First, Last & Everything in Between at the 2014 Tour de France
Vincenzo Nibali may have won the Tour de France at approximately 7:14 p.m. local time on Sunday, July 28, in Paris, but the race didn’t end the moment he crossed the finish line. Still out on course, seemingly as ever, was Ji Cheng, the lantern rouge, or last place finisher, of this year’s Tour. Only when Cheng—delayed by a crash on the stage’s second lap of the Champs-Élysées—rolled in nine minutes and one second after Nibali did the 101st edition of cycling’s biggest event finally come to a close. Cheng and his fellow riders combined for several notable achievements:
- The 6:02:24 time gap between Nibali and Cheng was the largest gap between first and last since 1955, when the Tour was still contested by national teams and Great Britain’s Tony Hoar finished 6:06:01 behind Louison Bobet. Even the final day was difficult for Cheng, who fell in Peruad’s crash and was lapped by the pack before finally finishing the stage nearly five minutes behind the next rider on the road. In all, six riders including Cheng, finished five or more hours behind Nibali. (William Bonnet, at 4:59:57, was nearly a seventh.) It was the most in a single Tour since 1947, when only six riders finished within an hour of the victorious Jean Robic.
- Though he finished last overall, Cheng spent a lot of time at the front of the race chasing down escaped riders, living up to his nickname as the “Breakaway Killer.” Cheng’s valiant riding, especially in the face of an undisclosed knee injury that hampered him in the high mountains, evoked memories of the performance of Frenchman Jacky Durand in the 1999 Tour. Riding for the Lotto squad, the Frenchman became the first and only rider, to date, to win the combativity award as the Tour’s most aggressive rider and finish last overall in the race. Like Cheng, Durand was held back in part by an unfortunate crash—one in which he tragicomically crashed into the back of his own team car, then was nearly run over by a rival team car before finally riding off.
- Nibali’s winning margin of 7:37 over Jean-Christophe Peraud was the largest gap between first and second since Jan Ullrich finished over nine minutes ahead of Richard Virenque in 1997. (Lance Armstrong beat Alex Zulle by 7:37 in 1999, but the result has since been annulled due to Armstrong’s admissions of doping). Nibali’s win was also the biggest by an Italian rider since 1952, when the legendary Fausto Coppi mounted the final podium with 28:17 in hand over Stan Ockers.
- On the pack’s second lap of the Champs-Élysées, Jens Voigt of Trek launched a temporarily successful break off the front, where he was quickly joined by fellow 42-year-old Chris Horner, among others. This was the second Tour in the history of the event in which two men aged 42 or older completed the race, and the first since 1926, when Giovanni Rossignoli (43) and Paul Duboc (42) finished 21st and 27th, respectively. This was also the record-tying 17th and final appearance in the Tour for Voigt, who has started the race every year since 1998 and finished 14 times. “My way to say goodbye to the Tour de France,” said Voigt of his ill-fated escape. “My heart belongs to this race.”
- Five riders won multiple stages in this year’s Tour: Nibali (4), Marcel Kittel (4), Tony Martin (2), Rafal Majka (2), and Alexander Kristoff (2). This was the fourth Tour in five years in which at least four riders won multiple stages.
- Nibali led the race after all but two stages (1 and 9), and in doing so spent the most days in the yellow jersey in a single Tour of any rider since Eddy Merckx won the second of his five Tours in 1970 (when the riders rode 24 stages, several of them split into multiple parts, instead of today’s standardized 21).
All statistical oddities and unusual happenings aside, make no mistake: this was Nibali’s Tour from start to finish. The Italian rode brilliantly on every terrain and in every discipline and took time out of his rivals at virtually every opportunity. It was a virtuoso performance from Nibali—except, of course, for that time when a podium hostess refused him a traditional kiss on the cheek. Hey, nobody’s perfect, right?