A parallel universe - "cycling is in great health"
A quick thought on the general state of cycling first, though. Imagine a 2013 Tour without Sky on Saturday afternoon on Ax-3-Domaines. The fastest ascent of the day would have been 24:18 by Alejandro Valverde, well over a minute slower than the best Ax-3-Domaines times of 2001. Behind him, a trail of riders with big time gaps on a short climb, including group of top Spanish climbers who lost over two minutes on the day, finishing in 25:16. These are times that would not even make the top 60 on this climb (even correcting for error in timing!).
Had that happened, we would all be feeling pretty good about the world of cycling on Sunday morning, because the times would have gone in the "right" direction. We'd say "See, the sport has changed, the stricter testing of the passport and the increased scrutiny are doing the job". We'd be particularly impressed that these "slow" performances came on the very first mountain stage, when riders should be freshest. For context, a Twitter follower (ExRoadman1) reliably informs me that when the Tour did Ax-3-Domaines in 2001 and 2003 (the fastest ascents), they'd raced 1923km and 2095km before the stages, respectively. 2013? Only 1148 km, and so it was very slow despite better circumstances for a fast time.
Yes indeed, had it not been for two riders on the day, we'd be very pleased with the 'health' of cycling! We'd be wrong to be so certain of course, in the same way that we'd be wrong to conclude that it's terrible and overrun with dopers (is it telling that Valverde would be the patron of a clean peloton, for example!)
So, it was Froome and Porte who spun us around. Porte, for his part, had a terrible Sunday, something that can be viewed in one of two ways - either he paid the cost of a supra-maximal effort, a lack of pacing suited to a stage race, and we'd be more optimistic. Or his variability is suspicious. I'd go with the former, since doping is no longer as beneficial to once-off efforts.
As for Froome, he rode well enough on Sunday, but not spectacularly fast - the estimates ranged from 5.0 to 5.2 W/kg on those climbs, and he was accompanied by 30 other riders, so you could make the case for it being a heavy day following a fast one. The point is, the efforts of two riders have raised eyebrows, specifically around one team, but should not by themselves be viewed as guilty.
So the questions will continue, as they should, because national pride and promises are not a good enough reason to believe in people given the number of lies that have preceded them. My point is this: I think most of us want a cleaner sport. Some wish to arrive there by interrogating everything, by examining every detail, by challenging every performance. They can (and do) cross a line into unfair accusation from time to time. Others want to look in a new direction, forget the past and dismiss all questions as biased, destructive, jealous, racist (yeah, I got this one the other day). Somewhere in the middle is clean cycling, and denying and diverting the questions blocks off access to that point.
The Tour now builds to its traverse of the Alps, and some incredibly difficult stages. Given the way Froome has looked, and the relative 'weakness' of his rivals, it is unlikely we will see another maximal effort in this Tour
- he can follow wheels, and gain seconds near the summit of the climbs if he wishes.
And so performance analysis becomes less and less powerful
. The rest of the Tour, based on Ax-3-Domianes, will continue to ride the HC climbs at the pVAM, and so will Froome. How much he has in reserve, we'll never know, unless someone discovers another level and shakes the Tour up. We look forward to that.