“We were expecting him tomorrow, he attacked today. We expecting him to attack uphill, he went on the descent”
– Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme
Prudhomme summed up the events at the finish of today’s stage after Chris Froome’s late attack brought him the stage and the yellow jersey. It marked a moment of excitement in an otherwise steady stage and if Froome won this more symbolic than substantial with only seconds in it.
No break: The stage began with an hour of fierce racing on the roads south of Pau where the countryside echoed to the sound of chains clunking into the 11 sprocket. Finally a break went with Thibaut Pinot, Rafał Majka and Tony Martin. The German was an odd presence but a valuable one, not just an extra rider to share the load in the valleys but worth two riders. Pinot collected the points on the Tourmalet but would crack later with Majka, the Bison of Zegartowice, able to stay with the lead group when caught and collecting enough points to win the jersey.
Parade: The breakaway was kept on a tight leash and once caught the race fell into a state of torpor, a parade led by Team Sky and Movistar that was only a missing a giant satellite dish or a smarpthone-on-wheels to make it a full-on publicity caravan. It wasn’t easy, riders were being dropped and those that were remaining were having their energy sapped and being dessicated by the hairdryer climate. But it was hard to watch too, little was happening for a long time.
It took until the upper slopes of the Col de Peyresourde for the race to come alive with an attack from Sergio Henao. Instead of the usual Sky train they’d decided to stir things up and Movistar replied too with an acceleration from Valverde. Froome had a go, Dan Martin too but it felt like a series of test efforts rather than committed attacks, a headwind across the top helped smother things too.
Spur of the moment or planned? Earlier on the Col d’Azet Chris Froome upped the cadence and jostled with Rafał Majka for the mountain points. Was Froome going for the mountain points as well? He had words with Majka and it looked as if the Pole was annoyed that Froome was trying to eat his lunch. With hindsight this could have been a tactical ploy, to go for the KoM points and make it seem as if Froome wanted them so that when they went over the Peyresourde nobody was surprised to see him spin up the gears over the top of the pass. He got a gap, he got the mountain points and just when everyone expected to settle into the descent Froome kept going. Such planning doesn’t seem so likely, Froome later said he just wanted to try something over the top of the climb.
The Peyresourde descent is long and non-technical for the most part, a long drop that’s a test of aerodynamics more than skill. It suits a chasing group but there wasn’t one, for a long time only Alejandro Valverde was working and it wasn’t until later that others rolled through like Tejay van Garderen. Meanwhile Froome was taking time thanks to his aero tuck, sat on the top tube and resembling a child who’d stolen an adult bike. The position has been attributed to Matej Mohoric who won the 2013 U23 World Championships with help from this but it’s been used before, eg Michał Kwiatkowski in the 2012 Dauphiné and more.
Aru is back: Dan Martin won the sprint for second, he’s climbing well and has that zip in his legs, a stage win at some point seems likely and Romain Bardet was next. We also got the first showing of Fabio Aru who put in a late attack in Luchon, it came to nothing but the significance is that he’s now front group material when he wasn’t in the Dauphiné.
Rolland’s breach: Among the losers of the day Alberto Contador was dropped, Warren Barguil too, ditto Pierre Rolland who compounded things by a scrape on the descent. Wilco Kelderman punctured on the penultimate descent, got back with the help from his team car only to get dropped again. Michael Mørkøv finally succumbed to his injuries and became the first rider to quit the race, all the other riders made it to the finish.
Froome is in the yellow jersey after the first mountain stage but this is a different script to last year. For starters he’s only got 16 seconds on Adam Yates and 23 on Quintana. Is it worth it? Team Sky will be delighted with today but the yellow jersey places a burden on Team Sky and Froome too and you wonder if this isn’t the perfect result for Quintana too. Tomorrow is the big test in the Pyrenees.