Legend has it that Saint Martin was moved by a beggar suffering in the cold and he cut his cloak in half to give the poor man some protection. The ski resort of La Pierre Saint Martin might be named after the saint but the scenes last Tuesday were the diametric opposite as Chris Froome took no pity on those hoping to get a share of his golden tunic in the baking heat.
The climb to La Pierre Saint Martin looks to have been too much too soon in story-telling terms, it revealed the race’s hierarchy in the space of 40 minutes when ideally it’s supposed to take shape over four weekends. A sucker-punch to the hopes of his rivals as he dropped them all on one climb. The consensus seems to be that some riders had a bad rest day and struggled with the way the race collided with the mountain the next day. Romain Bardet said he climbed up La Pierre St Martin 6-7km/h slower in the race than he’d done in training while the likes of Vincenzo Nibali and Alberto Contador got found out quickly too. The Pyrenees came and went and the Plateau de Beille climb was shut down by a headwind across the top, so as much as the attacks flew they were reeled in too.
Nairo Quintana seems the best of the rest and should enjoy the upcoming stages in the Alps, with stage wins, the mountains jersey and perhaps more if Froome has a jours sans. Sky are rider down with Peter Kennaugh falling ill and Richie Porte has been on antibiotics. Can Froome be isolated? They’ll be using so much hand sanitizer they’ll smell like alcoholics.
Alejandro Valverde is now 30 seconds behind Tejay van Garderen for third overall and this provides and extra story to watch in the coming days especially as Valverde could take a stage win and with it the time bonus. Van Garderen says he’s been riding steady hoping that others fall by the wayside while he measures his efforts, a sensible strategy in sports science but will it inspire people to buy BMC bikes?
Alberto Contador seems to be improving but his recent attacks have had the look of a test rather than a committed move and his relative flop in the Tour is bad news for the Giro as it will scare off some big names from doing the Giro, they’ll prefer the Tour-Vuelta double, going all in for the Tour and if it flops, attempting a September salvage operation.
Vincenzo Nibali meanwhile has been attacking too but these moves seem to be based on pride rather that power and he certainly doesn’t look to be enjoying himself; a thief stole €500 and his winning sunglasses from last summer but he’s also losing his win bonuses and mislaid his legs from last summer.
Among the rest Geraint Thomas was closed to being dropped on the Col de Manse yesterday so his sixth place looks fragile, Robert Gesink continues to climb with the front group with Bauke Mollema and Warren Barguil making up the rest of the top-10, a prized result for many a rider but forgettable for the wider public.
André Greipel is the best sprinter of the race with three stages, impressive in any year but more so in this edition given the scarcity of sprint finishes, there’s only Paris left. Post stage radio phone-ins are full of calls wondering why he’s not in green but as ever the points competition is just that, a points scoring competition and Greipel has scored a lot of points along the way but someone’s got even more.
Peter Sagan started the race with the points competition rules revised against him but he’s simply upped his game with a display of consistency and showmanship. If we exclude time trials and the uphill finishes he’s been 2-3-2-3-4-2-5-4-2 and all while going in breakaways, contesting sprints and being the showman. As well as green he’s probably got the combativity prize sewn up for Paris too. He seems to be enjoying himself despite visible frustration with those second places. His problem is his versatility, take yesterday’s stage to Gap where his presence in the break meant riders attacked to escape him and once Ruben Plaza was away the others were wary of chasing because they’d be humiliated on the descent and any survivors that made it to Gap would be outsprinted. Oleg Tinkov seems happy with him and if Tinkoff Credit Cards have the basis of a marketing campaign for Russian tourists: show Sagan’s image with the slogan “accepted all over France“.
Less accepting has been the reaction to Team Sky from some. Every year they seem to walk into a public relations spat marked “TRAP” and every year we get the same circular arguments over performance data and suspicion that end up in an epistemological cul de sac, or since it happens on the first mountain stage, is it a col de sac? The stress it causes must be a performance drain on Froome. For all the spend on motorhomes et cetera the team come unprepared to deal with the media despite having been hounded in 2012 and 2013 so they’re pushed around and bounced into releasing data, by which time they’ve lost control of the story. Today they published some power data from the La Pierre St Martin climb but will it convince anyone? Most people don’t understand the numbers and so turn to a high priest of power to explain things but anyone who thought Sky were doping in the first place will just say they’re adding to the lies with false data.
Froome said he had a cup of urine thrown at him and some were saying this was because of an inflammatory climate whipped up by sections of the media casting doubts over Froome’s performance. But we don’t know because the moron in the crowd hasn’t been identified and could simply be a cretin who’d spent too long drinking beer waiting for the race rather than being stirred into action by claims of W/kg, RPM or VAM. The irony is that blaming the the media for urine-thrower is an assumption and a short cut and that’s the same leap as those saying estimated power outputs and high cadence mean dopage. There’s a curious Sky-centric aspect to all of this. A British newspaper found out Team Sky employs someone who’d worked for US Postal in 1999 and tried make hay out of this. Meanwhile nobody frets about Katusha employing a convicted criminal as their chief doctor, that Astana is run by Alexander Vinokourov or that BMC Racing employ a soigneur named in sworn statements, all facts out in the open. Let’s stress the past does not mean these teams are up to no good today, simply it illustrates Sky get the grilling that others don’t.
The Tour de France is first and foremost a bike race even if there’s a danger of forgetting this at times so let’s return to the sport.
“In the Alps you are either an eagle or a cretin”
– Victor Hugo
The race sits at the foot of the Alps now and a series of challenging stages await:
- Wednesday sees the giant Col d’Allos with its dangerous descent
- Thursday looks like the least strategic stage because the mighty Col du Glandon sits 40km from the finish but the climb is so long that it will still stir things up
- Friday has so much climbing they’ve had to send the race up and down the Maurienne valley just to add some flat roads and features the Glandon – Croix-de-Fer – Mollard – La Toussuire. The final climb is an under-rated summit finish, long and irregular
- Saturday has the Alpe d’Huez summit finish
Alone any of these stages are hard, collectively they’re massive and mean that once the race reaches Alpe d’Huez whoever is wearing the yellow jersey will have been tested to the max on every terrain possible.
With the finish in Paris almost certain to end in a sprint finish it means a lot of teams are under pressure to deliver. Yesterday saw two races for the price of one with a breakaway contesting the stage win and top-10 overall trading attacks and we should see this repeat as desperate teams try to get that precious stage win.
MTN-Qhubeka have been the underdog success story with plenty of publicity for Daniel Teklehaimanot’s first week polka dot points grab and continued with Stephen Cummings’ stage win. It’s been a race with few opportunities for the underdogs, Alexis Vuillermoz got his stage win and Ruben Plaza reminded us that Lampre-Merida exist but otherwise the race around France resembles a Monopoly board with Team Sky, Katusha, BMC Racing and Etixx-Quickstep dominating, the only megabucks team losing out is Astana.
Finally the race goes into the Alps with the mountains jersey almost forgotten about. This is supposed to be the 40th anniversary of the jersey but there’s been little to celebrate so far… there are 18 categorised climbs to come between now and Saturday so the contest might come alive.