Mixed 2014 Tour De France for American GC Contenders, but Hope for the Future

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Mixed 2014 Tour De France for American GC Contenders, but Hope for the Future
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Garmin-Sharp's Andrew Talansky, battered and bruised after Stage 7 of the Tour de France. His injuries would contribute to his eventual abandonment, but not before one last brave feat.

The nationalities of the riders topping the general classification meant the 2014 Tour de France was a bit of a throwback.

After three years of Australian and British, if not quite dominance, then certainly prominence, the top three was made up of names from two of cycling's traditional powers. The Italian winner Vincenzo Nibali, and French runners-up, Jean-Christophe Peraud and Thibaut Pinot.

Jerome Prevost/Associated Press/Associated Press
The 2014 Tour de France podium was made up of men from a couple of cycling's "old-world" nations, France and Italy. The latter being the home to overall victor Vincenzo Nibali of Astana.

Had former winners and pre-race favourites, Britian's Chris Froome and Spain's Alberto Contador, not crashed out, it might have been a different story.

Nonetheless, it was a refreshing change of pace that will only enliven the battle for the yellow jersey next year.

The Tour's American presence this year was not defined by podium places, jerseys worn or stages won. It was one mostly beyond the headlines, marked fascinatingly by the past, present and future.

The past was there in the looming shadow of asterisk Tour winners Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis and the still raw fallout of cycling's doping shame of the last 20 years.

More happily, it was also evident in the amiable and informative figure of Greg LeMond—the three-time victor of the Tour who was working as an analyst for Eurosport.

Pierre Gleizes/Associated Press
Greg LeMond is congratulated by Bernard Hinault after winning an acrimonious 1986 Tour de France in which he had to fight off the Frenchman. LeMond is still the only American officially recognised to have won the Tour.

For the nine Americans taking part in this year's edition—particularly the three to be discussed in this article with aspirations or Grand Tour previous in the GC—LeMond is a welcome reminder of what they can achieve clean. The challenge was, and is, finding a way to succeed doing so.

Garmin-Sharp's Andrew Talansky was considered the most likely to deliver this year.

His final stage upset of Contador to win the Criterium du Dauphine in June was a tremendous victory in its own right—"It’s moments like this that make everything worth it," he told VeloNews—but also one which suggested he might be capable of improving on 2013's 10th-place Tour de France finish.

Like Contador, Froome and sprinter Mark Cavendish (among others), Talansky would not reach the Champs-Elysees. Illness, injury and the accompanying indignation saw him climb off his bike midway through Stage 11 to Oyonnax.

But then he got back on it.

The highlights of Talansky's efforts to complete that day's racing, or at least Juliet Macur's riveting account of it (above) in The New York Times, need to be watched/read accompanied by Bill Conti's piece from the Rocky soundtrack, "The Final Bell."

Laurent Cipriani/Associated Press/Associated Press
Alone but for the Garmin support car and spectators, Talansky is urged on during his attempts to complete Stage 11.

Warnings of regret from his directeur sportif, support from fans and peers, teeth-gritted resolve to cross the line—Talansky may have retired from the race the next day, but he did so after showing his mettle in determined fashion.

It was not a unique effort in cycling, but a captivating one all the same. "Maybe people won’t understand it, but I didn’t do it for a reward," he told Macur.

A commendable, stirring single day's work, proof he possesses the heart of a champion, or both? Opinions aside, real answers will not be forthcoming for a good while yet. In the meantime, Talansky will be back competing before the summer is out.

Tejay van Garderen's Tour de France was not so dramatically defined by a single moment.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
The 2013 Tour de France was a disappointing experience for BMC's Tejay van Garderen. Christophe Riblon (right) pipped him to a race-salvaging win on L'Alpe d'Huez.

The BMC rider, who like Talansky is 25 years old, rode to an encouraging fifth place on the GC. It matched his previous best finish of 2012, when he also left Paris wearing the white jersey of the young riders' classification.

Progress, it might not have been, but after a confidence-shaking 2013 tilt at the Tour, it has at least got the Tacoma man back on the right route.

Compared to the dramatic loss of time on the decisive days (save for his so-near-yet-so-far crack at L'Alpe d'Huez on Stage 18) that led to him finishing 45th, 1:38:57 behind first-place Froome, van Garderen did fine work keeping pace with those competing for a top-10 place in 2014.

He was aided by a good shift by his BMC team-mates, excluding the rampant Nibali, whose nearest challenger Peraud was 07:37 behind.

Van Garderen still has work to do if he is to bridge the gap to the pinnacle of his sport, something he acknowledged with reference to the difficulty of this year's race.

"We're finishing in Paris with a top-five result. For me and my team, that's a damn fine accomplishment," van Garderen also told USA Today's Torin Koos.

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
Van Garderen declared the 2014 Tour his toughest yet, but he had reason to be pleased with his fifth-place finish.

He has every right to be pleased with finishing it, though, let alone as high in the standings as he did. As Talansky showed, it is not so easy.

Finishing a respectable 17th, Chris Horner was not in France to compete for overall accolades. He was there to gain fitness and support his Lampre-Merida team-mate Rui Costa before the current world champion became another high-profile abandonment.

Horner's schedule only diverted him to the Tour after the 42-year-old's plans to build on his record-breaking Vuelta a Espana success last year were disrupted. That is putting it lightly: He suffered severe injuries after being hit by a car whilst training for the Giro d'Italia.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Chris Horner had some tough days in France but believes it will serve him well as he looks to win the Vuelta a Espana for a second year in a row.

For a fleeting moment in France, the prospect of a little glory crossed his mind. On Stage 18, he attacked up the Hautacam, only for Nibali—who likely had not forgotten the elder American pipping him to the Vuelta in 2013—to comprehensively snuff it out.

If the 2014 Tour was a novelty for the much-travelled Horner, he hopes it will be a useful one. Speaking to Cyclingnews' Daniel Benson last week, he said: "I go to the Vuelta for the win. That's for sure. Once you've won before, that’s all you want. It’s a race that’s designed for my type of riding."

Horner will likely face off against a hungry Froome-led Sky and 2014 Giro d'Italia winner Nairo Quintana in Spain. He would do well to conclude the three weeks in Spain once again wearing winner's red.

The Tour de France was a mixed experience for American cycling's current GC hopefuls, but one which they could take positives from. Until the next attempt at the maillot jaune presents itself for one or more of them, there is plenty to keep them occupied.

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