You could not take your eyes off of it, though did you ever think you would be able to? Action from the first cobbled sector to the line, with crashes and mechanicals, splits and dust. The race had it all. A story book winner, and not too much damage to most of the general classification … unless your name is not Richie Porte. This was the stage many had been looking to when the race route was announced. A test of bike handling skill, of strength, and of good fortune on broken roads on the way to the historic cycling town of Roubaix. And as expected, all three played their part.
Romain Bardet did it. By a single second. No, he didn't win the Tour with the time trial of a lifetime, but rather clung on to a podium position after a ride to forget. We got the drama we were hoping for today, only it didn't come in the manor we expected.
As Bardet rolled down the start ramp inside the Stade Velodrome in Marseille, the crowd roared in hope. Two minutes later, the cheers turned to boos for Chris Froome. That may seem unfair, but given he was the man standing in Bardet's way, you could understand it. Froome himself could have expected nothing less. But when Bardet returned to the stadium a half hour later, the roars were cheers of nerves. He hit the line and retained his podium by a single second from the surging Mikel Landa. Following him into the stadium, only seconds later, was Froome. The boos had quietened. Reality had set in. The dream was over for the French; the Englishman had won a fourth Tour de France.
It was the last chance saloon for the climbers. A last opportunity to try and take time from Chris Froome before Saturday’s time-trial. A final battle between Louis Meintjes and Simon Yates in the white jersey contest. One last chance to stop Warren Barguil’s claim on the polka-dot jersey. And the little matter of someone winning the stage.
This was a stage race within the race in which there were many mini-races taking place. Once they hit the final climb of the Col d’Izoard, you didn’t know where to look. There was always something going on. It was the first time the race has finished up this Alpine Giant and you have to wonder why it took so long? It was a brute and it wore the very best down to exhaustion.
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”
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”
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.
Here is a look across all the various final standings of the 2016 Tour de France with a little word on each. From the overall classification to the best French riders and from a review of my questionable pre-Tour predictions to my overall team of the Tour of which there can be no debate! First up though, the yellow jersey…