2664.5km and 64 hours of racing over more than two weeks and there’s still less than 30 seconds separating the top four riders overall, they’re now closer together on the general classification than they were after the opening time trial Düsseldorf. If the Tour de France is a gradual contest to establish a hierarchy there’s some way to go before the order is settled.
Sunday’s stage saw a win for Bauke Mollema who might not have been the strongest, perhaps he was the wisest but he was certainly the bravest as he took off with 30km to go into a headwind. Behind the breakaway group was too big with too many riders marking each other. The Dutchman was weaving on his bike to the horror of whoever was supposed to help him with core strength exercises last winter but it’s always been his style and despite a slender lead that was often below 30 seconds he delivered an important win for Trek-Segafredo.
Behind there was drama as Ag2r La Mondiale took up the pace on the descent into the Allier valley ahead of the main climb of the day. Chris Froome broke his back wheel but nobody was waiting, the race was on already. Froome paced his way back to the group and as much as this was a moment of drama the lesson is that Froome’s climbing speed is superior to what Ag2r were trying to throw at the race. So once again for all the drama and effort the top riders are together. Except for Nairo Quintana who fell out of the top-10 as we had the improbable sight of Carlos Betancur spinning past him on a climb. Dan Martin’s late attack allowed him to take 14 seconds and leapfrog Mikel Landa.
Here’s the chart of the GC riders and if you like patters you’ll note Rigoberto Uran’s consistent upward trend and Mikel Landa’s erratic path to sixth place overall.
So how to rank the riders? Two stages in the Alps and then the 22.5km time trial in Marseille should do plenty but as we’ve seen so far a brief uphill sprint can do it or ask Jacob Fuglsang who crashed out on the way to Pau.
Chris Froome looks unshakeable, his back wheel has caused him as much worry as his rivals so far whether the derailleur on the Mont du Chat or a broken spoke on yesterday’s approach to the Col du Saint-Vidal. Collectively Team Sky are strong but Ag2r had the better of them on Sunday, albeit on the kind of mid-mountain terrain that suits them and in Alps Sky will take over. Froome leads and occupies a defensive position, put aside all the phoney “it’s good to lose the yellow jersey” talk that goes around because in such a close contest losing a few seconds is costly and such phrases are consolatory at best. But Froome has not sewn things up, this could come in the Alps but merely asking the question is interesting because we’re far from the knockout superiority shown in previous years.
Romain Bardet’s stage win at Peyragudes was a first for him because he beat his rivals in summit finish. Until now he’s subscribed to a rather literal version of Saint Augustine’s teaching that “to rise, first descend” as his wins have been built on downhill attacks but in the Pyrenees he took an uphill sprint at Peyragudes. He can try this again on the Izoard but there are no guarantees. His danger now is mimicking Thibaut Pinot’s Giro, an excellent ride throughout the race only to slip to fourth place overall because of the final time trial but it’s trying and being seen to try that counts plenty of the team. Ag2r La Mondiale is a mutual social insurance business and the imagery of a group of riders working together is publicity they simply can’t buy elsewhere. Bardet increasingly talks of performance, not watts but just focusing on what he can do rather than projecting fantasies beyond this.
Fabio Aru’s options seem limited to a mountain attack and an obvious one too. Not for him a long range raid helped by relays from team mates who have been sent up the road because Astana are looking weak, they started the race with a collection of Kazakhs who arguably may not have been recruited were they Russians or Uzbeks and last week they lost Dario Cataldo and Jacob Fuglsang to an innocuous crash on the way to Pau. Instead he’ll probably have to sit tight and wait for the latter moments of the Galibier and the Izoard before, if he feels like it, trying an attack. Limited yes but if he can pull it off he can turn the race upside down.
Rigoberto Urán continues to sit in fourth overall and out of the limelight. While Aru wins and loses the yellow jersey and Bardet delivers a stage win in front of home crowds Urán is quietly going about his business and he’s the rider who stands to gain if Chris Froome loses a few seconds the Alps. He’s also the most satisfied with a podium in Paris because he’s never won a grand tour and a top-three would be a significant result. He just has to follow Froome, like the old Sky domestique he was for three seasons, and then exploit the Marseille time trial. That’s an economy low risk plan but he’s been close to the others so far so it’s easy to imagine him coming into Serre Chevalier to contest the stage win and pocket the time bonus.
Dan Martin can keep attacking but the more he moves up the overall, the more his sneaky late moves will be shut down instantly. Meanwhile Mikel Landa is clearly on team duties as we saw on the Peyra Taillade when he was brought back from the lead group to pace Froome.
A few other points…
Tim Wellens has left the race after suffering from skin problems brought on by the heat and sunshine. He could have stayed had he applied for a TUE for cortisone but opted to leave instead. It’s refreshing at first but also a concern, what if someone needs a treatment but they fear a media backlash for using “drugs” so they have to quit the race. In every case hopefully Wellens returns, he’s got two weeks’ racing in the legs and if it’s cloudy in San Sebastian or Poland during August then he’s one to watch.
There’s still confusion over the UCI rules and their application, for example why was Peter Sagan excluded when Nacer Bouhanni given a fine? This is a zombie story that refuses to die so let’s break out the garlic and silver bullets… or rather Chapter 12 of the UCI rulebook. The answer is simple, if unsatisfying: different rules apply in these different circumstances. One rule (12.1.040.30.1) says the standard penalty for violence during the race is a cash fine and a time penalty so the commissaires duly enforced this one on Bouhanni. There’s another, separate rule for the sprint (12.1.040.10.2.2) which is the one the UCI applied to Sagan, this time very harshly. Yes the jury went overboard with Sagan but they’re only interpreting the rules they’re given rather than being selective. Often the problem is not the jury, it’s the rulebook which suggests a cash fine equivalent to an hour’s wage for violence, an old topic that still needs a fresh look. Another aspect is viewers with replays, GIFs and screengrabs simply have more information than the UCI jury but crowdsourcing the rules is no good either, majority opinion took Rigoberto Urán for a hero for when with about 12.5km to go he asked the Mavic mechanic to help him put his chain in the 11T… rule 12.1.040.10.2.2 says he should have got a one minute time penalty for on GC.
Looking ahead Tuesday’s stage takes the race over hilly terrain to the foot of the Alps, a stage that promises a duel between the breakaways and the sprinter’s teams. Wednesday and Thursday’s Alpine stages are crucial with the Galibier as a virtual summit finish because the ensuing descent doesn’t allow an easy chase. The stage hasn’t been on the radar, it’s just been waiting perhaps because the roads are familiar and so more of a known quantity compared to novelties like the Mont du Chat or the Mur de Péguère but this is an enormous day. The following day sees a tough summit finish on the Col d’Izoard.
Warren Barguil’s polka dot lead is very strong but not yet arithmetically secure, he has 116 points with the next placed rider Primož Roglič on 38. If someone else can cross every single remaining côte and col in first they’ll collect 116 points so arithmetically Barguil can face a challenge but given the way he is riding he seems set to win beaucoup points, possibly a second stage too. He’s riding at his best and fulfilling the hopes he created when he won the Tour de l’Avenir but as a born attacker he’s not one to grind out the seconds tracking the front group à la Meintjes or spend winter in a wind-tunnel. Each to their own.
Meanwhile the biggest challengers to Marcel Kittel’s green jersey are gravity and the weather, he needs to get over the upcoming mountains and it won’t be easy hauling well over 80kgs in a heatwave. Michael Matthews is putting up a brave fight thanks to his stage win but is still 79 points short in a contest where a sprint stage win delivers 50-30-20 to the first three with points down to 15th, the competition is tilted towards Kittel now with three possible sprint finishes ahead.
|Rigoberto Uràn, Romain Bardet