Commentary

The race that kept everyone guessing

Updated: July 23, 2017, 10:33 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

PARIS -- It was hard to get a firm grasp on this Tour de France. The course was more of a pretzel than a loop and the outcome seemed simultaneously in doubt and inevitable. Anything could have happened, but anything didn't. Team Sky's reliably stoic Kenyan-born British leader Chris Froome took his third title in a row and fourth in five years.

Tweaking the Tour route to include fewer summit finishes wasn't enough to alter the peloton's balance of power. The time trials on the first and last weekends were short but still provided enough road for Froome to make the difference even though he did not exude dominance or win a single stage. He logs most of his miles surrounded by rolling bodyguards, yet Froome always looks most at ease when he tucks in for a little solo spin through calculated risk.

The 2017 Tour was still a dynamic, entertaining race that provided as much or more suspense in the rolling and transitional stages as it did in the so-called epic ones. Two ebullient Sunweb teammates, Michael Matthews of Australia and Warren Barguil of France, won the overall sprint and climbing specialty jerseys respectively while rooming together on the road. They moved into the void left by the big names who exited before the finish line, in scenes that ranged from the absurd to the terrifying.

Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesFour-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome called this year's race "the closest and most hard-fought battle."

Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde lost traction in the opening time trial and German sprinter Marcel Kittel tumbled out in Stage 17. Slovakian superstar Peter Sagan was ejected from the race an hour after a Stage 4 finishing-stretch entanglement that felled 30-time Tour stage winner Mark Cavendish of Great Britain.

The UCI jury's decision to boot Sagan 90 minutes after the race looks only more rash and irrational with distance. What was the hurry, really? The members might have discerned Sagan's absence of malice had they only turned to the available footage on Twitter, the medium Cavendish and Sagan used to express their mutual respect after both went home.

A few days later, Team BMC's Australian leader Richie Porte was catapulted off his bike and diagonally across the road against a stony embankment on the Mont du Chat after misjudging an inside corner. Bike racing is supposed to be hard, but the narrow descent in the Jura mountains tested the edge of reasonable -- especially since this Tour route was designed to encourage downhill attacking.

Porte, who is recovering from a broken hip and collarbone, had appeared to be the man most capable of challenging Froome and his implacable platoon of Sky teammates. But the Tour abhors a vacuum and carried on in its usual shape-shifting manner that very day.

Colombian star Rigoberto Uran -- grazed but not brought down by Porte's collision with Ireland's Dan Martin -- discovered his rear derailleur had been broken. He eschewed a fractionally time-consuming bike change and won the stage in an improbable dead-heat sprint in a single, heavy gear set by a neutral support mechanic.

EPA/FRANCK FAUGERE/POOLFroome, center, was always the man to beat -- and Rigoberto Uran, left, and Romain Bardet didn't let him too far out of their sights.

The cool that so awes Uran's Cannondale-Drapac teammates only built through the rest of the race as he relentlessly marked Froome's moves and stayed within range of becoming the Tour's first South American champion until the final Saturday. The fact that he kept himself from being collateral damage in the Porte wreck was only slightly more impressive than the graceful balancing act he pulled off every day as he accommodated swarms of Colombian media and fans.

Versatile and capable of exploiting an opening, the 30-year-old veteran was the only rider who made Froome the least bit uneasy as the days waned. Froome pulled away in Saturday's time trial in Marseille, as expected. Uran's final runner-up margin was 54 seconds -- the slimmest gap of Froome's four titles.

Yet the most enduring image from the Orange Velodrome where the time trial started and ended was not Froome's head-down, professional finish, but the post-stage portraits of the French rider he nearly caught coming into the stadium.

Romain Bardet slumped against a concrete wall, spindly limbs akimbo, eyes hollow, hair soaked, face dead white except for a flush at the tip of his nose. He had salvaged third place over Froome's Sky teammate Mikel Landa by one second after a gallant but ungainly effort against the clock.

The AG2R La Mondiale team leader looked skeletal compared to just 10 days before, when he and Uran and Italy's Fabio Aru KOed Froome on the final short, sharp ascent to Peyragudes in the Pyrenees that capped the Tour's queen stage. Aru moved into yellow, Bardet won the day and, for an instant, Froome looked beatable. He later said he'd miscalculated his caloric intake. It was a food-oriented interlude all around, as Uran was initially penalized for replenishing outside an official feed zone. This time, the jury sensibly reversed itself.

A rider is entitled to have a lot of regrets or none at all after making the Tour de France top three by a tire's width or two after 2,200 miles. Froome's rivals might like to rewind to that stage and see what happened if they'd tested him earlier, but chances are Sky would have rebuffed that.

Bryn Lennon/Getty ImagesFroome, pictured with a Sky teammate, finished just 54 seconds ahead of Uran, the smallest margin of his four wins.

At one point, there were seven riders within two minutes of the overall lead. AG2R rode aggressively to try and break other contenders when the race tightened. Two-time Tour runner-up Nairo Quintana of Colombia faded, and two-time winner Alberto Contador, contesting what he says will be his last Tour, was never a factor in the overall standings.

Like Uran, Bardet was able to answer Froome's moves. Yet all that individual and collective effort simply put him roughly two minutes closer to Froome than he was in last year's Tour, and one step further down on the podium. Sky never lost control, and Froome didn't panic when uncontrollable events like mechanical mishaps befell him.

He appeared undistracted by the controversy around Sky's past medical practices that has been the target of a Parliamentary committee investigation. He seemed unfazed by the fact that fourth-place finisher Mikel Landa of Spain, who chauffeured him through parts of the race with the bland air of a man about to give two weeks' notice, looked stronger than he did at times.

The years when Sky surfed a wave of boosterish publicity are fast receding, and Froome bluntly informed the assembled media at his winner's media conference that it didn't serve his interests to hold such gatherings on rest days.

In short, Froome has learned what he needs to do to manage the unique stress of the Tour. He'll need even more of that quality if he is to equal the five-win mark held jointly by Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain that is now the official Tour record on its recalibrated books, post-Lance Armstrong. Froome will be 33 next July and would be the oldest to enter the club.

The siege mentality required of Froome looks sapping from afar, but he treated it like a skill fully mastered and said he wanted to compete for several more years. Anything could have happened to get in his way this time. Anything lurked and dawdled and teased and never arrived. That tends to make the best riders tighten their grip.

Bonnie D. Ford

ESPN Senior Writer

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