Greg Van Avermaet has defended yellow with honour. Yesterday, the classics style rider, went on a mountain attack to try and keep it for another twenty-four hours. He was well aware that today, his effort would catch up on him. It did, and with half the short but heavy mountain stage remaining, the question was who would inherit the jersey?
It was a short stage at only 108.5km from Albertville to La Rosiere Espace San Bernardo, but one which crossed four. mountains. The upshot is that a lot of people believe they can win and action is frantic from the start. A huge break went up the road early and it looked like someone from there would get their twenty-four hour turn in yellow. But as Sky increased the pressure behind, the time gaps fell.
Alejandro Valverde went up the road early, inspired perhaps from Chris Froome’s long range effort at the Giro. But this was too early in the overall race, and while he built up a healthy lead, he seemed to be on a hiding to nothing. Movistar are here with three men believing they can contend to win. Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa add to Valverde. The plan may have been for Valverde to draw Sky into a chase and burn out the strength in depth around Froome, exposing him for one of Quintana or Landa to then counter. And so on and so forth. But Sky are too disciplined, too experienced. Valverde was allowed to go up the road for half the day, but never given too much rope. In the end it was nothing but a rope for Movistar to hang themselves with.
Tom Dumoulin made the next move and bridged across to Valverde on the way off the Cormet de Roselend. He soon left the fading Spaniard floundering. Valverde was dropped, caught by the Sky group, and dropped again. The big Dutchman was out to make up on lost time to Chris Froome after the first week of racing. All eyes were on Sky who set the tempo behind and kept the gaps in check. Closer eyes were on Froome. He’s a tough man to read at the best of times, but when would he make his move? Or would he be happy to mark his rivals today, keep the leash on Dumoulin short and save his bullets for the big one tomorrow? Right about the time you were beginning to think it might be the later, a Sky rider jumped…but it wasn’t Froome. It was Geraint Thomas.
Now, there has been talk that Thomas has been given equal leadership status at Sky this year. It’s surprising for a team as efficient with their planning and dedicted to detail that they would allow this potential leadership battle take place. But with Froome having ridden the Giro, there was no guarantees to how he would hold up in this Tour. So best have someone in reserve. And Thomas has earned his opportunity.
If it was in any doubt about whether Thomas served a master at this Tour, that got removed the second he soared ahead. Froome did not give chase per say, but he did up the anti. And then he made a move of his own. All rivals had been falling by the wayside throughout the stage. Uran was one of the first one to go, Mollema was on a bad day too, and then Adam Yates popped. By the time Froome kicked, even Vincenzo Nibali couldn’t hold the wheel. The only two to react were Nairo Quintana and Romain Bardet. When Dan Martin got back on terms and attacked himself, and Froome responded, nobody could latch on. Thomas caught Dumoulin and the rest of the break, with only Mikel Nieve remaining in front.
Into the final kilometre and with Froome trying to bridge across, the last remaining doubt about where Thomas’ loyalty lay and whether he would wait, went off the side of the mountain as he himself attacked. He soared past poor Nieve and took a magnificent, statement making victory which also moved him into yellow. Froome did catch Dumoulin, his Giro adversary, but was pipped on the line in a sprint.
The rest came in, nursing their time gaps, demoralised that once again this race is in the hands of Sky. For with Thomas now in yellow, it is Froome who is up into second place, 1 minute 25 seconds behind the Welshman. For all Movistars grand plans, Landa is now their best placed rider in 7th, 2’56” behind Thomas. Indeed their three pronged attack is now down to about one-point-five, with Quintana now 9th, 3’16” back. How the Spanish team approach tomorrow or the days ahead to try get one, two or all their men back into this race, remains to be seen.
It was Movistar from whom we expected the inter-team battle. Instead we now have the mouthwatering prospect of it coming within Team Sky. Sky man v Sky man; Briton v Briton; the champion v the upstart. I never thought we’d see that again at Team Sky after the Bradley Wiggins v Chris Froome escapades of 2012. And yet here we are.
Things appear civil between the pair right now, but Alpe d’Huez tomorrow could change all that. The Alpe is the most famous climb in the sport and it brings out the best in the Tour de France. What it will bring out in Froome and Thomas will be worth watching for. With Thomas in yellow you would assume him to be the defacto team leader now. Yet I cannot imagine Froome bowing to that and riding in support; not if Thomas finds himself in trouble. And Thomas will accept that.
Thomas is unproven over three weeks. Not because he can’t, but because he’s never been given the opportunity. Thus far though in his Grand Tour career, he has always had a bad day in him. Froome might think that is still the case and be willing to bide his time. Then again, if he feels fresh tomorrow, if he senses Thomas isn’t quite himself, or if he feels his rivals are there for the taking, I’d expect him to attack. Froome will have to take time on rivals when he can; it will be up to Thomas to respond. Then again, when or will the Giro catch up to Froome? Will Thomas sense a weakness? That question may be answered if they go short on team-mates and someone like Bardet, Dumoulin, Nibali or Quintana attack. Does Thomas look to Froome or does Froome look to Thomas? Or do they ride their own race?
This year the Tour is down to eight man teams to try stop team dominance. Sky still looked dominant today, but with Thomas now riding for himself, you can say Froome is down to six riders in support. That is assuming a few will not switch allegiances to Thomas. All this is hypothetical and on face value, harmony still exists. Tomorrow will challenge that, among other things.
Once upon a time the idea of British riders contending for the Tour de France was a far fetched fantasy. The suggestion of two British riders from the same team squabbling over team leadership to win the Tour would have seemed ludicrous. But here in 2018, it is the second time it has happened this decade.
Roll on the mighty Alpe tomorrow.
General classification after a good sorting out on today’s stage 11:
1. Geraint Thomas (Sky) in 44h 6’16”
2. Chris Froome (Sky) @ 1’25”
3. Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) @ 1’44”
4. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) @ 2’14”
5. Primoz Roglic (Lotto NL-Jumbo) @ 2’23”
6. Steven Kruijswijk (Lotto NL-Jumbo) @ 2’40”
7. Mikel Landa (Movistar) @ 2’56”
8. Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) @ 2’58”
9. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) @ 3’16”
10. Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) @ 3’16”