It’s simple, really: whoever gets to Paris with the lowest overall time gets to stand on the top of the podium in the yellow jersey. Although it’s still early—four mountain stages and a hilly time trial remain—Chris Froome has been in yellow since the first mountaintop finish and seems likely to stay there. On Saturday, his Team Sky, which controlled last year’s race, was dominant. They set a pace that exhausted the rest of the field, and then, early in the final climb to Ax-Trois-Domaines, Froome jumped away alone, crossing the line with a lead of nearly two minutes. So not much of a race this year—just all the top riders grimacing on Froome’s wheel and then slipping quietly away.
Maybe. On Sunday Team Sky fell to pieces. Porte was dropped early and never came back, Vasil Kiryienka was somehow eliminated on time, and Peter Kennaugh disappeared into the roadside bushes after being sideswiped by another rider. Froome was alone. Suddenly everyone wanted to have a try at him, and he had to respond to a flurry of accelerations, most notably by the frighteningly quick rookie climber Nairo Quintana. And he did, sometimes jumping onto the heels of the attacker, other times watching a bit of a gap stretch before reeling him in. Froome was pounding the bike rather than dancing on the pedals, showing grit rather than aplomb. As for the attackers, they were mostly just trying him, looking over their shoulders after a few meters instead of riding away believing in their success. Perhaps they should have tried to kill him there, but they didn’t seem to think they could. After a few minutes they settled down and rode together to the finish. So the favorite survived into an easy week—a rest day, a few sprint stages, and a flat time trial—but now he isn’t untouchable.
Or maybe he is. As expected, Froome rode Wednesday’s time trial far better than his rivals. Tony Martin, the world champion in the time trial discipline, started early and finished bloody, having torn open the wounds he still bore from the stage-one pileup. Martin’s time stood for four hours while he dawdled at the end of the course to see if he would mount the podium as the stage winner. When Froome finally crossed the line (the yellow jersey always starts last) he was twelve seconds above Martin’s time—and had pumped his overall lead to nearly four minutes. To the Gallic pessimist this is game over, to the dreaming sports fan a chance for desperate and glorious exploits in the Alps.
Even if next week does become a slow motion coronation for Froome, the tour will still be stuffed with incident. There are twenty-two teams and almost 200 riders, about fifty of whom will try something important at some point. These knights of the Tour chase after an abundance of overlapping quests, including victory in each of the twenty-one daily races and possession of the three other leader’s jerseys: polka dots, for consistently leading on climbs; green, for consistently leading on stage finishes and in sprints; and white, for best overall time among young riders.
The sprint jersey may be the strangest. There are major stars in professional cycling—among them Mark Cavendish (one of cycling’s only cocky jerks, and somehow likable despite that) and the Slovak wunderkind Peter Sagan—who cannot hope to win the race yet build their seasons around coming to the Tour to win a few flat stages and the green jersey. On the days set up for these sprinters, you hardly see the overall contenders. Similarly, on the big mountain days, the sprinters, who carry too much thigh to climb with the gazelles, slide off the back of the pack, racing only against the daily time limit. Most days, a few minor characters leap out of the aerodynamic protection of the peloton to gamble strength and stamina on a breakaway, trading sure suffering for the slim chance of a stage win. On Sunday, the skirmishing that went on around Froome probably allowed the Irishman Dan Martin, a very good rider but until now not a threatening one, to win the stage: while the highest-placed men were worrying about one another, Martin escaped late with Jakob Fuglsang and wasn’t immediately followed. Froome and the others were trying to win the Tour, but Martin won the day.
There are dozens of nationalities in the peloton; English, French, and Flemish are common languages. It’s preceded by a publicity caravan that showers the masses with corporate gifts, and travels with a coterie of models to do the post-race cheek-kissing. Unofficial participants include locals who ride bikes or horses in the fields alongside the road and the thousands of fans who run alongside for a moment (maybe more, on the mountainsides).These men are often drunk and oddly attired—Borat-style bathing suits have become popular and giant bunny heads seem to have sprung up everywhere this year—and add to both the wacko pageantry and the tension, since they often blunder into the paths of the riders.
The Pyrenees are always lush green and blinding orange, because orange is the color of the Basque team, supported by thousands of T-shirts. An Italian team somehow gets away with neon pink, and in the obligatory aerial shots the whole bright peloton will be framed against the sea or fields of sunflowers. There’s a lot of information in the peleton’s colors: not only the four jerseys, but also jerseys for the current national champions, a rainbow jersey for the world champion, and armband flashes for former champions. There’s a heraldry of helmets and bib numbers, blazons awarded for the previous stage and for leading the team classification, yellow helmets for the top team, and a silly new tradition of a gold helmet for the reigning Olympic champion. There are also the corporate sponsorships that dictate team names and often colors. The Basque team, Euskaltel-Euskadi, wears orange not because this is a traditional Basque color but for its orange-branded phone company sponsor.
You could overlook cheering for a telecom company, but the sponsors’ desire for visibility may well affect the race. On stage two the commentators chewed over the possible motivations of Pierre Rolland (the most promising Frenchman in a while) for attacking so soon. Was it a stab at a minor mountain and early polka dot points or a tactically pointless move made to draw attention and soothe a restless sponsor? The Tour audience loves pointless suffering, and the cameras can’t get into the peloton, so the riders at the front and the back get the most airtime. No one knows this better than Tommy Voeckler—a good rider, but not good enough to win—who’s made a name for himself as a charmingly brazen camera hog. Every tour he takes numerous foolish gambles, shooting to the front of the race with his slapdash, wasteful pedaling style. Twice in his career this has paid off big, with days in an essentially borrowed yellow jersey. Eventually he always slows down, gasps for breath, is overtaken by better and calmer riders, slides back through the peloton, and suffers operatically at the back, mugging for the motorbikes.
The Tour organization is very conscious of its scenery. Usually the route sketches something like a circle around France, with one or two leaps by plane or train (once upon a time they really did ride the whole country, with stages stretching long into the night). This year, with the start on Corsica, the route is not a route at all; instead the leap from the Pyrenees to Brittany and Normandy seems to have been calculated to put the riders in front of Mont Saint-Michel, where real medieval architecture most nearly approaches fantasy-land architectural cliché. During peaceful moments on the open roads, as peloton and breakaway peddle along without aggression, the Tour digresses, turning into an upscale virtual vacation, with helicopters diverting to show viewers the local chateau and the commentators morphing into tour guides.
Still, however many scenic backdrops it borrows, the tour owns a number of mountains. This year, for the centenary event, two of the most famous are being climbed. One is Mont Ventoux, a peak that juts up from among inconsiderable hills in Provence. Part of its appeal is its scenery—above the tree line it’s hot and dusty and bare and inevitably described as “lunar”—but the riders don’t race against the view; they race on and against the mountain’s gradient. Louison Bobet and Charly Gaul summitted first there in the 1950s; when the great Eddy Merckz crossed the line alone in 1970, en route to the yellow jersey, he is said to have muttered “it’s impossible” before collapsing and receiving oxygen. Three years earlier, the British rider Tom Simpson, running on brandy and amphetamines, had dropped dead a kilometer before reaching the summit.
The other great mountain being climbed this year is the Alpe d’Huez, first won by the midcentury legend Fausto Coppi. The Alpe’s steep gradient has since seen frenetic attacks by the rogue Pantani, a false truce between LeMond and Hinault, and Armstrong’s famous over-the-shoulder stare at a spent Jan Ullrich—but most of the recent climbs are officially tainted in hindsight. Perhaps in hopes of generating a new history, fast, the organizers have decided that the Alpe will be climbed twice on Thursday, a novel gimmick that requires a harrowing descent on the loop around.
The strangest thing about the Tour is the dynamic between the organization that sets routes like this and the riders who ride them. Each Tour is in a way a work of performance art, created by the organization. The riders have no say in what it looks like or what risk it involves; they are simply responsible for the execution. Of course the race has to be painful and there must be some danger, but the organizers decide exactly how much. Going down mountain roads at high speeds—yes, but how many? Cobblestones are popular because they are painful to ride over and cause crashes. The riders grumble and occasionally even collectively protest particularly brutal demands (usually in Italy), but in general they are famous and well paid and accept the level of risk. The vibe here is less labor versus owners than Gamesters of Triskelion versus Captain Kirk. Heroes need obstacles, and legends of the Tour apparently need baking mountainsides, slick hairpin turns, and plunging descents.