July is usually the month of the year that is bookmarked for cycling fans, earmarking 3 weeks of the month for soaking up the finest spectacle in professional cycling. It feels customary for fans of the sport to be drunk from the incomparable euphoria of La Grande Boucle during the month of July as they seek escape in the colourful haze of the professional peloton. However, 2020 marks a new beginning.
Instead we will now turn to September to embrace France’s great race, trading the Mediterranean summer sun for the falling leaves of autumn. Nevertheless, July will always hold a special place in the heart of those who call the sport their home even if a global pandemic is occurring. Whether you’re in dire need of cycling to fill your lockdown July afternoons or you’re in need of some motivation to get yourself back in the saddle, here are 5 fine stages from recent years to help silence the pandemonium of the current climate.
Tour de France 2017 – Stage 9
Chris Froome looked to have had the 2017 Tour de France under his thumb even by stage 9, but this épreuve through the Alps showed that you don’t need to finish thousands of metres above sea level to create a thriller for the history books. After an early finish on La Planche des Belles Filles, we gained a sneak peek into who the stronger competitors looked to be coming into the more testing days of the race.
Already in the early phase of this stage it looked to be a day that would be cross-analysed in the years to come as former maillot jaune wearer Geraint Thomas and Rafał Majka hit the deck on an early descent. Once they crested the final climb, the hair raising descent became the amphitheatre for the next plot twist – a race ending crash for Richie Porte and a nasty tumble for Dan Martin who fought on to finish solidly, even whilst nursing a broken vertebrae, adding a merciless ambiance to the day.
Once the smoke looked to have settled, Rigoberto Uran faced an issue with his gearing plaguing his preparation for the final run-in to the line as mechanics performed the elaborate practice of high-speed repairs, a classic Tour de France oddity.
The arrival of the finish line in Chambéry was welcomed with open arms for the lead group billed as the assumed GC favourites and challengers to Froome. The misconstrued Warren Barguil was declared the victor at first glance after a bike throw against the eventual GC runner-up Uran who against the odds managed to contend for the win. Just as Barguil sat down for interviews with the official race press as the day’s winner, the plot thickened as it emerged that Uran won the sprint on second glance. Barguil’s ill-omened post-up may be tainted in retrospect but the dynamics of this stage make it one that stands out from the somewhat dire 2017 edition.
Tour de France 2016 – Stage 12Embed from Getty Images
Stage 12 was supposed to be the first ‘alpine’ showdown for the 2016 pack unlodged in the time standings. It fell on Chris Froome to lead the way with a negligible lead over his competitors before the stage. With the prospect of Mont Ventoux up ahead, this was bound to be one to tell the kids about. However, this stage will forever be remembered for vox pops like ‘Chris Froome may finish this race without a bike, he’ll cross the line on foot’ rather than a race defining duel up the Provençal climb.
In reality, high winds shortened the stage, allowing it to finish further down the arid slopes of the ‘Giant of Provence’ at the less glamorous destination of Chalet Reynard. Fans can therefore be forgiven for expecting a more tame performance. However, this proved itself to be more than a classic – it became a comedy of errors.
Normally the fight to the observatory at the summit of Ventoux is a Greek tragedy for many of the riders as they succumb to their fatigue, raw emotion as we unravel the race in its most visceral form. Instead of a Greek tragedy, the comedy of errors debuted in 2016 was a calamity of a finale that will be remembered in history for a motorbike crash forcing Richie Porte, Bauke Mollema and Chris Froome onto the smouldering concrete of the mountain.
The breakaway race was all but sealed at this point, still providing another explosive skirmish, but all eyes were transfixed by images of the yellow jersey running up one of cycling’s most mythical climbs. Once he crossed the line, an indescribable tension loomed as a forum of questions and debates sparked even before Froome regained his yellow Pinarello. Adam Yates was ill-fatedly declared the initial yellow jersey whilst the images of the fallen shaking their heads were broadcast to the world. Nevertheless, this is a must-watch for the 21st century cycling fan, marking a new episode in the curious saga of Chris Froome’s career.
Tour de France 2011 – Stage 18Embed from Getty Images
It would be naive to ignore this mammoth of a stage that still sits firmly in the hallowed collection of Tour de France exploits. The 18th stage of the race marked the beginning of the final brutal days in the Alps, providing the titans of the epoch, Schleck and Contador, the chance to snatch back the yellow jersey that they felt they deserved. With a cloud of controversy surrounding Contador in the early stages of the race, all fans’ fingers were crossed for a grand-stand contest on the slopes of the Col du Galibier.
Enter Thomas Voeckler however, Europcar’s very own matador. The ever expressive Frenchman held onto the yellow jersey until the final summit finishes, reinvigorating the French press and public to rally around their unsuspecting frontrunner. Voeckler may have added to the pretext, but Andy Schleck was the man to take the lead up the slopes of the race’s highest point that year.
The Luxemburger who had searched out a Tour de France crown his whole career, tamed the steep gradients, his competitors and the fans, gaining an astronomical lead on the road thanks to a tandem effort alongside teammate Maxime Monfort. Once he approached the top, it looked to be ‘game over’ for the race, Schleck was back and better than ever.
Whilst we digested Schleck’s move, the yellow jersey story imploded behind. The likes of Contador and Evans placed pressure on Voeckler who looked to wain at the back of the race contenders’ group. In the end Voeckler would cross the line with just a 15 second advantage to Andy Schleck. Serving as the main spectacle of this fabulous 2011 yellow jersey battle, Schleck laid all his cards on the table on the Galibier, ready to fight for the right to wear the maillot jaune in Paris, a feat he never achieved.
Tour de France 2015 – Stage 4Embed from Getty Images
The 2015 edition of the Tour de France was held with a lot of prestige and curiosity. The route looked like a proper mountain fondo and the startlist was more than star studded. With the tainted 2014 cobble stage fresh in the minds of many of the 2015 competitors, the fourth stage was set to be an unpredictable one.
The first days of the race provided a habituel change in the race leader with Froome assuming leadership on the day the race hit the cobbles of L’Enfer du Nord. Rumbling underneath this facade, ‘the Panzerwagen’ Tony Martin eyed up his first ever grand tour leaders’ jersey after a strong run in the opening stages.
After a tense, but well controlled exhibition from the teams of Nibali, Quintana, Froome and Contador, the race appeared wide open. That was until around 4 kilometres to go when the curtain dropped and the ‘Tony Martin show’ began. As the German put out a gut wrenching effort, cycling fans across the globe were biting their nails, sending their final prayers for Martin to finally take the maillot jaune, a career goal for him.
On the final run into the line, the outcome still looked unclear as Martin dangled open mouthed in front of the main group. The multiple time trial world champion did hold on, however, to take one of the most emotional wins in recent Tour de France history, vanquishing the yellow jersey which he held until a heartbreaking crash two days later on the road to Le Havre.
Tour de France 2019 – Stage 9
Still crisp in the minds of Tour de France viewers and journalists alike, this stage gives us everything that we need for a truly epic show closer to the race’s first week. After a calypso of stage winners and surprises over the first week of the 2019 Tour, stage 9’s Bastille Day backdrop had a lot to give for riders looking to make their mark before the rest day in Saint Étienne.
Giulio Ciccone, the unknown package, clutched onto a slender lead in the maillot jaune ahead of the impassioned Julien Alaphilippe who was showing signs of what was to come later in the race. After a dominant performance through the vineyards of Champagne (a close contender for this list), Alaphilippe provided a whole fiesta on France’s national holiday. Alongside French nearly-man Thibaut Pinot, the two joined forces to ride away from the bunch to gain a wavering gap ahead of the main group consisting most of the main race contenders. Add into the mix Thomas De Gendt, the ever enthralling breakaway staple, in front and we are left with a concoction that epitomises the Tour’s class.
This stage did not shy away from ‘Tour de France arithmetic’ as the gaps needed for Alaphilippe to regain the yellow jersey, Pinot to climb onto the podium, the deficit faced by bruised Thomas were firmly in the balance, not to mention the frantic chase for the stage win. Pure cycling brilliance!