The race hasn’t reached the Pyrenees or the Alps yet and already it’s had several decisive phases and the list of contenders has been thinned down. Yesterday’s stage was especially full of action and drama. Here’s a look back at recent events as well as a look ahead.
Düsseldorf came and went, the rain dampened spirits but race took a cold shower when Ion Izaguirre and Alejandro Valverde crashed out. It all seems a long time ago but it’s relevant today because the time gaps established in Germany are ever-present. Froome is in yellow in large part thanks to the buffer he established over Fabio Aru and Romain Bardet. Here’s the chart showing how the first eight overall have fared:
The chart shows time gaps between Froome, Aru, Bardet and Uran have hardly changed since the time trial while others such as Dan Martin, Simon Yates only moved on Stage 9. The story of the race though is also about who is not the chart as others have crashed out or collapsed before the race has entered the Alps or Pyrenees although the Jura showed that its best mountains are the match of anything.
Back to the flat and Marcel Kittel has been the sprint star. With hindsight or should that be Rücksicht perhaps the grand départ would have been better served by a sprint finish to delight the home crowds? Hard to predict ahead of events though. To watch a sprint is to focus on other riders until suddenly a blue hulk bursts into view for the final seconds. He’s not just good he’s lucky winning in Nuits Saint Georges by six millimetres, the width of a grape skin while Edvald Boasson Hagen will may enjoy retirement one day but may always wince when opening wine menus if they feature some Nuits-Saint-Georges.
The only sprint he couldn’t contest went to Arnaud Démare who has gone up a level in his sprints only he’s also gone home too. He spent two days chasing in the Jura to make the time cut, the first day surely making things worse. Yesterday he took three team mates with him and given he was dropped like a stone within sight of the KM0 banner it would have been more economical for him to bail leaving his helpers to cruise the gruppetto. But it’s said Jacopo Guarnieri was ill too and since they’re wagons in a sprint train they’d be lost without him and FDJ will enjoy the “one for all, all for one” tale of solidarité. There’s still a thesis to be written on French attitudes to loss in sport and the notion that lose valiantly or even extravagantly is better than just climbing into the team car.
Démare’s win was noticed but the big story that day was Peter Sagan’s exclusion from the race after the UCI commissaires decided to disqualify him the day after he won a stage. Initially the results showed with relegated to last in the group and docked points for the green jersey competition and on review even this seems harsh. Disqualification? It is possible under the rules but only when a rider “seriously” endangers others. It looks like the UCI commissaires acted in haste with the video images but there’s still no official explanation of what the dangerous incident was and the ruling behind it. Cycling has a referee problem, there are bound to be grey areas given the sport happens outdoors rather than in controlled arenas but there’s an issue with quality (loyal readers will remember the team time trial fiasco from the Tour of Catalonia) and a communication concern. One lesson to draw is that the jury is more likely to intervene if there’s a crash, that the rules apply more in the event of a fall than, say, a tangle.
The Planche des Belles Filles was the first summit finish and rich in information to extrapolate. Fabio Aru simply rode away and this time there was no polemic, he was simply the fastest. Now he sits 18 seconds behind Froome. The climb also reduced the list of contenders down to Richie Porte, Dan Martin, Romain Bardet, Simon Yates and Rigoberto Uran, a narrow selection by just stage 5.
We had more sprint stages where it paid not to tune in for the live coverage. By all means enjoy the landscape but remember a stage promised to the sprinters generally means flatter landscapes. Bad TV? Probably but remember it’ll still score more than a repeat of Kommissar Rex both in terms of audience numbers and demographic targets so it literally pays to fill the airtime with nothing happening.
Low ratings? Not on Saturday when Lilian Calmejane’s stage win attracted a big audience in France and probably beyond. His win was deserved, he got in the big breakaway with help from team mates and then dropped everyone à la pédale on the Lacets de Septmoncel, a Pro Conti rider dispatching proven World Tour members like Warren Barguil, Nicolas Roche and Robert Gesink. It was a triumph for Direct Energie, first to silence the polemic over Bryan Coquard’s exclusion. As one rider put it the team “reverted to to their DNA as attackers”. Next it gave the team a huge publicity boost, the very reason Direct Energie sponsors the team. It’s a triumph for Jean-René Bernaudeau’s system, he’s got a shoestring budget but has always run a strong feeder team in the amateur ranks which supplies to pro team. Perhaps the model can’t work for every team but it certainly delivers here.
Sunday’s stage was always going to be a big day, the return of the Mont du Chat and it was preceded by the Col de la Biche and the Grand Colombier, the three climbs making in attitude what they lack in altitude. It made for a tiring day just to watch live, relentless attacking at the front of the race and events throughout the stage.
Much is being made of Aru’s attack when Froome had a mechanical. Aru said he didn’t notice Froome; Froome said he didn’t notice Aru. Perhaps their sunglasses were misting up? More likely they just want to sort these things out on the road rather than via television or newspapers. It seems to energize social media but is irrelevant to the race, a point proven moments later when Aru, Fuglsang and Froome shared the work to bring back Bardet. These things always make social media erupt while the peloton tends to shrug indifferently. A rider who profits too often from the misfortune of others will one day get payback, probably with accumulated interest too. While Aru’s etiquette is poured over, his tactical errors were worse. The Mont du Chat is so steep that to accelerate requires a huge amount of energy and his opportunist move simply put him in the red early for no gain. He also didn’t work well with Jacob Fuglsang.
Porte’s crash is a big spoiler for the rest of the race, an obvious contender is now in hospital. As much as descending has been a weak point this was expected to cost him seconds, maybe minutes, but not to have him being taken away in an ambulance. That said he hadn’t been looking as incisive so far in the race, he had a bad opening time trial which could ascribe to the slippery conditions but he was fourth on the Planche des Belles Filles and extrapolating – a fancy word for guessing – says he was on course for a podium finish but no fruitbowl.
Was the descent too dangerous? As a road the Mont du Chat is steep but perfectly ridable and used by hundreds of cyclos every weekend. It’s no more dangerous than many other mountain roads that are used in races and Porte fell on the upper part which is less technical plus it was included in the Dauphiné just so the ascent and descent could be tested in competition. Arguably the risk isn’t the road, it’s the race. The stakes are high, in another race riders might back off but this time. Also the top riders seem so close in terms of climbing speeds that another way to separate them is the descent.
Thomas is out again, this time Rafał Majka’s crash took out the Sky rider. It’s a loss for Sky but if he goes home on a sad note then he’s taken a stage win and enjoyed a spell in yellow which will make many others envious. Majka himself has succumbed to the injuries and is out of the race too, joining a very long list of quality riders already with Robert Gesink going from almost winning in Les Rousses to crashing the next day.
Nairo Quintana’s at risk of fading away from the Tour de France, a problem for him and a tragedy for the Giro because it’s another deterrent for anyone dreaming of the double and this will only reinforce the Giro and the Tour as separate silos. He’s not out yet, two minutes is a long way down but it also means he can attack and won’t be shut down, presumably scoring a top-10 doesn’t interest him although Movistar do pride themselves on the UCI rankings. Still yesterday’s stage was notable for the absence of Movistar riders, often so visible on mountain stages. Carlos Betancur was in the breakaway, Jesus Herrada crashed but the others were not as influential.
Alberto Contador is struggling. He won’t throw in the towel yet but it’s clear he can’t match the others in a straight climbing contest as we saw on the Planche des Belles Filles and he crashed on the ascent of the Grand Colombier. He’s now over four minutes down on GC, a mountain raid and a stage win is probably the best he can hope for but it’s these moves that make him a popular figure these days even if the palmarès isn’t as rich.
The week ahead offers two sprint finishes, then a slog across the Pyrenees on Thursday. Friday hosts the 100km Bastille Day fireworks stage before a weekend of so-called transition stages, one with an uphill sprint and the second with some tough medium mountains.
Turning to the jerseys, Warren Barguil leads the mountains competition with 60 points to 30 for Primož Roglič. This puts the Frenchman in a very strong position already but crucially it’s not the points that signal Barguil’s strong position, it’s his climbing. He was up the road on Saturday and then again on Sunday and his time up the Mont du Chat wasn’t much slower than that set by Chris Froome’s group. If he can show this form again in the Pyrenees and Alps he’s Team Sunweb’s best shot at a jersey. Meanwhile Michael Matthews took 20 points at the intermediate sprint but has a long way to go to overhaul Marcel Kittel who wears the green jersey especially as Kittel can win 50 points per finishing sprint meaning Matthews can try for every intermediate sprint going but the pickings are slimmer.
Romain Bardet is climbing well and descending even better. He took 30 seconds down the Mont du Chat, waiting for the trickier second half of the descent before making his move and then exploiting local knowledge. He’s third overall but can’t defend this position given the time trial in Marseille. He’ll surely rely on his team, Ag2r La Mondiale were all over the race yesterday but theirs is a risky game, they cannot over power teams with calculations of Watts/Kilos. Instead they’ve got the numbers and surprise, yesterday saw them up the road and on the front of the bunch, at first it look like one half of the team was chasing the other but quickly we saw the bunch torn apart and big names under pressure.
Rigoberto Urán is in a great position at fourth overall. He’s climbing with the best and has done some good time trials before, enough to suggest that if there was a time trial tomorrow he could be confident about moving up to second place. However there’s still two weeks of racing to go, he’s not going to have much help in the mountains and his problem has long been sustaining performances over three weeks. But he can ride economically, he doesn’t need to attack.
Fabio Aru is only 18 seconds behind Chris Froome, or a small gap and a time bonus from the yellow jersey but provisionally because of that Marseille time trial. He’s in a strong position but has to work out what his goals are. Put simply does he want to win the Tour de France? Obviously yes but does he want to take the risks necessary to achieve this, to attack and risk a “boomerang move” that only sees him overhauled by others and finishing fourth in Paris when the second step was waiting for him? Fuglsang will be the key here if the two can play off each other but collectively the Astana team is weaker than previous years.
Dan Martin was with the yellow jersey group at the summit of the Mont du Chat only to get taken out by Porte’s crash. He’s now sixth at 1m44s and it must be frustrating to pay for someone else’s mishap but also a minor miracle he limited his losses given the circumstances because he crashed again and needed a spare bike. We know he’s got the legs so he’s now got room for manoeuvre, he can attack late on a mountain stage to pick off a stage win without putting Sky, Ag2r or Astana on red alert. A similar story for Simon Yates too who is already three minutes ahead in the white jersey competition.
Which brings us finally to Chris Froome. So far so normal, it’s straight out of the Sky playbook to take the overall lead on the first summit finish and then to hold it, helped by a phalanx of team mates who try to asphyxiate the race. But it’s not the same time this. First he might have taken yellow on Stage 5 but he was beaten on the summit finish and he’s not shown superior climbing yet, he was on level terms on the Mont du Chat too although the run to the finish encouraged some grouping too. He’s also lost a valuable lieutenant in Geraint Thomas. So is he beatable? He’s certainly in a more fragile position than previous years but still in command thanks to ride in Düsseldorf. He’s climbing well and seems to hold a psychological advantage over his rivals, he can push things on the descents, he’s strong enough on the climb that even Fabio Aru is reduced to springing surprises and all along he’s got the Marseille time trial as insurance.
|Fabio Aru, Romain Bardet|