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”