A deserved rest day and as the riders soft-pedal around Bern and the surrounding cantons in the sunshine they can see the Alps on the horizon.
Chris Froome looks comfortable in yellow and he’s been here before. It’s generating frustration among some as his wearing the yellow jersey was some kind of spoiler, we know what will come during the final Alpine act. He’s in a commanding position but there’s plenty of racing to go.
Froome and Team Sky have tried to court popularity with risky moves on the descents and flat although this no PR strategy, it’s racing instinct. Yet all this just adds to Froome’s cannibalistic repertoire when popularity, at least when viewed from the roadside in France, is often defined by defeat as much as victory, you cannot spell panache without ache. Over the decades cycling has embraced the concept of the “moral winner”, a rider who should have won but was denied by circumstances and they went on to enjoy enormous popularity. Think René Vietto in 1934 who gave up a wheel to a team mate, then his bike, and lost minutes only to find the public on his side, riding in to Paris to find the crowd waving banners marked “Long Live René Vietto, moral winner of the Tour”. The same with Raymond Poulidor the ultimate exponent of pou-poularité during the 60s and 70s. In a small way Julian Alaphilippe got some when leading down the Grand Colombier he jammed his chain and lost hope of winning the stage, nevermind that he’d have struggled to stay clear for the remaining 33km. There’s a psychology or sociology doctorate waiting for someone willing to explore why the French public often prefers valiant losers.
Froome almost had his Vietto moment, the deus ex machina hurdle to overcome with That Crash on Mont Ventoux. Not that he could choose the story, the commissaires made their decision and presented it to him rather handing him with a menu and letting him choose the outcomes. Besides the Tour is not a popularity contest, it’s just that it’s curious to imagine a parallel universe where the commissaires shrugged, Froome lost time and had to fight back. In reality he’d have taken the yellow jersey back in the following day’s time trial so the struggle against adversity would have lasted less than a day, hardly a struggle against the odds.
Back to winning this race and on the Grand Colombier you wondered if Froome was looking down at a bar-mounted Kindle as he sat tight on Wout Poel’s wheel, the Dutchman as a faithful retriever by his side to fetch any game that dared to take flight. His team look as strong as ever, the absence of Mikel Nieve and Geraint Thomas in Culoz wasn’t a sign of weakness but bad luck after Nieve crashed and Thomas punctured. Still at times Froome has looked strained too and in yesterday’s post-stage interview he was coughing a bit. The sign of a problem… or the sign of trying to look too hard for problems?
Froome remains in a commanding position with 1m47s on Bauke Mollema and 2m45s on Adam Yates and neither has looked threatening to him so far. If you’d presented this scenario to Mollema and Yates while they lined up for the start they’d have signed up faster than the tide gallops across the bay of Mont St. Michel. They’d each love to win the race outside but this is an asymmetric contest where they’re surely more worried about falling down the overall classification than they are climbing up it. Like it or not – and you surely don’t – the combination of publicity and ranking points make a high placing something worth defending. Mollema and Trek must crave that photo of the Champs Elysées podium. The same for Adam Yates and Orica-BikeExchange and both have staying power, they might fear the dreaded jours sans but have shown abilities in the third week of grand tours to suggest they won’t fade away.
Nairo Quintana is in fourth place at 2m59s and will not be satisfied with this, he’s unlikely to set up camp and defend this position. However has got the ability to do anything about it? He doesn’t look like he’s got it but we’ve not got much to go on. He has been run ragged by the Mistral wind, most visible in the time trial where he lost 125 seconds but surely he paid a price on the other stages too such as the stage to Mont Ventoux where the wind was slicing the bunch to pieces.
Movistar are probably the only team capable of unlocking the race but don’t look strong. While Team Sky luxuriously deploy their workers on a shift pattern around Froome with some days on and other days off – not a novel policy – Movistar have had to use climbers on flat stages to shelter Quintana and look how they suffered on the Col du Berthiand, the first climb of last Sunday’s stage in the Jura mountains where Jesus Herrada abandoned and Winner Anacona, normally a crack climber, was dropped. Alejandro Valverde is promising but has been playing a conservative role in the service of Quintana.
Some people say “why don’t Movistar do this or that” but the Tour de France is a bike race and it’s important to remember this from time to time. It not Pro Cycling Manager, neither chess where team manager Eusebio Unzué can place his pawns on the board at will. For Movistar to break up the race on the flank of the Grand Colombier they’d have burned through riders and if Quintana attacked he’d find Chris Froome sitting on his wheel, all while knowing Froome has been climbing and time trialling better. In other words Quintana would know he could be countered and distanced.
Astana are another team that could try something only they look even more underwhelming than we’ve used to, the baby blue team are not as visible as normal. They did try to stir things on Sunday but it led to Fabio Aru’s brief attack, a move surely launched too early on the climb to be significant. Meanwhile in an interview with Nibali, L’Equipe mentions a possible launch date for Nibali’s new Bahrain team on 7 August, there’s no news during the Tour.
Away from the overall classification to a different kind of ranking and Mark Cavendish looks set to leave the race today. If so he goes home with four stage wins to take his career total of Tour de France stages to 30. This is bringing comparisons with Eddy Merckx as Cavendish closes in on Merckx’s record of 34. However this is an unsatisfying comparison, at best a wonderful record to have but fundamentally an exercise in arithmetic. Both are different riders in different times so comparisons are awkward. Cavendish arguably the greatest sprinter of all time even the passage of time and the retrospect of history will settle this. He is certainly among the pantheon of great sprinters and has won almost everything possible and in the case of the Tour de France, won everything several times over. Arguably the only things missing now are Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Tours although easier said than done given these races have been tweaked for TV with more hills thrown in. Can Cavendish surpass Merckx’s record? Yes but look at André Greipel, the sprint hero of the Tour a year ago and now floundering in the sprints.
Ag2r La Mondiale have announced an extension of their sponsorship to 2020, on top of the contract that went to 2018. They’re not big budget but they’ve got a clever set up with long term financial backing and an U23 feeder team that produces some of France’s best riders, it’s brought on Romain Bardet and the promising Pierre Latour and there’s a promising pipeline too. The feeder team requires riders to spend part of their time in education as well as racing.
The road ahead: the week ahead is very promising with a collection of hard stages that feature some of the Alps more unusual climbs. Just as you cannot reinvent the wheel you cannot pick roads out of nowhere but plenty of novel climbs await.
- Tomorrow’s Stage 17 has summit finish at the Emosson dam was used in the 2014 Critérium du Dauphiné and is arguably as hard as Mont Ventoux only it comes right after the HC-rated Col de la Forclaz and there’s more climbing before
- Stage 18 is a 17km time trial, most of it uphill and with a couple of surprises on the slopes
- Stage 19 has a cruel uphill start uses a lot of small secondary roads in the first half of the stage, fingers crossed it’s ambush country but if not it’ll reward the breakaways on the way to the Le Bettex ski station but there’s no ski station main road approach, they take a short cut at the start with a very irregular, steep road
- Stage 20 (pictured) is up and down all the time and finishes with two tough climbs each with their awkward descents; the descent of the Col de la Ramaz has been closed to traffic at times but fingers-crossed the race can pass.
Will the yellow-jersey change? It’s possible but seems unlikely and since it’s hot on the rest day how’s this for a cold shower: the climbs above are hard but the valley sections in between suit a rider with a strong team. Still the rest of the top-10 could be like herding cats as riders try to claw back time. If – big if – Quintana gets back in the game he’ll fancy a podium finish at least and seems the only rider in the top-1o capable of reversing the situation but this is highly conditional and he could be fading. Richie Porte was looking strong on Mont Ventoux and could also move back up to prove just how ruinous one puncture can be. Dan Martin will be interesting to follow if only to see if he can maintain into the third week and was Fabio Aru’s flurry on Sunday the sigh of returning confidence?
|Richie Porte, Bauke Mollema, Adam Yates