Comment: Rule Britannia at the 'Tour d’Anglais'
Phenomenal British success at cycling's greatest race shows no signs of slowing
Team Sky’s founding principle was to win the Tour de France, with a British rider, within five years. No shortage of observers quaffed at Dave Brailsford's ambition but, now seven years down the line, Chris Froome’s 2016 Tour de France triumph was the fourth British win - and Froome's third - in that time.
And when you consider fellow Brit Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) was crowned best young rider - the first for a Briton - and seven of the 21 stages of this year’s Tour were won by British riders, it is little surprise some nicknamed this the 'Tour d’Anglais'.
Cavendish was the only one of the eight British riders on the start line not to finish the race – the Manxman leaving the race before the Alps to complete his preparations for the Rio 2016 omnium – and all eight put their own mark on the race.
Froome, a double stage winner himself alongside winning his third overall title, was backed by three Brits, in the form of Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe at Team Sky.
Tour de France 2016: British stage wins
Stage one – Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data)
Stage three – Cavendish
Stage six – Cavendish
Stage seven – Steve Cummings (Dimension Data)
Stage eight – Chris Froome (Team Sky)
Stage 14 – Cavendish
Stage 18 – Froome
Indeed, it was Thomas’ bike on which Froome finished stage 19 after his crash on the descent of the Montee de Bisanne.
The Welshman did not mount his own GC challenge this time out, but still managed to finish 15th overall despite riding solely in the serve of Froome - equaling his career-best result of 2015.
Away from Team Sky, Cavendish and Steve Cummings were responsible for all five of Dimension Data’s stage wins – no team managed more – with the former rising to second in the all-time list of stage winners behind only the great Eddy Merckx.
Cavendish's victory on stage six, in a straight drag race with fierce rival Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep), was proof the Manx Missile has lost none of the phenomenal ability which has established him as the Tour's greatest ever sprinter.
Cummings, meanwhile, escaped to victory on stage seven of this year’s race to repeat his stage win of 2015. The Merseysider has since forced his way into the Team GB squad for Rio 2016 after initially being overlooked.
Yates’ white jersey, and fourth place overall, point to a very bright future – and all done without any pressure from his team initially to go for the GC.
His attack on stage seven may have been curtailed by the freak collapse of the flamme rouge but it was a sign Yates could compete with the very best - and was willing to attack them.
General classification results
1) Chris Froome (Team Sky)
4) Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExhange) +4.42
15) Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) +28.31
Yates followed that with a string of impressive performances in the mountains, not least riding away from Nairo Quintana – supposedly the most natural climber of all the GC men – on Finhaut-Emosson.
Meanwhile, Dan McLay, on his Tour de France debut with Fortuneo-Vital Concept, proved he could mix it with the big-name sprinters.
McLay's third place behind Cavendish and Marcel Kittel on stage six was surely a sign of things to come for the 24-year-old. While fellow young sprinters Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie) were bragging about their sprinting prowess, without backing it up with stage wins, McLay was quietly getting decent results and putting himself in the shop window with four top-ten finishes.
And when the chips were down, McLay proved his Tour quality in the mountains, too. While the likes of Froome, Yates and Cummings were starring at the front of the race, McLay dug deep to finish inside the time cut and make it to Paris.
McLay was the last rider home on Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc, but did so just in time as he went on to become just the 38th different British rider to finish the Tour de France.
But of all the Brits it was Froome, of course, who impressed most – his victory just as impressive as his two previous wins but delivered in a very different manner.
Daredevil descending and sprinting from an opportunist four-man breakaway are not qualities we expected to see from Froome, but it was by doing exactly that – making the race, and not waiting for something to happen – he put his rivals on the back foot.
Froome is 31, and while he says he has not set a finite target of Tour de France wins in his career, he must surely be targeting Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain’s joint-record mark of five apiece.
Indeed, British success at the Tour shows no sign of slowing. Yates was already a prodigious talent for British cycle sport, and has now proved he can mix it with the GC men across a three-week Grand Tour. Things will only get better.
Cavendish is already assured of his place in Tour de France – and cycling – legend, but reminded us all never to write him off and will be back again next year targeting Merckx's record of 34 stage wins, and McLay will surely be looking for a move to a WorldTour team and the opportunity to challenge Cavendish's as not only Britain's, but one of the world's top sprinters.
Cummings’ attacks from the breakaway are as exciting to watch as ever, and his decision to move to Dimension Data has reignited his career just as it entered its twilight.
And Team Sky’s control of the race owes much to the sum of its parts, with Stannard and Rowe – who will get their individual chances in the Classics – and Thomas integral cogs in the wheel.
The Tour de France has become synonymous with British success in recent years, and this Tour may well go down as one of the best of the lot.