Coming into stage 8 on Saturday morning there were eight men within a minute of Chris Froome’s yellow jersey. By the time they went to bed on Sunday night, ready for a rest day, that number was down to three. And while some fell away in the standings, Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte, well placed coming into the weekend, fell away on the road and had to abandon.
The yellow jersey came through unscathed with two crucial days ticked off in his bid to defend his title. His lead is only 18 seconds but in hindsight, with all we seen, he’ll take it. Likewise might his now closest rivals, Fabio Aru at 18 seconds, Romain Bardet at 51 seconds, and the surprising Rigoberto Uran at 55 seconds. Of them, Aru courted controversy, Bardet animated Sunday and Uran took a stage win. It was a weekend that threw up so many talking points as the race hit the high mountains. Eight categorised climbs over the two stages, of which four were category one or higher.
Saturday’s stage, while full of action, belonged for the most part to the stage hunters. Lilian Calmejane of the Direct Energie team was the one who survived and made his name. He bridged gaps throughout the day and then struck out solo. Robert Gesink was his closest rival, but not even a serious cramp near the finish could stop him. It was his first stage win on his first Tour de France. Gesink rolled in 37 seconds later. The GC group led by another young French talent, Guillaume Martin came in at 50 seconds.
Few GC men put in any serious attacks on the stage. It didn’t led itself to that given the final climb peaked some 12 kilometres from the finish. You could say it was down to Sky’s hard tempo that left the rest unable to move, but Calmejane only lost a handful of seconds on the final climb. In reality, with a huge stage on Sunday, nobody wanted to burn out any matches. A sign of the the times in 2017 that monster efforts on back-to-back days are hard to make. Not with so much racing in the weeks ahead.
And so to Sunday and the action came thick and fast. The early break went up the road in the hopes of doing what Calmejane done the day before, but they wouldn’t last. That is except for Warren Barguil, but we’ll get to him. All the talking points revolved around those riding for the GC.
The first HC climb of this Tour was the Col de la Biche. Too far out for any damage on the uphill, but on the way back down, with wet patches under the tree canopy, a crash brought down Geraint Thomas. He was sitting second coming in but had to abandon with a broken collarbone. It left Froome down a crucial lieutenant.
Things settled over the Colombier but exploded on the Mont du Chat. By the time they would leave its viscous slopes, any dramas from days before would long be forgotten.
On the way up, Froome threw his arm in the air to signal a mechanical problem. At the same moment, his now nearest rival in the standings, Fabio Aru, nipped under his armpit and attacked. It was a blatant display of unsportsmanlike conduct as you’re like to see. A moment of panic descended over the face of Froome who must have had visions of Mont Ventoux in 2016 all over again. Was help not coming? Was he going to have to run again? I thought it myself, for an instant, before the team car came to his aid.
The others followed Aru and soon remonstrated with the Italian who relented his effort. Aru didn’t have to wait on Froome, but Aru shouldn’t have attacked him either. He would later claim that he didn’t know Froome had a problem, but unless he thought Froome was waving to fans, I’m not sure what else he thought was going on?
Froome soon regained contact. A video then emerged that appeared to show Froome shoulder barging Aru off to the side of the road. Froome would deny the intention, saying he lost his balance, but it didn’t look that way. It was the kind of response to the move by Aru that Bernard Hinault would have been proud of. It wasn’t violent, but there was a message in it.
The silly stuff ended there because then the attacks began. Each man appeared to take a turn to lay into the Sky leader, but each time he responded. And then he went himself and the group shrank to Aru, Romain Bardet, Richie Porte, Dan Martin and Rigoberto Uran. Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador were noticeable by their absence. Yet while the group had shrank, Froome was not out on his own as he might have been in the past with such an attack. Had this been a full blown effort, or only one to reduce the field? With a descent to come and a long run-in to the finish, did he want to be staking out alone? As it was, the small group hit the descent together with only Barguil still up the road.
Froome moved to the front on the descent and put the pressure on. I doubt the intention was to force anyone into a mistake that might lead to a crash, but if he could gap a few more rivals, he would take it. But the crashing did come and in horrific fashion for Porte and Martin. Porte overshot a turn and bounced across the road and into a rock face. Martin had nowhere to go and went down with him. The Irishman was up soon enough and on his way, but Porte didn’t move. It looked bad. Porte was out of the Tour, but it could have been a lot worse.
I’m not sure whether the crash unnerved Froome, but he scaled back his effort and it was the unflappable Bardet who took over. The Frenchman is one of the best descender’s in the pack and he knows these roads well. He had built up a healthy gap by the bottom, had the stage finished there and not with a flat 13.5km run in to Chambery, he might even have taken over the race lead.
Instead a pursuit ensued. Bardet put up a valiant effort and caught and past Barguil who dropped back to the chasing group. Froome, isolated and in yellow, should have had to chase alone, but instead Astana team mates Fuglsang and Aru, along with Uran, give him help. They reeled in Bardet and in the six man sprint, Uran hung on to the fast moving Barguil to take it in a photo finish. Uran’s victory was all the more special given that in an earlier crash he had broken his rear derailleur and was stuck with only two gears.
The stopwatch told the damage. Martin, Quintana and Simon Yates all lost 1 minute 15 seconds while Contador lost 4 minutes 19 seconds. Beyond that, and I mean, way beyond Contador’s time, seven men came in outside the time limit. The biggest name was that of Arnaud Demare who took three team mates with him. His green jersey ambitions gone.
It was a rough day for some, an awful day for others, and for the likes of Froome, Aru and Bardet, a day of close calls and drama but no major loses. People will debate the inclusion of such descents in the race long into the night. But descents have always been in the Tour. It’s up to each rider to decide how to race them and nobody has to take risks. Luck comes into it – ask Dan Martin about that – but the Tour is a rounded test of fitness, attrition, nerves and skill.
As the tears streamed from the exahusted face of Barguil who thought he had won the stage, so the rest of us tried to catch our breath. There had been non-stop action and drama. Those who said they were turning off after the disqualification of Peter Sagan might be regretting that now. That controversy seems a long time ago and yet we’re only nine stages in. The Tour has always been about the mountains and today proved why. The riders have earned their rest day now, and to tell you the truth, I’m glad of it too!
Standings after stage 9:
1. Chris Froome (Sky) in 38h 26’28”
2. Fabio Aru (Astana) +18″
3. Romain Bardet (AG2R) +51″
4. Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) +55″
5. Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) +1’37”
6. Dan Martin (Quickstep) +1’44”
8. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) +2’13”
12. Alberto Contador (Trek) +5’15”