Blazin' Saddles

Tour de France 2014: The Blazin’ Saddles Awards

Blazin' Saddles

Now the dust has settled on Vincenzo Nibali's emphatic victory it's time to look back at the best - and worst - performances of the 101st Tour de France.

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Best rider: It's impossible to look beyond Astana's Nibali, the Italian national champion, who wore the yellow jersey for 18 out of 21 stages, winning on four of those days while building up a cushion of almost eight minutes come Paris. Making his competitive debut on the cobbles of northern France, it was here that Nibali took his most significant chunks of time from his rivals - and even before pre-race favourites Chris Froome and Alberto Contador crashed out, the 29-year-old looked very much a champion in waiting.

Favourite stage: Stage 5 to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut had it all - hideous weather, the defending champion crashing out, a wonderful solo win from Belkin's Lars Boom and an emphatic display by Astana and their leader, Nibali. It says a lot that the stage billed as a mini Paris-Roubaix far outshone any Paris-Roubaix in recent years - even when three of the ten cobbles sections were cancelled owing to poor weather. We'll be watching re-runs of this one for the years to come, lapping up the thrills and frequent spills for quite some time.

Worst stage: In stark contrast to what was seen as the grandest Grand Depart of them all in Yorkshire, the Tour's curtain call in Paris was a damp squib. Last year's innovative decision to incorporate the Arc de Triomphe and roll at nighttime was rewarded with a victory from Marcel Kittel to end Mark Cavendish's dominance in Paris - but this year the final stage was stale, boring and far too processional. A time trial to the Champs-Élysées would always struggle to live up to the drama of 1989: perhaps it's time for the Tour to follow the Giro's lead and finish outside the host nation's capital city?

Biggest flop: Taken in the context of their entire wretched season, Team Sky's performance in France was perhaps no surprise - but few would have predicted such a huge fall from grace. Froome's withdrawal showed up the lack of strength in depth in the British-based team - and where Tinkoff-Saxo and Omega Pharma-Quick Step recovered from their own set-backs, Sky were unable to turn things around. Richie Porte ongoing troubles with illness and form highlighted the bizarre (albeit understandable) decision to omit both Bradley Wiggins and Tour of Austria winner Peter Kennaugh; Geraint Thomas, Vasil Kiryienka and Mike Nieve tried to salvage stage wins but never looked convincing. A lot now rides on the Vuelta if Sky are to avoid their most unsuccessful season to date.

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Biggest disappointment: Besides Sky and a Plan B of Porte that reeked of desperation, it was a disappointing race for Lampre pair Chris Horner and Rui Costa, and the latest in a long string of setbacks for Spain's Joaquim Rodriguez, who has been a shadow of himself since losing out on the rainbow jersey to Costa last September. Using the Tour as training, Rodriguez had a golden opportunity to win stages and the polka dot jersey, but failed on all counts - reduced to a man pedalling squares and swinging his arm in protest as Rafal Majka slingshot himself up the hill thanks to a moto antenna. But perhaps the most disappointing performance came from Fabian Cancellara, who could only muster fifth on the cobbles and then withdrew half way through the race because of fatigue. Given the way he was riding, this rather conveniently saved the Swiss time trial specialist from being humbled by the imperious Tony Martin in the ITT to Perigueux.

Best tactics: Ag2R-La Mondiale showed that you can have two riders from the same nationality riding for GC without having splits or tension. Putting all their eggs neither in the Peraud or Bardet camp, the team stayed united (despite suggestions to the contrary by Europcar's Pierre Rolland) and would have finished with two men in the top five had Bardet (like Peraud) not picked up an untimely puncture in the final ITT.

Biggest relief: Arnaud Demare (FDJ), who was twice saved by a campervan toilet during one fiery day in the Pyrenees.

Worse illness: Sun-struck Spaniard Dani Navarro (Cofidis) was slaloming across the road like a drunk man on a bicycle on stage 13 to Chamrousse, before coming to a stop and apparently vomiting through the window of his team car. To make matters worse, it was his birthday...

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Biggest drama: Alberto Contador's withdrawal after breaking his femur in a high-speed spill before riding on for 20-odd kilometres was far more dramatic than Chris Froome's series of crashes, which reduced the defending champion to a pathetic figure in the sodden roads of northern France. That Froome continued riding with two broken wrists is a credit to his determination and bravery, but last year's winner looked a mere mortal as he called it a day. Contador's crash, not being caught by the cameras, was elevated to mythical status by dint of the drip-feed of reports coming through from his rivals: suggesting, for the most part, downhill recklessness on the part of the Spaniard. Pale and bloodied, Contador battled on before poignantly thanking Mick Rogers and clambering off his bike in the mist.

Most daring move: Tony Gallopin had clearly done his preparations when he launched an attack on the uncategorised climb ahead of the descent to Oyonnax. That he was caught by a select group - including Peter Sagan - before he attacked again with 3km to spare was a sign that Gallopin had was still riding on cloud nine after his Bastille Day stint in yellow. Where many would have given up, Gallopin held on for the victory.

Unluckiest rider: Jack Bauer (Garmin-Sharp) almost succeeded where Gallopin had - but his failure in Nimes was all the more galling given the previous (and largely rain-soaked) 220km he had spent out in front with Martin Elmiger (IAM). Bauer came within a whisker of becoming New Zealand's first ever Tour stage winner; days later, he classily played a large roll in launching team-mate Ramunas Navardauskas towards victory in Bergerac - a first for Lithuania, and some tonic for Jonathan Vaughters' team after a Tour of many setbacks.

Most gutsy ride: One of those setbacks involved the withdrawal of Criterium du Dauphine winner Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) following a series of nasty crashes. Before the American called it quits, however, he provided one of the most memorable subplots of the entire race when he battled the broom wagon for the last 80km of Saint-Etienne, finishing the stage more than 32 minutes down after refusing the solace of his team car.

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Best innovator: Clearly put out by the race organisers' decision to only have one individual time trial, Tony Martin simply created his own extra ITT, dropping fellow escapee Alessandro de Marchi (Cannondale) with 59km remaining before soloing to victory in stage nine to Mulhouse.

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Worst crash: It was a Tour of numerous brutal knocks - and none more so than Talansky's high-speed shoulder 'n side spill on the bunch finish at Nancy, primarily because the American was the only rider to go down in the melee. It also came at a critical moment of the stage as the dramatic backdrop of the hectic sprint finale (and another pile-up behind) played out around Talansky's sprawling body. His insistence on confronting Simon Gerrans - whom he viewed culpable - afterwards ensured the crash made the headlines the next day.

Biggest gripe: It's high time the cult of the "selfie" came to an end - and not just in cycling races, a sport hardly conducive to narcissistic youths standing with their back to the action in a bid to capture something worth LOL'ing about online.

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Best fans: The people of Yorkshire (when they weren't taking selfies) who came out in their millions - and especially so on the first climb of the entire race, the Cote de Buttertubs. Here, scenes usually witnessed on the legendary Alpe d'Huez played out on a lush rolling hill in the Yorkshire Dales as the famous dry stone walls quite marvellously stayed dry. What scenes.

Best nation: While Germany broke their record with seven wins, four of those wins came from Marcel Kittel and two from Tony Martin, so the jam was hardly spread evenly. The host nation, however, enjoyed their best Tour since the days of Christophe Moreau and Richard Virenque battling an asterisk for a place on the podium or in polka dots. Stage wins for Blel Kadri and Tony Gallopin only tell part of the story: separate Gallopin heroics also secured a rare yellow jersey for France on Bastille Day, while not since the days of Hinault and Fignon have we seen two Frenchman (in Pinot and Peraud) adorn the podium in Paris. With Romain Bardet just missing out on a top five, it was a year to savour for the French - so much so that Thomas Voeckler's usually revered gung-ho breaks became something of an anachronism.

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Most untrustworthy hand: Prince William's: all of the five riders who shook the Duke of Cambridge's hand at Harewood House before the official start of the opening stage failed to reach Paris (Cavendish, Contador, Froome, Andy Schleck, Costa).

Best hands-free advocate: Ramunas Navardauskas, who swatted a series of not-so-smart phones from the hands of fans on the Holme Moss climb in Yorkshire - although Vincenzo Nibali gave the Lithuanian crusader a run for his money by inadvertently shoulder barging the phone from an oblivious bikini-clad fan on the Hautacam.

Most unlikely sprinter: That man Navardauskas, again, who book-ended his Tour with two surprise third places in bunch sprints.

Intermediate sprint king: Bryan Coquard, who delighted in sweeping up these points to the bizarre extent that the spunky Frenchman finished ahead of quadruple stage winner Marcel Kittel in the green jersey standings.

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Best climber: Rafal Majka's brace of stage wins meant for a second year running - after Nairo Quintana - the best climber of the race actually rode into Paris in polka dots (in the Pole's case, unfortunately a few too many polka dots than strictly necessary). Despite being reluctant to join the Tinkoff-Saxo squad after a gruelling Giro, the 24-year-old's outlook changed after he followed up his second-place at Chamrousse with victory in Risoul then, a few days later, a second win at Pla d'Adet. Go easy on the winking, though, eh, Rafa?

Most loyal lieutenant: Jakob Fuglsang was immense in his role of Nibali's right-hand man at Astana - guiding the yellow jersey over the cobbles in stage five before setting a fast tempo in the mountains. When he crashed heavily on a descent in the Alps he admitted he would have withdrawn from the race had he not felt there was still a job to be done for Nibali. It wasn't until the Dane rode into Paris that the bandages finally came of his left arm and leg.

Best domestique: In between picking up fans' cameras to make an impromptu film and being (allegedly) abused by one Swiss rider in a way more befitting of Luis Suarez, Kevin Reza had a mighty impressive second Tour for Europcar. Whether pacing Thomas Voeckler or Cyril Gautier in the mountains or leading out Bryan Coquard in the sprints, Reza was an ever-present figure on the race and certainly earned his stripes this July.

Worst water carrier: Belgium's Jurgen van den Broeck, whose deliberately discarded water bottle was the cause of Fuglsang's downhill tumble en route to Chamrousse.

Stale champagne award (for the rider losing his bubbles): It's Lotto-Belisol's van den Broeck again, after he fizzed out of the top ten in the stage to Risoul. With so many of the big guns out, the Belgian had a chance to stake his claim only to see his form taper off alarmingly in the final week. Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) also struggled to build on a strong start.

Revelation: Despite a bad fall alongside Talansky in stage eight to Gerardmer, Konig followed up his ninth place on the 2013 Vuelta with seventh place in his debut Tour. The Czech also came close to repeating his maiden Grand Tour win in Spain with third place at Chamrousse, just 11 seconds down on the winner, Nibali.

Must do better: It feels a bit awry to label someone who finished in the top ten for 11 of the 21 stages under-performing, but there can be no denying that Peter Sagan probably should have picked up a win at some point during a race in which he seemed to run out of ways of losing stages. Whether he attacked too early or too late, or was afforded no help from his team or his rivals, Sagan run the gamut of botched attempts with a string of second, third and fourth-place finishes. In the end his apparent self-sabotaging hit novel levels when the peloton's best bike-handler someone contrived to crash on the outskirts of Bergerac, leading to Sagan making a contrite apology to all those affected by the crash. Perhaps a change of air and a new challenge at Tinkoff-Saxo will do the 24-year-old some good.

Unsung hero: Brought into Giant-Shimano's team at the last minute, Cheng Ji - China's first ever Tour rider - performed his role as 'The Breakaway Hunter' with aplomb. In fact, the 27-year-old with a penchant for cooking 'Coca-Cola Chicken' buried himself so much on the front of the peloton that his highest finish in the entire three weeks was 145th at Bagneres-de-Luchon. It's no surprise, then, that fans were treated to a Chinese lanterne rouge: thanks to a crash on the Champs Elysees, Ji was lapped by the field in Paris and eventually came home more than six minutes down on Nibali - having spent pretty much an entire extra stage in the saddle than his yellow jerseyed colleague. Chapeau Cheng!

Any standout performances missed out? Then have your say below...

Felix Lowe - Twitter: @saddleblaze

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