The 104th edition of the Tour de France, the most prestigious road race in cycling, witnessed a third consecutive yellow jersey for the unstoppable Chris Froome and Team Sky, and a successful Tour debut from an ambitious new team in the peloton. Sam Price reports
Chris Froome wasn’t the only cyclist to make history during a memorable 2017 edition of the Tour de France.
As the imperious Team Sky leader cruised into Paris to secure a third straight yellow jersey, becoming just the fifth rider – alongside Tour immortals Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain – to win the race four times, UAE Team Emirates completed a hugely promising first participation in the gruelling three-week event.
Lead rider Louis Meitjes finished a creditable eighth in the general classification (GC), while impressive podium finishes on stages 15 and 18 respectively suggested that the ambitious young team – founded by former Giro d’Italia champion Beppe Saronni – is here to stay, and that an even greater assault on the 2018 Tour will be mounted.
It was Saronni’s fellow Italian Diego Ulissi who secured the team’s landmark first podium result, playing his part in a breakaway on stage 15 before out-sprinting three other riders on the run into Le-Puy-en-Valey to snatch second behind Bauke Mollema. But it was Colombian climber Darwin Atapuma who served up the most exciting moment of Le Tour for UAE Team Emirates, in the formidable setting of the French Alps.
Just a day after an aggressive ride up the iconic Col du Galibier, Atapuma attacked again approaching the first-ever summit finish on the Col d’Izoard, and stage 18 victory beckoned with 2km to go as the 29-year-old plotted a lung-bursting solo route to the top.
However, Atapuma was swallowed up in the closing stages by France’s irrepressible, polka dot-clad ‘King of the Mountains’ Warren Barguil, and had to settle for a second-place finish and the red bib, given to the stage’s most aggressive rider.
Elsewhere, after Rigoberto Uran and Romain Bardet joined Froome on the podium in Paris, Team Sunweb’s Michael Matthews became the first Australian to win the green jersey – awarded to the sprinter who earns the most stage points – aided by the stage 4 crash that left Mark Cavendish injured and Peter Sagan disqualified, and by the abandonment of reigning Dubai Tour champion Marcel Kittel on stage 17.
Kittel had built upon his exploits in the emirate to take an outstanding five stage victories over the first two weeks, but was one of a number of big names – with Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte also among them – to crash out of contention during a dramatic race.
Meitjes, however, kept out of trouble, riding an assured race to finish eighth overall as UAE Team Emirates’ team leader, and runner-up behind Simon Yates in the competition for the white jersey, awarded to the best young rider.
“I think it was a good Tour, we came here with the goal of a solid performance in the GC and we tried our best,” said the 25-year-old South African after the race.
“It was a good few weeks with lots of great memories. Now, we will have a week of rest in order to recover and refocus for the remainder of the season.”
After that well-earned recuperation, UAE Team Emirates will soon take aim at the Vuelta a España, which commences on 19 August and is the last of the season’s three Grand Tours.
And following the performances of Meitjes, Atapuma and company in France, a stage victory seems very much within the team’s grasp, as it continues in its aim to promote the UAE as a top-level cycling hub by competing for points in the sport’s biggest races.