Monday, July 28, 2014

Nibali, Young Riders Steal the Show at Tour de France

By Brad Oremland

Italian Vincenzo Nibali dominated the field to win this year's Tour de France, a race that seemed wide open following the disappearance of numerous top contenders. No previous winners completed this year's Tour, nor did the top finishers from last year's race. Defending champion Chris Froome abandoned following a series of crashes and a fractured wrist. Nairo Quintana opted not to ride in this year's Tour, instead focusing on the Tours of Italy and Spain. Joaquim Rodriguez focused on the King of the Mountains competition. Alberto Contador crashed out in Stage 10, and his teammate Roman Kreuziger was suspended before the race. 2010 champion Andy Schleck, decorated sprinter Mark Cavendish, and Criterium du Dauphine winner Andrew Talansky also withdrew from the Tour with injuries.

Into the void stepped Nibali, a two-time Grand Tour champion, and a number of young riders. Frenchmen Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot, 23 and 24 respectively, battled all three weeks for not only the white jersey of Best Young Rider, but also for a podium in Paris. 24-year-olds Peter Sagan and Rafal Majka won the Points Classification and King of the Mountains respectively, while 25-year-old American Tejay van Garderen made a serious push for the General Classification.

Stages 1-5

The 101st Tour de France began in England, with Kate Middleton cutting the ceremonial tape to begin the race. No one was surprised to see 2013 Tour sensation Marcel Kittel win the stage, but British sprinter Mark Cavendish crashed in the final meters of a stage ending in his mother's hometown. Cavendish tearfully withdrew from the Tour with a separated right shoulder. Nine categorized climbs, including the short but brutally steep Jenkin Road Hill, turned Stage 2 into a General Classification battle, won by Vincenzo Nibali with a perfectly timed breakaway at the end of the stage. Kittel won sprint finishes in Stages 3 and 4, but bad weather on the fourth day in particular set riders on edge and contributed to several crashes, including a serious one involving Team Sky's Christopher Froome.

Many teams and riders circled Stage 5 before the race even began. The Tour de France seldom features cobblestone stages, but this one included nine sections from the Hell of the North, the Paris-Roubaix one-day classic. Another rainy day forced organizers to remove two sections of cobbles for safety reasons, but over a dozen crashes occurred prior to the first cobbled section, including the one that led to Froome's departure from the race. Nibali was fearless on the cobblestones, and although Lars Boom won the grueling stage in impressive fashion, it was Nibali's time gains over his rivals for the yellow jersey that defined the day. Between Froome's withdrawal and Alberto Contador's time loss on the cobbles, Nibali entered Stage 6 as the new favorite to win the Tour de France. Among expected GC contenders, only Michal Kwiatkowski (+:50), Jurgen Van Den Broeck (+1:45), and Richie Porte (+1:54) were within two minutes of Nibali.

Stages 6-10

Stage 6 featured two Category-4 climbs and a flat finish, won by German sprinter Andre Greipel, but two climbs near the end of Stage 7 wiped out most of the top sprinters. Peter Sagan and Greg van Avermaet attacked too early and returned to the pack; Matteo Trentin rode away to win the stage, edging Sagan in a photo finish. France picked up its first 2014 stage win when Blel Kadri got in the Stage 8 breakaway and held on to win the day, also capturing the King of the Mountains jersey.

The breakaway survived in Stage 9, as well, with time trial specialist Tony Martin controlling a two-man attack and leading the stage from beginning to end. Even with Cavendish out of the Tour, Trentin and Martin gave Omega Pharma-Quick Step two stage wins before the first rest day. Frenchman Tony Gallopin finished in a large chase group behind Martin and passed Nibali for the GC lead, wearing the yellow jersey on Bastille Day.

Martin won a second consecutive combativity award in Stage 10, pacing the front group on a stage featuring seven categorized climbs, including four Cat-1s. U.S. television analyst and former Tour rider Christian Van de Velde called it the toughest day of this year's race. Joaquim Rodriguez, who lost over an hour in the first week, asserted himself in the Mountains competition and out-dueled Thomas Voeckler to capture the polka dot jersey. The GC contenders caught Rodriguez around the last kilometer, and Nibali rode away from his rivals on La Planche des Belle Filles, recapturing the yellow jersey and setting himself 2:23 ahead of second-place Richie Porte. Pre-race favorite Alberto Contador crashed during Stage 10, and although he remounted and gained time on the peloton, he soon withdrew from the Tour with a fractured tibia.

Stages 11-15

Gallopin won Stage 11, but the biggest news of the day concerned Critérium du Dauphiné winner Andrew Talansky, who overcame his first-week injuries to finish the stage, but did not start Stage 12. Minus Froome, Contador, and Talansky, the Tour had now lost arguably its three biggest pre-race favorites. Norwegian sprinter Alexander Kristoff got his first career TDF stage win in Saint-Étienne. Four categorized climbs knocked out Marcel Kittel, and a crash derailed Andre Greipel, setting up Kristoff to out-sprint Peter Sagan and win Stage 12.

The following day saw the Tour enter the Alps, and the GC contenders began to separate themselves. With the peloton already down to a couple dozen riders, a late breakaway of Leopold Konig and Rafal Majka (whom announcers annoying called Maj-ka, pronouncing the J) got away from the GC riders, only to be caught by Nibali, who asserted his dominance over the field and rode away from his rivals, gaining about a minute on the other GC contenders. Second-place Richie Porte cracked in the mountains and lost over eight minutes, falling out of the top 10 and leaving Movistar's Alejandro Valverde in second, 3:37 behind Nibali. Nibali's teammate Jakob Fuglsang also lost massive time, after he crashed on a bottle dropped by Jurgen Van den Broeck.

In Stage 14, a 17-man breakaway featured powerful riders like Alessandro De Marchi, Mikel Nieve, and Jose Serpa, plus Rodriguez and Majka. This time Phil Harris pronounced Majka's name correctly, which was fortunate since he outlasted De Marchi to win the stage. Nibali and Jean-Christophe Peraud crossed second and third, followed by the other GC contenders. Wind and rain threatened to crack the peloton in Stage 15, but the sprinters caught a two-man breakaway in the final 100 meters and Kristoff won his second stage.

Entering the second rest day, Nibali led second-place Alejandro Valverde by 4:35. A pair of French rivals, Romain Bardet (+4:50) and Thibaut Pinot (5:06), battled for the final podium position and the white jersey of Best Young Rider, with American Tejay van Garderen (+5:49) rounding out the top five and Peraud in sixth (+6:08).

Stages 16-18

The Tour de France entered the Pyrenees on a day featuring the beyond-category Port de Balès. A 21-man breakaway thinned out to Michael Rogers, Jose Serpa, and a pair of Europcar riders, Cyril Gautier and Thomas Voeckler. Rogers attacked on the final descent and rode to victory, but the bigger story came in the GC battle behind, where Bardet lost nearly two minutes and van Garderen lost almost four.

Stage 17, the Queen Stage of this year's Tour, was the shortest day of the race, just 124.5 km, but it featured three Cat-1 climbs and an HC finish, all in the final 50 km. Team Katusha led the peloton and pushed hard to reach the early breakaway, with an eye to Rodriguez's pursuit of the King of the Mountains title. He and several other riders bridged to the breakaway just before the first climb, and Rodriguez did in fact summit the Col du Portillon first, reclaiming the Climbs lead from Majka, who had gone ahead by a single point. Rodriguez also beat Majka over the second climb, but he faded while the Pole rode on to a stage victory and the polka dot jersey. Nibali rode away from the GC group, matched only by Jean-Christophe Peraud, who moved up to fourth place, only 8 seconds behind Pinot.

The final day in the mountains included two Category-3 climbs, plus the beyond-category Col du Tourmalet and an HC finish on the Montée du Hautacam. Majka nearly succeeded on another breakaway and did cement his King of the Mountains lead, but it was Nibali who won his fourth stage of this year's Tour, dropping all his rivals on the final ascent. Pinot, Peraud, and van Garderen all finished about a minute behind the yellow jersey, while Bardet and Valverde both lost nearly two minutes. The Tour left the mountains with Nibali holding a commanding lead of 7:10 over Pinot, followed by Peraud (7:23) and Valverde (7:25).

Stages 19-21

Sprint stages of a Grand Tour are often dull until the final few kilometers, but this year's TDF was an exception, with dangerous breakaways and spirited chases pushing the pace beyond what viewers normally expect on flat stages. In a rain-soaked Stage 19, Garmin-Sharp's Tom-Jelte Slagter rode away from a five-man breakaway, and the team continued to attack, apparently attempting to pair a rider with Slagter, until Ramunas Navardauskas left the peloton and passed his teammate with 13 km to go. He built a lead that stayed around :20 and held it to win the stage, beating the sprinters by :07. A crash with just under 3 km remaining derailed Greipel and toppled Sagan, as well as top-10 GC hopefuls Romain Bardet and Frank Schleck.

Tony Martin absolutely dominated the time trial on Stage 20. Martin's 1:39 advantage over second-place Tom Dumoulin was greater than the difference between 2nd and 14th. Nibali placed fourth, but the real movement came from fifth-place Leopold Konig, sixth-place van Garderen, and seventh-place Peraud. Konig began the stage in 9th place, but passed Belkin's Bauke Mollema and Laurens ten Dam to move into 7th. A flat tire delayed Bardet, and van Garderen passed him for 5th overall by only two seconds. Bardet's teammate Peraud overcame his own flat tire to surpass Pinot for 2nd place in the General Classification.

Peraud crashed in Paris the next day, but the peloton allowed him to catch up, and all the major sprinters contested the finish at the Champs-Élysées. A dramatic final sprint from Kittel edged him ahead of Kristoff for the stage win.

General Classification

1. Vincenzo Nibali (ITA), Astana, 89:59:06
2. Jean-Christophe Péraud (FRA), Ag2r-La Mondiale, 90:06:43 (+ 7:37)
3. Thibaut Pinot (FRA), FDJ.fr, 90:07:21 (+ 8:15)
4. Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (ESP), Movistar Team, 90:08:46 (+ 9:40)
5. Tejay van Garderen (USA), BMC Racing Team, 90:10:30 (+ 11:24)
6. Romain Bardet (FRA), Ag2r-La Mondiale, 90:10:32 (+ 11:26)
7. Leopold König (CZE), Team NetApp-Endura, 90:13:38 (+ 14:32)
8. Haimar Zubeldia Agirre (ESP), Trek Factory Racing, 90:17:03 (+ 17:57)
9. Laurens ten Dam (NED), Belkin Pro Cycling, 90:17:18 (+ 18:12)
10. Bauke Mollema (NED), Belkin Pro Cycling, 90:20:21 (+ 21:15)

One of the biggest stories from this year's Tour de France was the withdrawal of many pre-race favorites, including defending champion Chris Froome, two-time champ Alberto Contador, and Criterium du Dauphine winner Andrew Talansky. Altogether, eight of the 22 teams lost their leaders, with Rui Costa, Daniel Navarro, Mathias Frank, Simon Gerrans, and Mark Cavendish (who is a sprinter, not a GC contender) joining the list of the injured. Other potential contenders, like Nairo Quintana and Bradley Wiggins, didn't ride this year's Tour. Valverde and Mollema were the only riders to make the top 10 in both 2013 and 2014.

But Vincenzo Nibali proved himself a worthy champion. He was the favorite to win as soon as Froome withdrew, based on his riding the first five days and his previous success in all three Grand Tours, including victories in the 2010 Vuelta a España and 2013 Giro d'Italia, plus a podium in the 2012 Tour de France. Nibali's nickname, Lo Squalo, is the coolest in all of cycling, and the Shark of Messina lived up to his moniker with a dominant Tour, including four stage wins and the largest margin of victory since 1997. Even with Froome and Contador healthy, it's tough to imagine anyone beating Nibali the way he rode for the last three weeks. Unlike Froome last year, Nibali didn't lose time to his GC rivals in a single stage of the Tour.

Points Classification

1. Peter Sagan (SVK), Cannondale, 431 pts
2. Alexander Kristoff (NOR), Team Katusha, 282
3. Bryan Coquard (FRA), Team Europcar, 271

We often call the green jersey the sprinters' jersey, but two of the top three in this year's competition failed to win a stage. For the second Tour in a row, Marcel Kittel won four stages but finished in fourth place with exactly 222 points. Kittel had trouble making it over even the smaller climbs, and he rarely competed for the intermediate sprint points. Sagan, who won the green jersey, is not really a top sprinter, but he contested everything.

The absence from the top three of Mark Cavendish, André Greipel, and Kittel is as much a surprise, compared to pre-race expectations, as the absences of Froome, Contador, and Valverde from the podium for the yellow jersey.

Mountains Classification

1. Rafał Majka (POL), Team Tinkoff-Saxo, 181 pts
2. Vincenzo Nibali (ITA), Astana, 168
3. Joaquim Rodríguez (ESP), Team Katusha, 112

Double points on finishing climbs make this perhaps the most difficult classification to clinch. Breakaways seldom make it to the final ascent, and GC riders rarely score on the early climbs of a stage. Rodríguez is a dominant climber, and when he chose to contest the polka dot jersey, most fans and most of the other riders probably assumed he would win it. But Rodríguez, nursing an injury from this year's Giro d'Italia, faded before the finishing climbs and didn't ride well in the Pyrenees, while Majka saved his strength for the most important moments. A healthy Purito probably would have won King of the Mountains, but he misjudged his strength this year.

Young Riders

1. Thibaut Pinot (FRA), FDJ.fr, 90:07:21
2. Romain Bardet (FRA), Ag2r-La Mondiale, 90:10:32 (+ 3:11)
3. Michał Kwiatkowski (POL), Omega Pharma-Quick Step, 91:21:01 (+ 1:13:40)

There are some really exciting young riders in this sport. Pinot finished on the podium, Bardet placed sixth in the GC, and Kwiatkowski ranked third in the white jersey competition for the second year in a row. Sixth-place Rafał Majka won King of the Mountains and has two top-10 finishes in the Giro d'Italia, marking him as a future Grand Tour contender. Meanwhile, 10th-place Peter Sagan won his third consecutive green jersey. Perhaps the most promising young rider of all, Movistar's Nairo Quintana, didn't ride the TDF this year as he focused on the Giro and the Vuelta a España.

Team Classification

1. Ag2r-La Mondiale, 270:27:02
2. Belkin Pro Cycling, 271:01:48 (+ 34:46)
3. Movistar Team, 271:33:12 (+ 1:06:10)

A much less dramatic competition than last year, with Ag2r turning in a dominant Tour. They had two top-10 GC riders, 21st-place Ben Gastauer, and the successful breakaways of Blel Kadri. Belkin was a clear second, with three members in the top 15 of the General Classification. The Swiss BMC Racing Team missed third place by under two minutes.

Most Successful Teams at the 2014 Tour de France

Subjectively, I've divided the 22 teams at the 100th edition of the Tour into three groups: Very Successful, Moderately Successful, and Not Successful. The top, "very successful" teams combined to win all four leader jerseys and 17 of the 21 stages. Everyone in the last group failed to meet their pre-race goals.

Very Successful

1. Astana Pro Team — Vincenzo Nibali was even more dominant than Chris Froome in 2013. Nibali won four stages, wore the yellow jersey for all but two days, and finished almost eight minutes ahead of his closest competitor, the largest margin since 1997. He might have been even more dominant with the help of Jakob Fuglsang, who was severely limited for the second half of the race following his crash in the Alps.

2. Ag2r La Mondiale — Won the Team Classification and put 37-year-old Jean-Christophe Peraud on the podium in second place. Romain Bardet ranked 6th overall and 2nd among young riders. Blel Kadri won Stage 8, and both Bardet and Kadri wore leaders jerseys (youth and climbs, respectively). Bardet and Kadri also combined to win three combativity awards, the most of any team. Phenomenal Tour for one of the smaller teams.

3. Team Tinkoff-Saxo — Overcame the loss of Alberto Contador and basically their entire strategy for the Tour. Rafal Majka won two stages and the King of the Mountains competition, while Mick Rogers won Stage 16 and Nicolas Roche was named Most Aggressive Rider of Stage 11.

4. FDJ.fr — For the second straight year, Arnold Jeannesson placed 30th in the GC. But this year, Jeannesson was working for teammate Thibaut Pinot, who ranked 3rd overall and won the white jersey. Pinot rode superbly and teammates like Jeannesson looked strong in the mountains.

5. Giant-Shimano — For the second year in a row, Marcel Kittel won four stages, including the first and last days of the Tour, with a day in the maillot jaune and a victory on the Champs-Élysées. Last year's Tour exceeded expectations in a way that this year's did not, but this was even more impressive, because the team had to lead the peloton and Kittel had a target on his back as the man to beat in every flat stage.

6. Cannondale — Alessandro De Marchi was named Most Combative Rider of the 2014 Tour and Peter Sagan won the green jersey, so you can't say it was an unsuccessful Tour de France, but they finished without a stage win. Cannondale tried everything: pacing the peloton to catch the breakaway, providing a lead-out train, letting other teams lead out and putting Sagan on a rival's wheel, even getting De Marchi into breakaways. Nothing worked.

7. Omega Pharma-Quick Step — Lost Mark Cavendish on the first day, but recovered to win three stages. Tony Martin won two stages, won two combativity awards, and wore the polka dot jersey in Stage 10. Matteo Trentin also won a stage, and Michal Kwiatkowski spent two days in the white jersey of Best Young Rider. Kwiatkowski finished third among young riders and Mark Renshaw ranked 5th in the Points Classification (211).

8. Team Katusha — I have given in and spelled their name the way everyone else does, but in Roman characters it really should be rendered Katyusha. The Cyrillic character ю is pronounced "you" (not "oo"). Anyway, Alexander Kristoff won two stages and placed 2nd in the green jersey competition, while Joaquim Rodriguez finished 3rd for King of the Mountains. Yuri Trofimov ranked 14th in the GC.

Moderately Successful

9. Belkin Pro Cycling — Their sponsorship deal ends this year, which is surprising for a successful team. Belkin ranked 2nd among 22 teams in the Team Classification and won Stage 5 with Lars Boom. The team had three top-15 GC riders, including two who were visible in the top 10, Bauke Mollema and Laurens ten Dam.

10. Lotto-Belisol — Won two stages, got Tony Gallopin a day in the maillot jaune, and placed Jurgen Van Den Broeck 13th in the General Classification. Andre Greipel finished a disappointing 7th in the Points competition.

11. Team Europcar — Normally the most popular French team, they were overshadowed by the success of Pinot, Peraud, and Bardet. But Cyril Gautier and Thomas Voeckler both won combativity awards, sprinter Bryan Coquard placed third in the green jersey competition, and Pierre Rolland ranked 11th in the GC. Europcar works together well as a team.

12. Movistar Team — If you had told them that neither Froome nor Contador would finish the Tour, they would have forecast Alejandro Valverde as the yellow jersey winner, or at least a podium finisher. He placed a respectable 4th, and Movistar ranked 3rd in the Team Classification, but they probably are not satisfied with their results.

13. BMC Racing Team — Seven riders in the top 70 of the GC, including Tejay van Garderen 5th overall. They ranked 4th in the Team Classification and supported van Garderen effectively. Van Garderen seemed more mature than in his previous Tours, and the team looked better organized.

14. Team NetApp-Endura — Successful debut for a Tour de France wild card. Leopold König ranked 7th in the GC and Jan Barta was named most combative rider of Stage 3. Tiago Machado ranked 3rd in the GC before a devastating crash that nearly saw him abandon the race.

15. Garmin-Sharp — They came to the Tour for Andrew Talansky, who abandoned halfway through with injuries. Jack Bauer nearly won Stage 15, and the team worked together brilliantly to get Ramūnas Navardauskas the win in Stage 19, saving their Tour.

Not Successful

16. Trek Factory Racing — They had two top-12 GC riders, Haimar Zubeldia and Fränk Schleck. 42-year-old Jens Voigt, the oldest rider in the Tour, got into breakaways on the first and last days of the race, winning the polka dot jersey and the combativity award in Stage 1. This teams seems a little disorganized.

17. Team Sky — Left 2012 Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins off their roster, presumably because of a perceived conflict with Christopher Froome. It was a foolish and arrogant decision by a team that thought they could leave one of their best riders at home and still win. When Froome retired in Stage 5, Richie Porte went from domestique to team leader. Sky had a strong team featuring Mikel Nieve (18th GC), Geraint Thomas (22nd), Porte (23rd), and more, but those riders had no one to support. Wiggins was the one man who could seamlessly replace Froome and quickly become a GC favorite, but he was at home in England.

Tinkoff-Saxo overcame the loss of Contador to win three stages and King of the Mountains. OPQ won three stages without Mark Cavendish. Even Garmin-Sharp managed a stage win after they lost Andrew Talansky. Sky won no stages and was not competitive for any of the jersey competitions. Nieve was Most Aggressive Rider of Stage 18 and they ranked 7th in the Team Classification, but it was a massive disappointment for one of the strongest teams in pro cycling, and it was preventable.

18. Cofidis, Solution Credits — Team leader Daniel Navarro abandoned the Tour in Stage 13. Cyril Lemoine spent most of the first week in polka dots, and Luis Ángel Maté was Most Aggressive Rider of Stage 6. Nicolas Edet and Rein Taaramae also drew some publicity in breakaways. But they had no GC contenders, no competitive sprinters, and no one who could contest the Climbs lead in the mountains. Cofidis was invisible for the last two weeks of the Tour.

19. IAM Cycling — No riders in the top 30 of the GC. Martin Elmiger won two combativity awards and scored 101 points in the green jersey competition, good for 12th place.

20. Bretagne-Séché Environnement — Along with Orica, the least visible team of this year's Tour. Brice Feillu quietly ranked 16th in the GC, their only rider in the top 50. Bretagne was one of only four teams to have all nine riders finish the Tour (Astana, Ag2r, Europcar).

21. Lampre-Merida — One of several teams that battled bronchitis during the Tour. Four of their nine riders abandoned the race, including team leader Rui Costa, who had spent time in the top 10 and ranked 13th when he withdrew. 2013 Vuelta champ Chris Horner battled to a top-20 finish.

22. Orica-GreenEDGE — Hugely disappointing race for this team. They had no riders in the top 65 of the GC, and they placed 20th in the Team Classification, ahead of only successful sprinter's teams (Cannondale and Giant-Shimano). Simon Clarke's Most Aggressive Rider prize in Stage 12 was the highlight of their Tour.

Countries

For the nationalists among you, three countries stood out with successful Tours: Italy, Germany, and France. Italian success was basically all about Vincenzo Nibali, who won four stages and the yellow jersey. He is the first Italian to win the Tour since Marco Pantani in 1998. Countryman Matteo Trentin won Stage 7, while Alessandro De Marchi earned two combativity awards and was named Most Aggressive Rider of this year's Tour. German riders won seven stages: four by Kittel, two by Martin, and one by Greipel.

But perhaps most remarkable was the renaissance of French riders on this year's Tour. Peraud and Pinot gave the host nation its first podium since 1997, and its first dual podium in 30 years. Romain Bardet also ranked among the top GC riders, and he and Pinot led the young riders competition. Pierre Rolland, Brice Feillu, and John Gadret also finished among the top 20 of the GC, and the French performed well in both the Points Classification (Bryan Coquard, 3rd) and Mountains Classification (five of the top 13). The French Ag2r team won the Team Classification. Kadri and Gallopin both won stages, and Gallopin briefly wore the maillot jaune.

* * *

The 101st Tour de France began with huge crowds in England and concluded with two Frenchmen on the final podium. The loss of some of the race's biggest names was offset by the brilliance of Vincenzo Nibali and by the success of young riders, especially French riders. Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet battled for the white jersey, for a podium position, and for the honor of ranking highest among Frenchmen. That distinction, however, ultimately went to Bardet's teammate Jean-Christophe Peraud, which felt right. Pinot and Bardet have promising careers ahead of them, but Peraud is already 37 and he may not have a lot of opportunities going forward. The French Ag2r, FDJ, and Europcar teams all had successful Tours.

If French success in their own Tour reinvigorates interest domestically, Nibali's success means something for Italy, as well. Italians are normally pressured to focus on their own Grand Tour, the Giro d'Italia, but an Italian win in Paris is a big deal, and Nibali pulled his off in style. He is only the sixth man to win all three Grand Tours, joining Jacques Anquetil, Alberto Contador, Felice Gimondi, Bernard Hinault, and Eddy Merckx.

Pinot and Bardet have contested the Young Riders competition in previous Tours, so the real revelation of this year's race may have been 24-year-old Polish rider Rafal Majka, who won two stages and the Climbs competition. Already a two-time top-10 in the Giro d'Italia, Majka again showed he can handle the most challenging climbs, and he should contend for a Grand Tour at some point.

Whatever this Tour de France missed in star power, it made up for with the excellence of Nibali, the fierce podium battle behind him, and the renewed spark of French cycling. Any shortcomings were washed away by the recoveries of teams like Tinkoff and Omega, the breakthrough of Rafal Majka and the strength of Tony Martin. The disappointment of losing Cavendish was tempered by the dominance of Marcel Kittel and the emergence of Alexander Kristoff.

It was a thrilling and exhausting three weeks, not only for riders, but for viewers who committed to watching each stage (even if fast-forward to the sprints on flat days). The Vuelta a España begins August 23.

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