So the Tour is over. Won and done. One for the history books. All that is left now, before turning the page on it, is to take a quick look back. A few thoughts on the winners, a review of my predictions and some awards before saying goodbye. Then I’m off on my holidays for a while. I won’t be bringing my bike and I won’t be thinking about professional cycling either. I’ll return, I hope, in time for the Vuelta.
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.
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”