There hasn’t been genuine last-week intrigue about who would win any Tour de France since 2011, when Cadel Evans took the yellow jersey from Andy Schleck on the penultimate day of the race. Schleck gouged Evans and the rest of the field for minutes on Stage 18's summit finish atop the Col du Galibier, only for Evans (who admirably chased Schleck basically on his own for miles) to snatch the final race lead with a blistering time trial two days later. Since then, the utterly serious black jersey-clad riders of Team Sky have destroyed all comers in every single Tour de France but the 2014 race, which Vincenzo Nibali won by 7:37 after Sky’s Chris Froome crashed out in the opening stages. Cycling hasn’t seen as dominant of a team since the Lance Armstrong era.
For a while, this year seemed like it might be different.
Even if Richie Porte crashed out, Fabio Aru came to play early and Romain Bardet and Rigoberto Uran also got the better of Froome here and there. Froome entered the final week of the race nursing a slim lead, and for the first time in five years, Sky looked the slightest bit vulnerable. Organizers shook up the course, swapping out summit finishes for easier ones and cutting the amount of time trial kilometers in hopes of provoking all-out exciting racing in the mountains. It was a direct response to Sky’s dominance: if they’ve shown they’ll control every mountaintop finish, give them fewer chances to do so.
But the race never truly delivered on that promise. Uran and Bardet attacked a few times on the final two days of climbing, only to finish together and get destroyed on the final time trial to settle for podium spots. Aru faded all the way to fifth. Froome scarcely had to attack on his own, he just had to follow his teammates up hills and ball out against the clock to win his fourth Tour de France. His 54-second winning margin is the smallest of his career, yet he only lost the yellow jersey for a little bit in the middle of the race before Aru faded. That Froome didn’t win a stage this time seems somehow fitting. Froome is as machinelike as anyone in professional cycling, a deeply chaotic sport, and his infallible dominance of the Tour de France is at once impressive and unexciting.
The simplest and truest explanation for Sky’s relentless grip on the yellow jersey is a boring one. They have more money than anyone else, and can thus afford to pay riders who might otherwise lead opposing teams to come support Sky’s leaders. Chris Froome gets labeled as boring, and he is, although that has less to do with his qualities as a rider than the fact that he works on the cycling equivalent of the Death Star. As long as they have funding and a star, Team Sky will crush all challengers. It’s no coincidence that Uran and Porte are both former Sky lieutenants. When Uran was on Sky, he was in charge of helping Froome and Bradley Wiggins. Now that he is on Cannondale, he gets the freedom to take on Froome directly, but his team has to scramble to find sponsorship assurances.
Since Froome has three-peated and repeatedly crushed all comers, his race is now with history. If he wins one more Tour, he’ll enter a five-way tie with Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, and Miguel Indurain (that is, if you don’t count Lance Armstrong’s seven Tours). Winning one Tour takes skill, bravery, and, most critically, luck. Winning five is far more daunting, although Team Sky have reduced the odds against Froome as much as possible by gift-wrapping huge chunks of each of his four wins for him in a way that none of his predecessors’ teams have.
Froome will be 33 when the 2018 Tour de France kicks off. After Sky did all they could to insulate their leader from his rivals this year, his sub-one-minute margin shows that he’s not invincible even with world-class help, and even more teams will give him their best shot next year. Colombian genius Nairo Quintana will likely target the Tour in 2018, and he’ll likely be joined by contenders who opted to avoid Froome this year like Vincenzo Nibali and Thibaut Pinot. Youngters like Warren Barguil and Esteban Chaves are still aging into their primes while Froome might be aging out of his. He will be the favorite next year, but a healthy Quintana is not to be fucked with. Team Sky will still be stocked up and better than any potential rival, but all the help in the world won’t be able to save Froome is he doesn’t have the legs.
Alberto Contador stopped winning Grand Tours when he was 33, although Froome started later and doesn’t have the stain of doping on his past the way Contador does. The British paper of record has cast doubt on whether Froome can get his fifth Tour win, and they can’t be alone. The 2017 Tour de France was an exciting if ultimately fruitless race for those who wanted general classification drama, but next year’s race will not be one to miss.