Wrapping up the Tour de France
Cycling will miss George Hincapie, who retired after riding his 17th Tour de France
As financial stakes, actual speed bumps rise, crashes in cycling are on the rise
British cyclists ruled this year's Tour, with Brits winning seven total stages
A few takeaways from the 99th Tour de France, won by Team Sky's Bradley Wiggins. Not only did he finish first in the race, but he also delivered its most memorable quote. On the subject of the intense scrutiny and pressure under which he found himself, the man known by his nation as Wiggo wisecracked:
"I remember Keith Richards saying: 'With a gram of smack you can walk through anything.'"
He was kidding.
As the peloton whooshed its way north and east toward Paris yesterday, BMC's George Hincapie was approached by a handful of Team Sky riders. The Brooklyn-born, 39-year-old was riding in his record-breaking 17th Tour de France. (Hincapie actually didn't finish his first Tour, in 1996, but it's something he doesn't regret. "I was in such pain," he recalls. "I was almost hoping I would crash. It was brutal.") When the race ended, so did his riding career; the BMC rider had announced his intention to retire after this Tour.
The Sky guys, some of them ex-teammates, told him they wanted him at the front of the bunch when it made its dramatic entrance on the Champs-Elysees. It was a gesture of respect from the peloton towards one of its most selfless, reliable and hardest-working members.
In riding 17 Tours, Hincapie logged over 59,000 kilometers, labored over 450 categorized climbs and completed 341 stages. To top it off, he was a critical member of nine winning teams. Hanging outside the team bus in Samatan before Stage 15, he was asked what he'd miss about the sport.
"The camaraderie," he replied. "The guys are kind of like a second family. To put everything on the line, to give everything you have for the betterment of the team -- that's something that's hard to mimic in other parts of your life. I'll miss that."
How did he feel about leading his peers onto the Champs on the final day of his career? Hincapie described it as "a real honor," but added, "I would have liked to have been a little more low key about it."
Because that's how he rolls.
One hundred eighty-nine riders started the Tour de France in Liege on June 30, and 153 finished. Of those survivors, according to Garmin-Sharp's Christian Vande Velde, some 75 percent were involved in at least one crash. (We assume the number was considerably higher for the drop-outs.)
I don't think race officials keep this stat, but it feels like there are more crashes now than, say, when I first started covering Tours in 1995. That could be, says Garmin team founder and manager Jonathan Vaughters, because there are more crashes.
While professional cycling isn't the NFL, there's a lot more money in the sport than even ten years ago, according to Vaughters, who says cycling used to be "more gentlemanly."
"Now, the financial stakes are much higher." And so, at certain critical junctures of the race, "you've got ten teams trying to bring their leaders to the front at the same time -- you're trying get a hundred guys into a space that fits 40."
He notes also that, as the population of France has increased, there's also been an increase in speed bumps, roundabouts and other forms of "road furniture" that sometimes trigger pileups.
The worst crash of this Tour was apparently caused not by a speed bump or bottleneck, but by Lampre sprinter Alessandro Petacchi's decision to remove his shoe covers. Near the end of Stage 6, with the peloton in full-boil in pursuit of a breakaway, Petacchi handed them to a domestique, who briefly took his hands off the bars to stuff the covers in his jersey pocket. That guy touches wheels with another rider at 45 miles per hour. Next stop: carnage. Thirteen riders ended up in the hospital. Garmin ended up losing Robbie Hunter, Tom Danielson, 2012 Giro d'Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal and former Paris-Roubaix winner Johan van Summeren, whose kit -- and epidermis -- were shredded in the crash.
Saving the Tour for the Argyle Armada was Garmin's David Millar, who escaped early in Stage 12 and raced over 200 kilometers with his fellow breakaways before outsprinting Jean-Christophe Peraud at the line. It was the Flying Scot's fifth Tour stage win, but his first since his return to the sport in 2006, following a two-year suspension for EPO use.
Since then, Millar became co-owner of Garmin-Sharp, the most overtly, militantly anti-doping team in Pro Tour. He's also become one of the peloton's most outspoken campaigners against drugs in the sport. In a poignant coincidence, his victory came on the 45th anniversary of the death of Tom Simpson, who collapsed on the upper slopes of Mont Ventoux with amphetamines in his bloodstream.
"I've won today as a clean rider, after making the same mistake that Tom made," said Millar. "I've shown where cycling has come in the last 45 years -- even the last five years."
Millar won a single stage, as did Team Sky's Chris Froome. Overall winner Bradley Wiggins took both long time trials, and Mark Cavendish snatched victory in (yawn) three sprint stages. (Froome and Cav would've contended for additional stage wins, had they not been duty-bound to work for Wiggins). British riders won seven stages in all, the most since 2009, when they won six, although that comparison is somewhat misleading considering that all six were won by Cavendish. Also, Team Sky put two men on the podium. The one-two finish of Wiggins and Froome marked the first time two riders from the same team and country have finished first and second.
That remarkable performance comes days before all five Brits take the line for this Saturday's Olympic road race. Cavendish is the favorite, just as Wiggins will be the man to beat in the Olympic Time Trial on August 1st. Having won multiple medals in the last two Olympics, Wiggins has become adept at winning a race then putting it immediately behind him, to focus on the next one. For that reason, he left Paris only a few hours after standing on the podium.
The Olympics are "a higher priority than anything else," he said, before allowing, with a touch of sadness, "It's a little weird to leave Paris without a party."
Not to worry, Brad. I've got you covered on that front.