Tour de France 2017, week 2: The closest fight yet

For cycling enthusiasts, the month of July usually equates to one thing: the Tour de France. It’s the one cycling race almost everybody has heard of…even those who don’t have an ounce of road cycling enthusiasm in their souls. Over twenty-one race days, two rest days, and 3,300+ total kilometers, this most prestigious of the three annual Grand Tours has people talking.

Now, I haven’t had cable TV since 2013, nor do I have the patience to look for and/or watch streams of the Eurosport broadcast, so I rarely watch cycling races live. Most of the updates I get are from the official Le Tour de France YouTube channel, or from the excellent Australia-based site CyclingTips. Yet, even without following the Tour de France by the minute, as the stages have progressed and the second rest day has passed, I have the distinct feeling that this year’s edition is the closest fought yet.

Britain’s Team Sky have dominated previous runnings of the Tour, with Bradley Wiggins and later Chris Froome taking wins in monolithic fashion. They have also ended the main General Classification (GC) competition — the fight for the yellow jersey — very early, establishing a dominant lead from Stage 8 or so and never looking back. These hyper-efficient wins year on year have made me bored of the Tour, opting to watch drama instead on the other Grand Tour races, the Giro d’Italia in May and the Vuelta a Espana in September.

Now though, 15 stages in, only 29 seconds separates Chris Froome in the lead from fourth-placed Rigoberto Uran of Cannondale-Drapac. That has not happened in any time in recent memory; previous runnings of the Tour have had chasms measured in minutes for the same two positions. We are also seeing a combative team threat in AG2R-La Mondiale, and a solo rival in Sicilian Fabio Aru of Team Astana. While Froome is still holding on to yellow, with a week of racing left to go, it’s clear to see that this is a wide-open Tour to win…and that Froome is not as unbreakable as he was before.

Climber Chris Froome shaking hands with sprinter/puncheur Peter Sagan at the start of Stage 20 of the 2015 Tour de France. Froome is in yellow; Sagan is in green. Photo credit: Zimbio/Getty Images

The green jersey points challenge has me with mixed feelings though. Everybody’s favorite Slovak, Peter Sagan, got thrown out of the race after the infamous elbow incident and crash with fiery Manxman Mark Cavendish at the Stage 4 finish line sprint. That basically started the slow hemorrhage of other participating sprinters, leaving Marcel Kittel of Germany unchallenged with five stage wins and a stranglehold on the green jersey. I like Kittel, and I rate his sprinting very highly, but seeing him win like this feels a little hollow.

At least he has the distinction of winning the first ever Tour de France stage on a disc-braked road bike. That is a pretty big deal. Traditionalists and retro-grouches can bite me.

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