• "The fact that there are five Frenchmen in the jury did play its part": De Gendt. (AAP)Source: AAP
There was only one true winner of the most combative rider at this year's Tour de France. Yet he never got to collect his prize, writes Anthony Tan.
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Cycling Central
25 Jul 2017 - 6:52 PM  UPDATED 25 Jul 2017 - 7:00 PM

Whether you read L'Equipe, believe the boffins on Twitter, or ask the man himself, Lotto Soudal rider Thomas De Gendt spent over 1,000 kilometres of this year's race not ensconced in the comfort of the peloton.

Over three weeks, that's 30 per cent of the entire 3,540 kilometre parcours. "I don't like the bunch," he said matter-of-factly last Friday in Salon-de-Provence.

As if we didn't already know it, Thomas!

Like the commissaires who so egregiously expelled Peter Sagan, other than Greg LeMond, perhaps there needs to be a few more former riders (and a few less Frenchmen) on the Prix de la combativité panel.

In stark contrast, overall winner Chris Froome rarely frollicked in front. The only occasion I recall that he was the first rider on the road was on the ninth leg to Chambéry, when he finished as part of a select group of six riders. Apart from that and the 36.5 kilometres of individual time trials, he was never in a position to contest a stage win. But, as the Kenyan-born Brit told the press the evening he won the final time trial in Marseille, "it has been really about the three weeks, and doing those three weeks in the most conservative and efficient manner (possible)."

Conservative and efficient. That's what wins you the Tour de France. Forget about panache.

Unless your name is Thomas De Gendt.

"I just like to race like this. I hope I get the award," De Gendt said last Friday, having just racked up another 187.5km sans dans le peloton. His latter statement was in reference to 'Le Super Combatif', also known as the most combative rider award. From a six-panel jury, each day at the Tour a rider is celebrated for their combativeness (which the Belgian won on Stage 14), with the same panel deciding on the overall winner, including a vote from the public.

"I just try to race like this in every race that I start. I like to go on the attack and try to win from the attack. If I stay in the bunch, I cannot win. That's my only goal in the race - to go on the attack and try to win."

De Gendt even got to contest the win in Salon-de-Provence, though in the end he finished fifth behind Edvald Boasson Hagen of Dimension Data. In 11 attempts it was as close as he got to a stage victory this Tour, but though he did not win, he felt he'd done enough to earn the Super Combatif prize. Later that day, when the public call was made on Twitter to vote for the most combative rider of the 104th Tour, out of the nine finalists, De Gendt received six times as many retweets and favourites as Team Sunweb's Warren Barguil, the next most popular, winner of the mountains classification.

Certainly, the maillot à pois had been aggressive and entertaining, and with two stage wins ultimately more successful than the Belgian. But the prize for most combative has never been about success; look up the definition and the dictionary will tell you being combative is about a preparedness to fight or argue, not whether one wins, loses, or draws. And over the course of those three-and-a-half weeks, it was De Gendt's willingness to attack and animate, often done in the face of failure, that set him apart.

The public, who as a collective counted as one vote, appeared to understand the concept, for on Saturday it was announced De Gendt was, unsurprisingly, the people's choice. Moments later, however, the official Twitter account let it be known that out of seven votes, the Lotto Soudal rider had only received two; Barguil 'earned' four votes and his team-mate Michael Matthews one.

"Let me be clear: Warren Barguil has ridden a fantastic Tour and I don't feel any grudge towards him. But the mountains jersey is for the best climber; a stage win is for the rider who was the strongest that day; and the green jersey is for the rider who was regularly the fastest. In my opinion, the prize for the super combativity should go to someone who showed throughout the Tour that he was there to animate the race and to go on the attack," De Gendt, in a team press release issued Sunday morning, said, following news he would not be standing on the podium in Paris, as the one with the red dossard.

"That (showing) did not result in the desired result (for me) – a stage victory – but that should not be necessary to win the super combativity award," he maintained.

"The fact that there are five Frenchmen in the jury did play its part. If there were five Belgians in the jury the outcome would have been different, which is evidence that the composition is not right. It should at least be an international jury that decides on this. I am very disappointed. I am too disappointed to go any deeper into this. I would rather go straight home, but I will do my utmost today to let the stage end in a sprint finish on the Champs-Elysées."

Compounding the team's woes, their sprinter André Greipel was unable to continue his auspicious run of a stage win in every Grand Tour he's contested since 2008, finishing second to a romping Dylan Groenewegen of Team LottoNl-Jumbo. Part of the Gorilla's roar of exasperation appeared to be for De Gendt, too.

Like the commissaires who so egregiously expelled Peter Sagan, other than Greg LeMond, perhaps there needs to be a few more former riders (and a few less Frenchmen) on the Prix de la combativité panel. That's if organisers ASO actually want the public to have faith in jury-led decisions, and not think of it as some parochial prize to substitute for the fact they haven't had a French winner of the Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985.