France was a great competition for competition’s sake, but more than that it showcased people, and the best and worst things about them. I’ll miss this race because I’ll miss the characters. The racing was great, but the racing was never the point.