What do we count as the biggest sporting day in Australia? Is it the AFL grand final? Maybe the NRL grand final? What about Melbourne Cup?
What an explosion of colour and movement the Critérium du Dauphiné turned out to be! Andrew Talansky’s smash-and-grab mission to steal the overall victory sent expectations flying like a watermelon truck in a car chase.
High drama indeed, and one of the best stages of any race in recent memory. But does it signify much for the Tour de France?
I don’t think there are any Earth-shattering revelations to be found: the list of main Tour favourites stays the same, with some shuffling.
However, there are serious tactical implications that emerge from this race. Some chinks emerged in the armour of Team Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo, and that’s great news for a Tour that should be less predictable than the two previous editions.
Talansky has long been tipped by the US cycling press as a future star, and at 25 he has already had some good results in Europe: overall podiums at the Tours of Romandie and Paris-Nice, and top tens on general classification at the Vuelta a Espana and Tour de France.
But it’s too easy to remember the tactical blunder in Stage 5 of the 2013 Paris-Nice, when Talansky, riding in yellow, defended his jersey aggressively, only to crack and hand Richie Porte the stage and overall victory. Still a promising result, it nevertheless fuelled the perception that the Miami native has a vice: over-confidence.
Talansky’s natural aggression paid off at the Dauphine though, producing a final-stage ride that could scarcely have been more audacious if he’d performed it in the nude while whistling the theme to The Great Escape.
Not only did he pinch the overall victory from the two men widely assumed to have the race stitched up, he also knocked off most of the next tier of contenders.
But how the hell was a breakaway that included Talansky, Tejay van Garderen, Jurgen van den Broeck, Vincenzo Nibali, Ryder Hesjedal, Jean-Christophe Péraud, Thomas Voeckler, Romain Bardet, Adam Yates, Mikel Nieve, Richie Porte and Wilco Kelderman ever allowed to get away in the first place? That’s not a breakaway, it’s a list of guys most likely to finish top ten in any contemporary Grand Tour. You don’t simply sit back and let them blow up the race, because that much firepower is near impossible to bring back.
Race leader Alberto Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo Bank team had the responsibility to control the race, and they failed dismally. This left Contador completely isolated and forced to chase down the most powerful breakaway since the Kit Kat was invented.
Perhaps this was a cunning plan to force Contador into the most extreme pre-Tour training possible – a 15 kilometre solo effort up two Cat. 1 climbs trying desperately to defend a slipping yellow jersey.
If that was the plan, it could be euphemistically described as ‘brave’.
More likely, the team just had a shocker, dropped its bundle and left its leader cursing a missed opportunity to pump up his palmares and his confidence before the Big One in a few weeks’ time.
That said, even while the Dauphine slipped away Contador’s ride was super impressive. If he had started the climb to Courchevel level with his rivals, he would have won handsomely. His form is ominous and he will have better team support at the Tour.
Meanwhile, at Team Sky, what were we witnessing with The Crack of Froome?
I wrote a couple of weeks ago that Froome rides like a man fighting an octopus. This week, the octopus won.
After a perfect start to the Dauphine, the rest of the week has been a shocker for poor old Froome-dog. An inflated controversy about an asthma inhaler; a crash; cracking on Stage 7; cracking even harder on Stage 8; and allegations of irregularities with his therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for the corticosteroid prednisolone (bizarrely reported as ‘penisolone’ through some outlets – stop sniggering, up the back), which the UCI is desperately trying to quash.
I don’t think any of that matters. Froome only cracked because he crashed. That’s not a lack of form, it’s just dumb luck. The rest is a sideshow if he’s got medical clearance from the UCI.
There’s been some comments that Team Sky wasn’t up to the job when it mattered in the Dauphine. I disagree. In Stage 8 the team was still supporting Froome in numbers: eventual stage winner Mikel Nieve and Richie Porte were both in the important break (Porte ultimately dropped back to support Froome), and David Lopez, Vasil Kiryienka and Geraint Thomas were with him until it was clear that all was lost.
The team was unable to respond to Contador’s counter-attack because Froome himself was suffering and a harder tempo would have cracked him even faster.
Team Sky is not invincible: they are vulnerable to coordinated attacks from multiple teams. It’s especially true when everyone else wants to take Sky down, and that’s the price of two years of domination.
The Dauphine showed that Tinkoff-Saxo, Movistar, Garmin-Sharp, AG2R and Astana are all more than happy to put aside their differences and bury the hatchet – in Team Sky’s back.
Team Sky needs to adapt. They don’t have the strength to boss the race on their own terms anymore. A more canny approach is needed. Let other teams control the race. Save energy until it matters. Don’t give them an excuse to gang up on you.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Froome looked in great nick until his crash, and has plenty of time to recover before the Tour. Porte improved through the week, Kiryienka was typically indefatigable, while Lopez and Thomas also proved themselves more than useful controlling the race for long periods.
Mikel Nieve provides a huge boost to Sky in the mountains. The former Euskaltel climber has finished in the top ten overall in the Vuelta and the Giro, and has won stages of each. He will take an enormous amount of pressure off Porte.
The ‘Schrödinger’s Wiggins’ theorising will continue, but Dave Brailsford must now be giving some serious thought to bringing his former star back into the fold.
Hell, if there’s trouble on the team bus, I’m sure someone can drive Sir Wiggo around in one of their sponsor’s cars.