When I last wrote about this Vuelta, almost a week ago, everything was looking good for Chris Froome. He had crashed twice in as many corners that day but his lead stood at 59 seconds to Vincenzo Nibali and nobody had put him in trouble. Indeed, everyone else was starting to fall out of touch. Fast forward six days and you could say that everything still looks good for Froome. But it hasn’t all been easy in the days between.
The stage had everything you don’t wish to see and everything you do, all at the same time. It was a stage full of drama but which, when it came down to the details of the standings, didn’t have a dramatic impact. Cycling can be funny that way. It was the incidents rather than the results that told the story. Cycling can be so often that way.
I didn’t get seeing much of the stage but when I did turn on I thought for a moment I had traveled back to somewhere around 2009. For there was Alberto Contador, dancing on the pedals and putting everyone into trouble.
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”
For all the flat stages in which an early break gets brought back in time for the bunch gallop, this Tour has sure been full of drama. That is often the case at the Tour, but I don’t remember one in which there were so many points of debate within the first nine stages. From the Sagan-Cavendish incident, to the photo finish on stage 7 to many moments on Sunday’s stage 9. It feels like we’re two weeks in rather than one.
And with each debate so the last debate drifts out of mind. I have said it a few times already, but the Tour moves fast and not only on the road. Something else will happen next week that will move the narrative on once more. And how refreshing too that the controversy is about what is happening on the bikes, if you know what I mean? Rest days ain’t what they used to be. All we’re doing now is looking back at what has been and considering how it all adds up to what we will see in the days ahead.
The hottest talking point today is descents. Should they be a potential factor in the race or are they too dangerous? Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas both crashed out of the Tour on the back of downhill crashes. Some feel it has no place in a bike race, but if that’s the case why not do away with sprint stages too? Invite the best ten climbers and have them race up a mountain each day for a week and see who does it fastest. I get that the better climbers end up winning the Tour, but it ought to be a rounded test. Besides, the final descent yesterday was in this years Dauphine. Nobody complained then. The individual rider can regulate their own speed and risk by using the breaks on their bike.
Going up a mountain fast is vital, but you have to be able to come back down again. There are sprint stages and time-trials too. Sometimes there can be cross winds or cobbled stages. The Tour is a rounded test of fitness, attrition, nerves and skill, with a pinch of luck. For all the terrain across a three week journey, each rider must choose when to make his moves or take his time in order to make his time. The one who survives it all the best, with that luck thrown in, will wear the yellow jersey in Paris.
To attack or not to attack the yellow jersey
So what is the rule? Or should I say, the unwritten rule? If I write it here does it become written? Nobody knows, of course. More often than not it is up for interpretation and depends on the mood of the riders involved. Though yesterday I am in no doubt that Fabio Aru crossed the line.
It’s one thing not to wait if a rival suffers a mechanical incident, but to attack right from under his raised arm? Well, that’s stretching it. Aru claimed he didn’t know, but shy of him thinking Froome was waiving to spectators, how could he not? All they had to do was maintain their rhythm and make Froome chase back up. To attack in that manor smacked of desperation.
Yellow on the first rest day
All three times Chris Froome has won the Tour de France he has carried the yellow jersey into the first rest day. Yesterday he ensured he did it again. Only 18 seconds separates him from Fabio Aru with Romain Bardet in third at 51 seconds, though this isn’t his smallest lead at a first rest day.
The first year Froome won the Tour, in 2013, he entered the rest day with a 1’25” lead over Alejandro Valverde. He would go on to win that Tour by 4’20” ahead of Quintana. Valverde would finish 8th at 16’26”. In 2015 Froome led Tejay Van Garderen by 2’52” at the first rest day and went on to win by 1’12”, again ahead of Quintana. Van Garderen didn’t finish. And then in 2016 Froome came into the first rest day with a 16 second lead over Adam Yates with eight others within a minute. Much like this year before yesterday’s stage. In the end Froome would prevail by 4’05” over Bardet with Adam Yates in 4th at 4’42”.
In fact, the past five Tour’s have seen the yellow jersey at the first rest day go on to win the Tour. In 2012, Bradley Wiggins led by 1’53” from Cadel Evans going on to win it by 3’21 from Froome with Evans back in 7th at 15’49”. And then in 2014, Vincenzo Nibali led Richie Porte by 2’23”. He went on to beat JC Peraud by 7’37” while Porte was a distant 23rd at 1h1’08”.
But this is only a recent trend. In the five years before 2012, nobody who was in yellow at the first rest day went on to win the Tour. Froome’s rivals will be hoping to break the current trend in 2017.
What now for Contador?
Talking about rest days? Albeto Contador could sure use one. El Pistolero is no longer the cyclist he used to be. His force has been fading for a few years now, but he has never looked more exposed than he did yesterday when he lost 4’19” to Froome. He now sits in 12th at 5’15”. Not even Contador, with his ambush style tactics that can come back from this. Should Contador instead swallow his pride and focus on a stage win? Would he be willing to ship more time in the hopes of doing so? It won’t be easy for him to become that kind of rider, but it has been 7 years now since he last won the Tour (though he was later stripped of that one). There have been six Grand tours, not counting this current Tour de France, since he last won one. That was the 2015 Giro d’Italia. At 34 years of age, the best of Contador is now behind. If he want’s to keep racing, he will need to reinvent himself.
Alright, it is time to slide right off the fence now and begin some hard and bold predictions. Below are my picks for the top five on GC as well as the respective jersey winners.
Disclaimer: Do not bet on this, not if you value your money. Take it with a shaker full of salt.
TOP 5 IN PARIS (assuming they all make it to Paris, which of course some won’t, but I don’t have it in me to select who might crash out or fall ill!):
1. Chris Froome. Froome often arrives at Tours in great form, gains his time early and then survives to the end. This year though he’s been short on high form but might instead arrive fresh, looking to ride into form. Stage five aside, this Tour seems to suit that approach and might explain why Froome hasn’t looked his usual self. Froome has three Tour wins to his name and that will matter. Last year showed he can be unpredictable by attacking in cross-winds and descents. And if things don’t go as planned, he has an ability to stay calm, regroup, measure his efforts and find a way to get back into a stage or the race. There is nobody more prepared than Chris Froome. He’ll know what he has to do to win and when it comes down to it, he will do enough.
2. Nairo Quintana. More than ever Quintana will be a challenge for Froome. Yes the Colombian rode the Giro, but I’m not sure he did at “full gas”, as riders like to say so often these days. The problem for Nairo is the lack of hard summit finishes. He needs to limit his loses in the prologue and then do something on stage five. He’ll also need to use his team to try and ambush Froome on one of the rolling stages much like they done at last years Vuelta. Someone like Alejandro Valverde will be crucial for this, though how big are his own ambitions? The final time-trial will count against him too, even with the little climb in the middle, but only with regards to Froome. When it boils down to it, Quintana will still be the second best man in this race.
3. Romain Bardet. Results of 15th, 6th, 9th and 2nd would suggest that Bardet’s career is trending upward. At 26 now he is coming into his best years and is no longer a prospect for the future. I still think Froome and Quintana remain a level above, though I would love to wrong about that. It has been so long since a French win at the Tour that everyone would now love to see it happen. Thibaut Pinot is another who could break the drought but he rode hard at the Giro and won’t have the legs of his compatriot. Bardet is an opportunist who rides on instinct. That should help him steal time somewhere, including a stage win and be enough to vault him back onto the podium, albit a step down on last year. Fitting though given he took a slight step back the year after he finished 6th. What he will hope though is that this will force him on to win it in 2018.
4. Alberto Contador. The old dog ain’t what he used to be. In recent years Contador has turned to alternative tactics to try and win Grand Tours. Ambushing his rivals with attacks when they least expect it, often a long way from the finish. This route looks tailor made for that kind of racing and so Contador at the very least will ignite the race. The likes of Sky and Movistar look too strong to let him get away with it though. He’ll also be hoping and watching for cross-winds in the early stage with which to grab time to try and maintain in the mountains. He’s still very much capable but it is worth remembering his last Grand Tour win was the 2015 Giro. It has been eight years (seven if you asked him) since he last won the Tour.
5. Richie Porte. The Australian has had a very sold season thus far, but we’re only able to measure him by his results in one week races. The three week Grand Tours are a different animals and throughout his career he has always come up quite short. Sometimes through bad luck, at other times through a bad day, but often because he was riding for Froome. Free at last in 2016 he lost time early due to a mechanical and could never get back on terms. He rode well and finished fifth and I expect much the same this year. I’m not sure whether it will be a mechanical or legs, but one stage at least will catch him out.
Rest of the top 10: Fabio Aru, Jakob Fuglsang, Bauke Mollema, Simon Yates, Alejandro Valverde.
GREEN JERSEY: Peter Sagan. This doesn’t need any explanation. There are about 11 stages that suit him to win this year, though it is more likely he comes in around 3-4 stage wins. That won’t matter though, it’s his ability to pick up points at various points on rolling or mountain stages that will make the difference. The other sprinters cannot do this. The only other rider who might push him close is Michael Matthews. The Australian is a similar style of rider to Sagan, but in my view still a level below.
MOUNTAIN JERSEY: Rafal Majka. He has won it twice in the last three years. A team-mate of Peter Sagan, his Bora team will no doubt let him loose to chase stages and grab climbing points. It would be a fine Tour for them should both Majka and Sagan bring home the green and polka-dot jerseys. His biggest threat might come from a pair of Frenchmen in Thibaut Pinot and Pierre Rolland. Neither have designs or desires on the GC and both will be looking for stage wins. If that leads them to being in the mix for the mountains classification, both may give it a run. I always felt someone like Rolland could go the Richard Virenque route when it came to targeting this jersey, much as Sagan does the green. He’s never won up to now though, but now seems like a good time to start. Still, as a previous winner, I expect Majka to want it that little bit more from the beginning.
WHITE JERSEY: Simon Yates. His biggest challenger here will be Louis Meintjes. The young South African cracked the top 10 last year and will be desperate to do so again. He didn’t win white though, instead losing it to Adam Yates. This time it will be the other Yates twin who gets in his way. A top ten finish on GC might be enough to secure this jersey this time out. Last year Adam Yates finished 4th overall, and while Simon would love to match this, he may have to settle for taking the polka-dot jersey.
TEAM CLASSIFICATION: Movistar. Top to bottom Team Sky are stronger that Movistar. The difference is that with so much emphasis on helping Froome, others will sacrifice any GC ambitions and thus hurt their standing here. You could say the same about Movistar riders aiding Quintana, but Valverde is still a sure bet for a top ten finish.
SUPER-COMBAVITITY AWARD: Thomas De Gendt. This one is a bit of a shot in the dark. It will all come down to who feels good to get in a lot of breaks and show aggression. There’s one of about 150 this could be. Peter Sagan won it last year and will be a huge favourite again this time. He’ll get in plenty of breaks, he should win a hanful of stages and he’ll ignite the race. But then there is De Gendt. He often spends more time in breaks than anyone else, many felt he deserved to win it last year. Disappointed that he didn’t, he will be out to make amends in this Tour, I reckon.
What an incredible week at the Vuelta, accumulating in an extraordinary weekend in which the balance of the race ebbed and flowed before dropping right into the lap of Nairo Quintana, as Chris Froome was finally isolated when Alberto Contador threw all his cards onto the table as he is always apt to do when struggling to make up time by conventional methods.
For several days it seemed though Froome was going to survive what Quintana had been throwing at him and would limit the Colombians lead to around a minute before the stage 19 time-trial in which the Sky rider would then surely overhaul that deficit and set up the first Tour-Vuelta double of the decade.
On Saturday Froome had stayed on the wheel of Quintana in the kind of way the Movistar rider had done to the Sky man the entire Tour de France last month, but managed to lose no time on a grueling finish, one that seen Alejandro Valverde crack and make this Vuelta a two-horse race.
But then came the kind of stage yesterday that should have seen red flags go up before the starters flag had even come down. At just 118km in length but with three hard climbs including a summit finish, all eyes should have been on Contador and what he might try. He was far enough back overall not to panic about too much but when he launched his move and Quintana followed, Froome needed to react.
He was left with a split second decision to either put his team on the front and slowly bring the move back, or to go with it. He chose the former, but the only problem was that his team were nowhere to be seen, or at least no longer had the legs required to do their jobs. So Froome suddenly found himself with only a couple of team-mates and a group of others unwilling to do much work. Quintana and Contador in a group of 14 disappeared up the road and Froome’s GC ambitions began to shatter.
For the final 50km it was a giant pursuit…or a race of damage limitation. Astana chipped in for reasons not quite clear, and Froome may thank them for it, as the damage could have been much worse. Froome limped home 2min 53sec behind Quintana, who finished second on the stage behind Gianluca Brambilla after earlier cracking Contador himself, and while he remains second overall the Sky rider is now 3min 37sec behind. The onus is now on him to try do something similar to Quintana in order to bring down the deficit before the time-trial.
The odds of that seem unlikely given it is clear Froome is not the man he was at the Tour, though those odds may be increased slightly by the fact that he still has a team around him at all. You see, the gruppetto ambled home a massive 54 minutes behind the stage winner and all outside the time-limit. Indeed, Froome was the only Sky man to make the cut and in theory everyone should have been eliminated, reducing the field of this Vuelta to little more than about 70 men. Traditionally however race organizers will overrule the time cut if it means the field would be dramatically reduced and did so in this case though it has created a stir of controversy given the kind of men involved.
In theory, Sky’s domestiques have been given a day off and an entry back into the race, and with fresher legs could yet help Froome to hurt Quintana on a later day. Should that happen you get the sense there might be uproar.
It’s hard to know where to come down on this? Lose more than half the peloton on one stroke and you do make a mockery of the race, but should Sky put the hammer down in the days to come it could equally make a mockery given all but Froome technically shouldn’t be there. There is president for eliminating large groups outside the time limit, but not to this extent. It would seem that race organizers made the common sense decision but it has to have been awkward and it must surely lead to some kind of shakeup on how the time limit is set up and interpreted.
Then again, wouldn’t it have been fascinating to see how it might play out with just 70 or so men line up for the start today with Chris Froome by himself? I get the impression sponsors, TV and others with financial interest might not have been so impressed however. Not to mention fans who are planning to go watch their heroes on a stage this week if they suddenly find out half the field is now missing.
The only way around it, that I can see, is to change the time-limit margins on certain stages so that it isn’t quite as tight as it was today (albeit even relaxing this, the 54min coughed up today still may not have gotten this group inside a more relaxed limit) and then make it a hard and fast limit with no exceptions so that everyone knows were they stand. It seems clear that when the hammer went down on yet another brutal day of hilly racing in this most brutal of Vuelta’s (a level of extreme difficulty that must also surely be factored in when setting time limits), that a large group gathered at the back and decided to take it easy in the knowledge that the race officials wouldn’t have it in them to kick them all out. You can’t blame the riders given how hard this race has been…the organisors in many ways asked for a day like this when they unveiled such a route…one that we all love, mind you, and one that they themselves might even have been delighted with given the spectacle regardless.
But we’ll see how this impacts the race in the days ahead.
And what of Quintana’s form in general? What do we make of his sudden upturn in form from the Tour to the Vuelta? He’s clearly improved dramatically whereas Froome has fallen away. Yes Froome won the Tour, but he only beat Quintana by 4min 21sec, or by just 0.08% of the total time. Of course, Froome then went to a couple of post-Tour criteriums, he completed the Ride London classic, and then flew to Brazil to compete hard in both the road race and individual time-trial, whereas Quintana took a break and turned his focus entirely on the Vuelta. That in itself is possibly the difference.
Or, the Colombian was never targeting the Tour all along despite what he said. Perhaps deep down he knew that he wouldn’t be able to beat Froome when Froome was on top form and instead decided winning the Vuelta held the greater opportunity for a return on his efforts over the season?
We’ll never know what has made the difference for sure, but one thing is certain: Froome is having to dig very deep and hope desperately that his form arrives late just to keep a new and fresher Quintana within sight.
It’s going be a fascinating final week.
As it is, the general classification after 15 stage is as follows:
1. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in 61h36’07”
2. Chris Froome (Sky) @ 3’37”
3. Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExhange) @ 3’57”
4. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) @ 4’02”
5. Simon Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) @5’07”
6. Samuel Sanchez (BMC) @ 6’12”
Rider of the week
He’s been in fine form throughout this Vuelta and yesterday he put several nails into the coffin of his final rival and baring disaster will surely go on to win this Vuelta. So who else but Nairo Quintana.
Rider of the month
This was hard. Nobody has dominated the month. The Vuelta is still very much on going and still to be determined what direction it might take whereas different people have stepped up to win single day races. As a result I’ve looked at the most prestigious of the lot in August, the Olympics and gone with Greg Van Avermaet for his superb win on a course that nobody expected to suit his style of riding…so much so that Peter Sagan skipped it altogether. Yes the British athletes were superb on the track this month, but Van Avermaets road gold was the standout individual performance.