The race for the Lanterne Rouge

I usually keep more track of this than I have. But here, at the second rest day, seems like as good a time as any to take a look at it. As of right now, Dan McLay of Team Fortuneo-Oscaro, is sitting last man in the general classification by 8 minutes 19 seconds. To look at that you might not think it is close, but time gaps at the back are much different than time gaps at the front. With some big mountain stages to come, and some serious time to lose, the Lanterne Rouge is very much up for grabs.
Continue reading The race for the Lanterne Rouge

Froome wrestles back yellow and then almost loses it again

I was out on the bike on Saturday morning so missed the live coverage of the stage. Looking at the profile I had hedged my bets. It looked like a stage for exciting racing, but without too much in the way of major climbing. I felt it was unlikely that the balance of the race itself might swing. But as I swung into a small town and pulled over at a coffee shop, I pulled out my phone and seen the notification: “Froome back in yellow.”

What on earth had happened? I bought my tea and a butter tart, and sat down to catch up.

From what I could gather on the run in to Rodez, and towards the ramp up to the line, Fabio Aru had been isolated. His Astana team, broken and decimated by injury, were missing again. In stark contrast, the Sky team were all around Chris Froome. They kept him near the front while Aru slipped towards the rear. It takes a lot of effort to stay at the front and trying to do so without the protection of a team expends a lot of energy. After getting worked over the day before, but maintaining his jersey, Aru had to be tired.

Froome’s domestique and bodyguard elect, Michal Kwiatkowski noticed Aru isolated. He called on the radio for Froome to smash it and the Sky leader pushed for the line. Michael Matthews gave the Sunweb team their second victory in-a-row, and Froome came in 7th a second behind. 25 seconds later, Aru limped over the line, exposed and out of yellow.

The balance of this Tour had once again flipped in favour of Froome by 18 seconds. Romain Bardet lost 4 seconds to Froome and so now finds himself 5 seconds out of second place. Two others alert to the damage were Rigoberto Uran and Dan Martin who finished with Froome. Uran is putting together a very impressive Tour and is now within half a minute of yellow. Written off or overlooked by many, his performance in France may come as a surprise to some, but it shouldn’t.

You need a strong team to win the Tour and this proved it once more. Aru’s Astana team are struggling and it could be the difference in him not winning this race. As an individual, Aru has rode very well. He looks strong and well matched to Froome on the climbs. But it’s on days like this he remains vulnerable.

Take what happened the following day as another example of the benefits of a strong team. Froome had another mechanical at the worst possible time, and this time there was no waiting. We’re too deep into the race now for unwritten rules. A quick wheel change by his domestique turned mechanic, Kwiatkowski, got him on his way, but he was 45 seconds behind. Froome encouraged Landa to remain in the pack up front while other Sky riders worked on pacing Froome back. As they went up the category one climb of the Col de Peyra Taillade, the gap began to reduce. Bardet’s AG2R team kept the hammer down on the front, but the strength of Team Sky was evident. On the way up they blew past the fast fading Nario Quintana. His effort on Friday doomed to be that of a stage hunt rather than a realistic bid to get back into GC contention. Once Froome was alone, but not far behind, Landa dropped back to help him pull up to the rear of the pack. Job done. They crested the climb and from there it was about consolidating.

Had Froome gone over the top still off the back of the group, I doubt he would have got back on. His Tour might have been in tatters. It was a testament to his team and his own strength, and leadership, that this didn’t happen. It was a smart call to leave Landa in the group ahead. Had Froome failed to get back on, Landa, still well positioned on GC after some strong racing in the days before would still be in the mix. But with Froome getting back up and having spent through his team mates, he could still call Landa back for the final push. And when back in, Froome still had a team mate and wasn’t left isolated. It quietened the suggestions that Landa has gone rogue. He is still part of the Sky plan.

Froome looked vulnerable at times in the second week of this Tour but looks to be coming good now. He is peaking at the perfect time, or so it seems. He had been well short of his usual standards in the pre-Tour tune up races and it left people doubting his form. One explanation for this was that Froome was looking to peak later in the Tour. With a lot of sprint stages in the early going, Froome was going to try survive the early climbing stages and ride into his best form. Now with the third week looming, and facing a crisis on the  Taillade, Froome’s strength shone through. He flew up that climb to regain contact. Had he not had the mechanical and instead attacked them, who knows what shape this race would now be in?

But that is hypothetical. So is my theory on Froome’s condition. The next few days will answer to what form his is in. Another hypothetical is where Dan Martin would be had he not crashed on stage 9? The Irishman jumped off the front yet again today to steal back 9 seconds. That is 18 seconds he has taken on two stages over three days. In that crash in which he fell over Richie Porte, Martin lost 1 minute, 15 seconds. As things stand he is 1 minute, 12 seconds behind Froome. Of course, the reality is that had he not crashed his move on Sunday would have been shut down immediately. He has gotten a little more freedom thanks to how compact the standings are in front of him. But what is evident is that Martin is in superb form. His rivals have yet to drop him. His only time loss has been as a result of that crash.

Up ahead on Sunday’s stage, a large 28 man pack that had escaped earlier in the day would decide the stage winner. Bauke Mollema made the timely move with 29km to go, attacking on the descent of that final big climb to forge ahead. The chase came too late and the Dutchman stayed clear to take his first Tour stage victory. This time last year Mollema was sitting second on GC and the biggest threat to Froome. That all came tumbling down in the final week. This year Mollema has come looking for stage wins. Now he has one and they can never take that away from him.

And so to a rest day today and how they need it. Tomorrow is a stage that should favour a breakaway though could end up in a bunch sprint and thus win number six for Marcel Kittel. Then it’s into the high Alps and come Thursday evening I’d be shocked if the standings are still as tight as they are now. This is the tightest a Tour has ever been for the yellow jersey this far into the race. It’s been a terrific show so far and I get the sense that the best is yet to come.

General classification after stage 15:

1. Chris Froome (Sky) in 64h40’21”

2. Fabio Aru (Astana) +18″

3. Romain Bardet (AG2R) +23″

4. Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) +29″

5. Dan Martin (Quick-Step) +1’12”

6. Mikel Landa (Sky) +1’17”

Fireworks on Bastille Day: A French winner and more contenders for GC

What a frantic day. A 101km stage across three category one climbs. It had all the makings of a classic, and so it proved to be. Fireworks across the mountains on Bastille Day. Attacks at the sharp end of the general classification, and a French winner to boot. The first such winner on July 14th since David Moncoutié in 2005.

Warren Barguil will be the toast of France in his polka-dot jersey. What a courageous ride it was as the drama and action for the yellow jersey blew up around him.

It was a stage tailor made for an ambush, but who would have thought the ambush would come from within? Or at least that is how it looked when Mikel Landa shot up the road at the first opportunity with Alberto Contador. The two Spaniard’s illuminating the race. When we first seen this stage we thought right away about Contador. His kind of day but a shame as it turned out that he was so far down on GC. But Landa wasn’t.

Rumours had blown up over night about who exactly Landa was riding for? Himself or his team leader, Chris Froome? It’s still hard to say because the move in itself to go up the road was a good tactic by Sky. It put the onus on others to work and chase. It allowed Froome to sit in. Michal Kwaitkowski also went in a move with Barguil and Nairo Quintana. The Colombian, like Contador, out to salvage some pride after a rough Tour thus far.

Froome is a hard man to read though. On each climb, in particular the final climb of the Mur de Peguere, he looked to be in trouble. That pained expression, the constant glances down at the bike computer, and momentary gaps between the wheels. And yet right when you expected him to crack, under the relentless pace being set by Dan Martin, he attacked. The attacks didn’t stick, but they where there nonetheless and the rest did no attacks of their own.

Up ahead Barguil and Quintana dropped Kwiatkowski and set out in hunt of the Spaniards. They caught them right at the top of that final climb and the four set about the descent together. At one point the lead held by Landa was enough to put him into the yellow jersey on the road. By the decent though the gap had come down, but not by a lot. Aru, without any team support and isolated, decided to focus on Froome. It may result on more men coming into contention for this Tour, but at least it might keep him in yellow.

Froome and Bardet wouldn’t give the Italian an easy ride though. Both took turns attacking on the descent but it was a gentle drop off the mountain and gaps were hard to come by. Froome would go, then sit up, followed by Bardet. Dan Martin got back on when the hesitancy to set a defined pace slowed the group. That also pushed the lead of those ahead back out to two minutes. With Kwiatkowski by his side by now, Froome tried to launch a two-up attack, but Aru was alert.

If anything though, this was working Aru over. They may not get him on this day, but Aru might pay for it later. Froome looked strong again. It is so hard to call, but I’m starting to think that it’s the sharp gradient climbs that Froome is struggling with. His big motor finds it hard to get up to the speed of the pure climbers on those short bursts. It cost him yesterday and it might have explained the pained moments today. Now with the downhill and the smooth run in, he could get back to his best. If he could only create a gap he might yet time-trial away. Instead it was Dan Martin who got the gap. Not far behind on GC, but not an immediate threat they let him go and he was soon joined by Simon Yates. The pair wary of Landa and Quintana pushing them down the classification.

As the kilometres ticked off fast, the advantage of the four ahead was slow to come down. Barguil, with nothing to gain on GC but a stage to win, was happy to sit on the back. Contador too. Landa, and even Quintana, had gains to make and kept the pace high.

It was with that in mind that Froome and Kwiatkowski gave up the attacks on Aru and went about setting the pace. This seemed odd. In doing so they may have been costing their man a shot at yellow. Better to leave Aru exposed, you might think? But Froome is the team leader at Sky and there is a bigger picture to look at. Stages 17 and 18 look more suited to Froome in this Tour, and only six seconds back on Aru, he must still feel in control.  It might suit Sky to pull Landa up the classification, and add another worry for Astana, but not by too much. He might serve as a plan B, but it was far from time to turn to plan B. Not yet. But Landa in the mix could allow Sky to play the double act. The kind we’ve Movistar play with Quintana and Alejandro Valverde in the past. Take turns attacking and soften up Aru.

Beyond that Sky will not have wanted yellow back on someone other than Froome’s shoulders. Expectation would then fall on Sky to work and to defend and in doing so, wear down Froome’s key lieutenants.

As it stands the onus will still be on Astana to control the race, for Aru to mark moves. And as they rolled into Foix so the list of contenders in this Tour grew. Barguil came around Contador in fine style to take the sprint, but it was Quintana and Landa who would be looking at the clock. And as things now stand, seven men are within 2 minutes 7 seconds of Aru. The seventh of these, in eighth place, is Quintana. Dangerous again with those 17th and 18th stages also suited to him and another reason Froome had Sky push towards the end today. And Martin was right to worry. Landa move ahead of him up to fifth, 1’09” behind. Had Dan Martin not crashed over Richie Porte on that stage 9 descent to Chambery, he would be in a podium position only 7 seconds behind Aru. The “what if’s” of the Tour.

This Tour is so wide open and so hard to call. So many questions remind unanswered, not least the status of Landa and the absolute form of Froome. The idea that it is anything other than thrilling is alien to me. Too many wrote it off after a handful of sprint stages. But anytime there has been climbing to do, the action has come a plenty. The fear too that after nine stages this Tour was already over with Sky in control and Froome too strong, is long gone. It as a silly suggestion to begin with. Sky are still a strong team and Froome may yet prove the best, but the rest see a man they believe they can beat. The fear is no longer there.

So much is up for grabs now and the best is still to come. We are in for one of the most exciting third weeks of a Tour in recent memory.

General classification after stage 13:

1. Fabio Aru (Astana) in 55h30’06”

2. Chris Froome (Sky) +6″

3. Romain Bardet (AG2R) +25″

4. Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) +35″

5. Mikel Landa (Sky) +1’9″

6. Dan Martin (Quick-Step) +1’32”

7. Simon Yates (Orica) +2’4″

8. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) +2’7″

9. Louis Meintjes (UAE) +4’51”

10. Alberto Contador (Trek) +5’22”

Further notes on the chaos of yesterday before the sure madness of today

With today’s stage starting later and so many talking points still lingering from yesterday, I thought I’d put down some thoughts on them.

Watergate

Following yesterday’s stage, Rigoberto Uran and George Bennett where each accessed a 20 second time penalty for taking ‘illegal feeds’ inside the final 20km. Both riders took bottles of water from speectators at the side of the road. The controversy though was that Frenchman, Romain Bardet, was also seen doing the same at the same moment, but escaped a sanction for reasons unknown.

There is little doubt the race jury at this Tour is having a real shocker, and this only added to it. The jury’s decision was final though, and they wouldn’t be changing it. That was until this morning when I woke up to learn that both penalties to Uran and Bennett had been reversed. It now leaves Uran only 35 seconds behind Fabio Aru on GC. But rather than access Bardet the same penalty and to heck with local outrage, it sounds like it was more convenient, on Bastille Day of all days, to cancel them all.

Froome v Wiggins is now Landa v Froome

Think back five years to the exact same mountain finish as yesterday: Peyragudes. On that day Chris Froome was edging ahead of Bradley Wiggins, his team leader in yellow jersey, desperate to go for the stage win. The team radio lit up and Froome was made to wait for the suffering Wiggins. To tow him up the climb to the finish and ensure he remained in yellow. Froome was 27 years of age that day; Wiggins was 32.

Today, Froome is 32 and his energetic, ambitions team mate, Mikel Landa, is 27. And on the same mountain, it was Landa who was choping at the bit. He looked so comfortable on the run in while Froome was struggling. And on that savage final 300m ramp up to the line, when Froome cracked, Landa went on without him. To be fair their was little Landa could have done at that stage, but it was the optics. What does it do for team moral?

It begged the question: Is Lanada riding for himself, or for Froome? Or is it a bit of both? It’s believed the Spaniard is leaving Sky at the end of the season for Movistar, so what has he got to lose by staking out alone? Unlike his team mates who have ridden on the front before blowing big time, Lanada has maintained and currently sits 7th on GC, 2’55” behind Aru. It might be unfair to say that Lanada is doing his own thing. He didn’t go all in and take the stage after all, but I’m not sure he wants to flog himself for Froome either.

The counter argument is that Sky should have let Lanada go for the stage in that last 500m. By doing so he would have eaten up some of the time bonuses. If Sky are worrying about Landa’s self serving ambitions their solution is simple. Put him further up the line. Stick him on the front a few men early and make him ride before hanging over to another team mate.

I wait with anticipation to see how they play it and to see how Landa rides. Or could it be that we are all reading too much into it?

What to make of Froome’s struggle?

Which leads to another subject we may all be reading a little too much into. What is the condition of Chris Froome? He lost 22 seconds to Bardet yesterday and suffered on that mega steep ramp to the line. Knowing what they know now, would Bardet or Aru have attacked earlier? And if they had would they have taken serious time? It depends on whether Froome was suffering long before the finish or whether it was only the steep ramp that caught him out? I suppose we’ll never know. Today and the days ahead though will tell us whether it was nothing more than a bad day for the Sky man or whether he is a fading force. Is he not at his best form or is age catching up with him? Will he strike back or is this to Froome what ’96 was to Indurain?

There is also the suggestion that Froome’s lack of form and results all season was to allow him to peak later in the Tour. That his best is still to come in the third week. Or indeed that he will peak late to win the Tour and still have something in the take for the Vuelta, unlike in previous years.

Time will tell, but one thing is for sure, Froome is past his prime years. He’ll have to pick and chose his moments and rely on his know how to get the job done. It happened to Alberto Contador before him, and in fact, Froome had to win the Tour last year in that way. Could it be a year too far? I am not convinced. It is more that he doesn’t suits those steep ramps at his age anymore. Stage 18 will be far better for him and there is still damage to do.

The Giro men are suffering

I asked the question yesterday whether Nairo Quintana would ever win the Tour? He hasn’t looked good this year and he was a ways short last year too. I wondered had his career peaked earlier than most? That might be unfair. While Quintana lost a Giro in which he arrived fresh, it is also true he had this Tour in the back of his mind. He said he will target only the Tour next year, so we’ll see what he can do.

That said, if Nairo Quintana has done anything in this Tour it end the suggestion that the Giro-Tour double is realistic. The Colombian had hoped to target both races this year but after going hard at the Giro and falling short, he has looked a shadow of himself at this Tour.

But this is a good thing. He might not see it that way, but to me it shows the change in culture in the peloton today compared to ten, fifteen or twenty years ago. It has been 19 years since anyone achieved the Giro-Tour double, and we all know what state the sport was in back in 1998. If anything hints at a better era, it is Quintana’s performance at this Tour.

And not only Quintana. Below are the top riders from the Giro who are competing at this Tour with their current placing in the general classification after 12 stages:

Nairo Quintana – 2nd at the Giro – 8th at the Tour at 4’01”
Thibaut Pinot – 4th at the Giro – 66th at the Tour at 1h15’51”
Bauke Mollema – 7th at the Giro – 35th at the Tour at 11’50”
Mikel Landa – 17th at the Giro – 7th at the Tour at 2’55”

Over to today

Today’s stage should be crazy. 101km long with three category one climbs. Expect the action to come early and often. It’s open to an ambush if someone is willing. And with the jersey now on Aru’s shoulders it will be facinating to see if Astana now ride or whether Sky maintain the status quo. They may wish to set the pace in the knowledge Froome is only 6 seconds back but with a time-trial to come.

This one is a can’t miss.

Change in yellow…Tour blown wide open!

A change in the race lead shouldn’t come as a major surprise. I mean, Fabio Aru did only trail Chris Froome by 18 seconds coming into the stage. And yet, I’m still shocked that it has happened, and I don’t quite know why? Aru has looked excellent thus far in this race, winning a stage, while Froome has failed to isolate the Italian when given the chance. With the stage win going to Romain Bardet ahead of Rigoberto Uran with Aru two seconds behind in third and Froome 7th at 22 seconds, Aru is into yellow. He leads Froome now by 6 seconds. Bardet is still in third, but only 25 seconds behind, with Uran a further 30 seconds back.

The big losers on the day were Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador and Jakob Fuglsang. Quintana lost 2’04” and is now 8th at 4’01” on GC, Contador lost 2’15” and is 11th at 7’14”, while the injured Fuglsang lost 27’42”.

The change in race lead means Sky have lost the jersey for the first time this race. Had they gone from start to finish in the lead it would have been the first time since the Faeme team did it in 1970. Tomorrow will be the first time in 26 stages dating back to last years Tour that a Sky rider hasn’t held the jersey. Beyond that, it is the first time Froome has lost the race lead to another rider since stage 4 of the 2015 Tour when Tony Martin took the race lead. He had never lost it to a GC rival before today.

Do you get the sense that the tide is shifting?

Anyone who dismissed this Tour as over when Froome donned the yellow jersey last week, will now find themselves crawling back to see what is going to happen. With four men within a minute of the race lead this is setting itself up as one of the closest Tour battles in years. Froome has a fight on his hands if he wants a fourth title. With a time-trial to come on stage 20, Froome might yet be good for at least another minute, but there is a lot of climbing between now and then.

Tomorrow’s stage is a mere 101km in length but includes three category one climbs before a downhill finish. The pace will be frantic from the start as riders look to isolate one another. It was a stage I felt that Froome’s rivals might try to isolate him. As it turns out it might be the stage Sky need to isolate the rest.

Froome still looks a gear below is best. The argument will be whether he can find that gear or not. Was today his bad day, or is it a sign? There has been a suggestion that Froome is riding himself into top form this year, highlighted by the fact he was below the boil in the tune-up races. The thought is that he will peak for the third week and explode on the likes of stages 17 and 18. On the other hand Froome might already have hit his peak and may need to find other ways to out smart his opponents. We already seen shades of that last year. And it will be a big ask to do, as Aru is looking strong and there is no reason to suggest he will fade as the race goes on. Stages 16 and 17 will suit him too, with stage 17 in particular looking good for Bardet. That descent alone could see him net 30 seconds if he plays it right.

Everything will be won and lost and it looks now as though the time-trial will play a factor. Whether it will see Froome having to regain time remains to be see in the days ahead. The first half of this Tour may have belonged to the sprinters as people yawned their way through repetitive flat stages, but the narrative is turning towards the GC men now.

This Tour is wide open.

General classification after stage 12:

1. Fabio Aru (Astana) in 52h51’49”

2. Chris Froome (Sky) +6″

3. Romain Bardet (AG2R) +25″

4. Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) +55″

5. Dan Martin (Quickstep) +1’41”

6. Simon Yates (Orica) +2’13”

I still like to watch the predictable long and flat stages

There has been a lot of long, flat stages in this years Tour. The kind in which the break goes up the road, gets reeled back in and from which a bunch sprint ensues. It’s not as bad as the 90’s when the entire first week was dedicated to such racing, but in an age in which so much of the Tour is on TV, it stands out more.

So thank goodness the scenery is beautiful in these parts of France. And thank goodness I am the kind of sucker, or indeed have such a love of the Tour, that I will watch a lot of it. I record each stage in the morning then sit down to watch in the evening. I already know the result, and yet when I get a couple of free hours I’m happy watching the countryside that the peloton rolls through. Nothing is happening, but it’s a nice way to unwind with a cup of tea or a cold beer. I can spend time on my phone or iPad and even read a magazine while listening in and looking up from time to time. The mountain stages are often chaotic and give little time to breathe, though I admit I do enjoy those best. But there are so many beautiful little towns on these stages and I can imagine being there. Enjoying that same beer or tea before moving to the side of the road to watch the race roll through.

Many people don’t get that desire to watch like that on TV. They don’t understand what is entertaining about it. And I understand them right back. I get that these stages don’t lend themselves to passive viewers. Some people hate these kind of stages. They call it boring and from a racing perspective it is. I may have preferred if they had thrown a cobbled stage in and if cross-winds had blown another day, but the Tour takes all sorts. It is only the Tour I will set aside such time for.

Of course, time isn’t completely unlimited. At some point I do find myself fast forwarding through chunks of the stage. It frustrates me though. I know nothing is happening and yet I want to hear what the commentators are talking about. I know it can’t be much, but I still don’t know what I will miss. It’s an incredible job to commentate all day on such a stage. This year our international feed has Matthew Keenan and Robbie McEwen on the mic. Both do a terrific job of making those long stages pass and while providing insightful thoughts.

But the final 20km is must watch and as the time ticks by, I need to get to it. And so something gets skipped. In the old days my Tour coverage was a half hour on channel 4. I do miss a good highlight package on the days I have less time; it would show me the important stuff as well as the finish. As it is, I need to use the remote to find the categorised climbs, the intermediate sprint, a crash or something else of note.

Sitting here having only seen the final kilometre of today’s stage I know what to expect later. And yet I will still sit down to watch. And why not. I love the Tour and it only comes around for three weeks a year. Soon enough I’ll be missing it again anyway.

Three kinds of Tour stages

There are three kinds of stages in the Tour de France: Time trials, mountain stages, and Kittel stages. Yes, what was once sprint stages on the flat days, now belongs to a 29 year old German. Unbeatable on such days, or so it seems.

Marcel Kittel has won both stages since the rest day, and both with relative ease. Each stage was much like those that came in the first week of the Tour. A small break would go up the road early and get chased down late before the fast men finished behind Kittel. The only difference between yesterday and today was the margin of victory by Kittel. Today was a little closer, though never in doubt. Yesterday he won by several lengths. In truth there ought to have been a time gap to the rest.

Today finished in Pau. The city has a famous history with the Tour with stages having finished there 59 times dating back to 1930. Between 1971 and 1990 the Tour had a stage finish in Pau every single year. Since then it had been every couple of years until this decade. The finish today was the first time they rolled into Pau since Pierrick Fedrigo won in 2012. He also won there in 2010 and along with Bernard Hinault (’79 and ’81) and Eddy Pauwels (’61 and ’62) is the only two time winner into Pau.

There are at least two more stages that suit Kittel so a shot at 7 stage wins is possible. That would put him in a tie for second most with Bernard Hinault (1979) and Gino Bartali (1948). There are three men who have won eight stages at a single Tour; Eddie Merckx has done it twice. The number of sprint stages in this years Tour has put Kittel in a commending lead in the green jersey contest. He now leads Michael Matthews in second by 133 points. Before his disqualification last week, Peter Sagan was favourite to win this contest for a fifth straight year. It was often felt that Sagan could pick up intermediate sprint points on the lumpy stages where the rest could not. But in this Tour, with all these sprints, even if Sagan had lasted I still think Kittel might have beat him.

Kittel won’t win tomorrow though. That much I can guarantee because tomorrow they hit the high mountains once again. Focus will move away from big sprinters and back to little climbers. The race for yellow will intensify once more.