The final 64-mile stage remains ceremonial until the riders arrive on the Champs Elysees, when it changes to a sprint stage. They ride into town, across the river, and then ride a circuit eight times. The Champs Elysees runs uphill towards the Arc de Triomphe which adds a little challenge to legs tired from 21 days of racing.
On the way into Paris, the teams take photos, drink champagne, hold notes up the camera asking your beloved to marry you, and for jersey leaders to thank their teams. Occasional riders may take a gentle attack off the front just long enough to greet friends and family. The finale is a day for glory, the glory of the jersey leaders, and the pride of winning the sprint on the Champs Elysees. For most of the peloton, surviving the Tour and actually finishing the last day in Paris is the biggest victory, no matter what place they finish. Only 167 riders out of 198 managed to finish the tour.
They’ll have to take care even in this last stage. They just showed a crash that knocked down two riders. And then Chris Froome had to switch from the special yellow bike he was riding to his spare special yellow bike.
The final sprint finish promises to be crazy. Although Matthews has sewn up the green jersey, and just has to finish safely to keep it, the other sprinters will see this as their last chance for a stage win. Andre Greipel has had at least one stage win in the last six tours – except this one. And he and Edvard Boasson Hagen are in second and third place in the green jersey competition with only a few points between them.
With so much competition, the pace will be high, there will be a lot of attacks, the cobblestones could be wet, riders will take mad risks – and TDF Expert, Jens Voigt, says the road is in particularly bad condition due to all the tanks and military traffic that paraded on it for Bastille Day. One crash could rob a team of a jersey, or a GC top 10 place. Landa, in fourth, and Bardet, in third, are separated by one second. If Landa makes a break – or even just leads Sky to finish with the sprinters and Bardet finishes after the sprinters – Landa moves up a place and Bardet disappoints France.
At around 33 miles, they arrive on the Champs Elysees and the attacks start right away. For the first time today, the pace lifts and the peloton stretches out into a long, straight line, the sprinters’ teams crowding the front, with Sky staying close to avoid getting caught up in any argy bargy that could cause him to lose his jersey. Sky moves onto the front, taking control of the pace, and things slow down slightly.
A nine-man break has gone free by 14 seconds, Chavanel again, accompanied by Astana, Direct Energie, QuickStep, Circus, BMC, Katusha, Movistar. Another sprinter tries to bridge across from the peloton. The sprint teams who missed the break volunteering domestiques to ride at the front and raise the pace to bring the breakaway back into the fold. And the rain begins…
Barguil punctures, losing time won’t endanger the polka-dot jersey, but he’s in tenth in the GC and losing time would push him out altogether. Catching the peloton again will be challenging because the sprinters are keeping the pace high. If his teammates drops back to help him, they could impair Matthews from contesting the sprint finish. He’s already 1:04 back and is drafting off the back of his team car – cheating, which could earn him a time penalty, which endangers his tenth place again. Ah, just after we got back from commercial, he managed to regain the peloton.
At around 21 miles the leaders have 16 seconds over the peloton, the sprint teams have organized, and the pace has stretched into the long thin line of speed again.
11 miles and the breakaway only has eight seconds and the sprint teams are pulling them back into the group. 7.5 miles and Tony Martin has joined the break. He’ll use the break to launch for a win if he can, but his move may also be a tactic to encourage the rest of the peloton to chase him back so he can bring the race together on behalf of his sprinter.
6.7 miles and they’re back together. Sky is back on the front, trying to take command and keep order until the 3 KM point, after which he can crash at will and not lose any time.
4 miles and a single Astana rider has gone off the front. Thomas Voeckler has dropped off the back of the peloton to take his farewells on his own time and savor every moment of his final Tour. A Movistar rider joins him, but the Czech champion has snuck out in front them. By the time they circle the Arc de Triomphe, Astana and Movistar are back in the pack. Another Astana attacks, and the sprinters are trying desperately to form order on the front of the peloton, to set things up for the sprinters. Katusha is on the front with Lotto, Sunweb for Matthews – meanwhile AG2R and Sky form up to try to stay out of trouble and keep up with each other. They’ve caught the break.
Now it’s all sprinters, domestiques forming trains, glancing back over shoulders looking for their leaders, dropping aside, energy expended. Boasson Hagen, Greipel, Bouhanni, Kristoff, they take the final turn at full speed, Matthews, and the winner is Dylan Groenewegen. A nice bookend to the tour, as he crashed during the first stage.
For teams with the strategy of taking the yellow, Chris Froome finishes first, Uran in second, Bardet, third.
For teams focused on the green, sprint point, jersey, Michael Matthews finished first. With two stages wins, too, he exceeded expectations. Greipel kept second, Boasson Hagen third.
While riders may crave the polka-dot jersey, teams don’t usually target it, although they might ride to protect it if a rider can hold it for several days, which is what happened with Warren Barguil. In addition to the supplemental heart a jersey gives, Barguil had another lift from the energy of the French crowds who were delighted to have a Frenchman to cheer. Barguil also received the overall prize for most aggressive rider, for his repeated attacks throughout the race.
Sky takes the team prize, made bittersweet by the loss of one of their riders on an early stage. (Strong teams take special pride in bringing all men home safely with them.)
There’s also a prize for the slowest man in the race and this year’s award goes to Luke Rowe from Team Sky. Although the team finished in first place, Rowe, a true domestique, gave his all in service of his leader and finished with the worst overall time.
So what have we learned about strategy and tactics through the Tour de France?
- There were a number of different strategies in the tour: to take the yellow jersey; to take the green jersey; to win stages; to break away on your own to earn your sponsor airtime and ensure your team’s continued existence (or your continuation on the team). None of these strategies was wrong, though some were more workable than others.
- The teams selected their riders based on their strategies: the teams targeting the green jersey selected great lead-out men; the GC combining domestiques who were strong in the mountains with men who were great on the flats.
- Most of the teams that aimed for yellow structured their entire season to ensure that their riders would peak physically during the tour. You can see the importance of this by what happened to Quintana: his team decided he should ride for victory in the spring tour, the Giro D’Italia, and he didn’t have legs for this tour.
- Even if a team was structured around a particular strategy, they had a back-up plan. Although Quick Step focused on Kittel, Dan Martin was there to do GC work when Kittel wasn’t the focus of a stage. And, when Kittel left the race early, Dan Martin was set free to take as many risks as he could.
- The strategy drove the tactics on the road – who would attack and when and who would try to join them in the break – right down to Sky positioning helpers along the road with musette bags containing additional water bottles for one domestique to grab to replenish his teammates, how they position the extra bikes they have on top of the cars, and the advance practice changing wheels quickly.
- Although the strategy and tactics were planned in advance, the riders constantly watched each other and what was going on around them. Even something as small as change in wind-direction could lead them to adjust their plan for the day.
And what did I learn about blogging over the last three weeks?
- First, three weeks is a long time to focus on a single topic in a blog, especially when the metaphor is already a stretch.
- Second, those three weeks should not overlap with a one-week family visit involving children who, while politely interested, really wanted to be doing something other than watching three to five hours of cycling coverage.
- Lastly, spending that much time watching TV each day and writing about what you watched leaves you very little time to do anything else with your life. The first few days, I tried watching the stage then writing about it afterward, and tried to keep my writing focused on strategy and tactics. After that, to save time, I tried typing while I was watching, then editing it after the stage ended. That made it easier to remember key points that I wanted to accent but – at the same time – I got too excited about what I was watching and sometimes ended up writing a sports blog instead of a blog about strategy and tactics.
So there it is, you can now say that you, like the riders, have survived three weeks of the Tour de France. But, while most of the riders are already looking forward to next year’s Tour, you can check our journey together off your bucket list.
Tomorrow, no Tour!