It was a stage of two parts. Not a split stage like those from the 1980s, but rather a stage in which two stories were written. The first was the very sudden realisation that perhaps this Tour was not over and that at last the Yellow jersey appeared to be in trouble, with a seemingly won and lost Tour up for grabs on the most iconic climb in the race and the final climb at that. The second was the race to actually win on that iconic climb as a young Frenchman timed his moment of redemption on this years Tour to perfection, much to the joy of his adoring home nation.
When Thibaut Pinot was seen standing on the cobbles of northern France almost three weeks ago, throwing his arms in the air in frustration that a mechanical was sending his Tour dreams up with the dust that surrounded him, it looked as though he might just quit there and then. It might have been the easy thing to do. Likewise on stage 17 when, having long since turned to hunting for stage wins, he crashed on the descent of the Col d’Allos. A younger version of himself might well have folded and rode anonymously into Paris but last years high finish has clearly given him a deep belief in his ability and the 25 year old Frenchman gutted it out and continued to hunt, until today, when on the grandest stage of all at Alpe d’Huez, he got his win.
It was a superb ride by Pinot. He shook off the rest of his breakaway companions, the last of which was the always gritty, always strong Ryder Hesjedal, and soloed to a win by 18sec over a fast charging man on a mission, Nairo Quintana.
From the top of the first mountain of the Tour to the foot of the last, Chris Froome winning this years Tour de France has seemed a foregone conclusion with everyone else either fighting to maintain a podium place or a position in the top ten. Either they seemed incapable of distancing the Sky rider or, dare I say, unwilling to attempt it at the risk of blowing their own position.
Nairo Quintana, who had entered the mountain stages nearly two minutes behind Froome and then lost more time on that first mountain stage, had spent the better part of the past week making small attempts to shake Froome only to find himself consolidating his podium position by dropping most others but with Froome always close by.
That isn’t to say there were signs that Froome was beginning to look tired; no longer was he initiating the major moves, but even yesterday Quintana only managed to pull back a mere 30sec when he finally shed himself of Froome, leaving Froome still 2min 38sec to the good with just this final stage to go. But nobody wins the Tour without some kind of adversity, and while Froome has faced a lot of his from the actions of some idiot fans, on the bike he was, at last, about to get a taste of adversity courtesy of the little Colombian.
There was only two climbs here and the first on the Col de la Croix de Fer was too far out as Quintana found out when he briefly attacked only to sit up on the descent. With a long ride along the valley to the Alpe, it would have been madness for Quintana to push on. It appeared too late for Quintana, just as it had been each time a day ticked by with Froome still in a commanding lead, and so with only the Alpe remaining, focus was already fully upon who from the early break off the front might win the stage itself.
In the end it was too late, but for a short while, Froome appeared to be in real trouble. Quintana attacked early on the Alpe and nobody reacted. Froome watched him go, but this time there was no holding his power threshold and slowly bridging back across. This time the gap continued to open until which times Quintana was no longer on the same stretch of road between hairpin bends.
The gap grew to 30 seconds and it held around there for a while as Froome sat on the wheels of his super domestique, turned bodyguards, Wout Poels and Richie Porte. The last act of Porte in service to his captain before moving away from Sky at the end of the season would be to try and save the Yellow jersey for the Sky leader.
As the crowds swarmed and the threat of attack loomed, the Sky duo in front of Froome powered their way through, the crowds moving back just in time as the clock on the top of our TV screens continued to tick upwards and up over a minute. Froome was in trouble, with several kilomtres still remaining, the Tour appeared to be slipping away.
Everyone was scrambling to do the maths in their heads. How much could Froome afford to lose now and how many kilometres were left? Was he keeping something in the bag…riding to a level he knew he could maintain without losing enough time? Or was he on his limit…starting to panic as the time gap continued to rise and the legs refused to react? He wasn’t looking any stronger as the hairpin bends were counted off, and what if he suddenly cracked?
Behind the Team Sky bus paced Sir Dave Brailsford, going through all these emotions with the sane side of his brain telling him that the allowable gap versus the distance remaining left a power requirement of Froome that he could surely manage. The other side of his brain was remining him (and all of us) of the human element of the Tour in which sometimes power numbers, data, stats and everything else could become irrelevant when troubles come and all that stood between you and the glory was the desire to suffer that little bit more, to find the strength to hang on.
Into the final kilometre and Brislford could begin to relax. Quintana hadn’t gained enough. That moment in which it looked like we were witnessing one of the greatest comebacks/collapses in Tour history was fading. Quintana finished and 1min 20sec later, so to did Froome. He looked to the clock, a look of a man that didn’t have it all under control after all, but took note that he had won the Tour by a mere 1min 12sec; a figure nobody could have imagined his lead dropping to when the day began.
Quintana will surely question his bad timing today. A little too late to overhaul Froome for the Tour win and a little too late to overhaul Pinot for the stage win and he will head home as the winner of the young rider competition, but empty handed without a stage victory unlike those two men who got in his way overall and for the stage. That said, he will win stages and should win himself a Tour one day, and what he did perhaps do was prove himself as the finest climber in the world, one who stays strong over the course of a three week race. It will have left him and his fans wondering what if regarding that treacherous first week where on stage two in the cross-winds he lost 1min 28sec to Froome, more than which he has now lost the Tour by.
Of course, for Froome he has proven to have timed this Tour to perfection. You can say ‘what if’ there had been another mountain today, or another mountain stage tomorrow, but there wasn’t and there isn’t and Froome stands in Yellow. And while Quintana can say he lost the Tour in the winds of Holland, Froome could also point to that first mountain stage to La Pierre-Saint-Martin where, with the stage win, he put 1min 14sec (including the 10sec time bonus) into Quintana, 2sec more than that he won the Tour by.
In the end though, the best man always wears Yellow in Paris and Froome has proven himself to be the best across the entire three weeks of the route that was put in front of them and not just the four days in the Alps. He’ll ride into Paris tomorrow and baring some kind of unforeseen disaster will win his second Tour in three years and Sky’s third in four.
|1. Pinot (FDJ) in 3h 17′ 21″
2. Quintana (MOV) +18″
3. Hesjedal (TCG) +41″
4. Valverde (MOV) +1′ 38″
5. Froome (SKY) s.t.
6. Rolland (EUC) +1′ 41″
|1. Froome (SKY) in 81h 56′ 33″
2. Quintana (MOV) +1′ 12″
3. Valverde (MOV) +5′ 25″
4. Nibali (AST) +8′ 36″
5. Contador (TCS) +9′ 48″
6. Gesink (TLJ) +10′ 47″