It’s tough to argue that this latest installment of the Grande Boucle wasn’t an entertaining spectacle. The first week alone furnished more action and GC changes than the 2002 version in its entirety, and close races in all the major competitions marked much of the event.
Most of the race—certainly its chaotic opening—still seem compelling; Chatreau and Pineau trading off breakaways and battling for KOMs was good fun while waiting for the GC riders to open hostilities. And seeing the aggression pay off for so many breakaways was a nice change—something many have taken as the sign of a cleaner race, though others are not so convinced.
Cav did make the sprints something of a foregone conclusion toward the end of the race, but his early struggles and the drama surrounding the Renshaw ejection certainly had me looking forward to the final three kilometers on nearly every flat stage. Petacchi might not have been the sentimental favorite for Green—even without the whole perfluorocarbon investigation, Cav was flat out faster, and Thor made a more concerted effort at chasing the points crown—but Ale-Jet brought enough to the competition that I wasn’t sad to see him win it.
Looking back today, though, I’m really wondering at all the excitement I felt for the GC race. Sure, the narrow time margin between Schleck and Contador for much of the race kept the tension high, but really, where were the differences made? A slipped chain? Holding Cancellara’s wheel across a section of pavé? A ham-fisted, bobbling attack on a Third Category climb?
While the time gaps were smaller this time around, what made the 2003 Tour an awesome spectacle was the way the GC favorites seemed to just trade haymakers. On Alpe du Huez, Armstrong claimed yellow, but lost two minutes to Iban Mayo. Vino’s eff-you attack on the descent into Gap the next day lead took Beloki out of the race, and led to the now-famous shortcut. Then there was Jan Ullrich’s leg-shattering TT effort on Stage 12, Armstrong slowly bleeding time over the following days, break pads, Ullrich’s attack over the Tourmalet, Luz-Ardiden, fog, musette bags, the final TT, the rain…
I’m not saying the 2010 event wasn’t a great race, full of all the right kinds of intrigue and polemics. I’m not even saying that the battle between Schleck and Contador wasn’t a good contest—they worked together to distance their rivals, then took their shots against each other. I don’ think either left anything out on the course—and in the case of Contador, some are still arguing he tried a little bit too hard.
But for me, the greatest GC battles are back-and-forth affairs—rivals constantly trying to leverage their strength against their opponents weakness, and struggling to limit their losses when the tide turns the other way. Maybe Schleck’s and Contador’s abilities were just too closely aligned this July, or maybe this is just how most Grand Tours will be contested until the memory of “the refills” has slipped from the peloton’s collective memory.
Hopefully next year, another closely- and cleanly-fought Tour will shed some more light on the subject.