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Tour de France: The calm before the final storm

Chris Froome.(Source: Team Sky)
Expert
20th July, 2015
0

Rest days do funny things to riders’ legs.

It’s a given that everyone will spend at least some of the day on their bikes. Doing nothing is too much of a shock to their bodies, but getting a little extra rest is just as important for all riders.

Chris Froome’s General Classification rivals will need to execute their rest day strategy precisely if they’re collectively going to avoid what we witnessed last week.

No one could’ve anticipated how devastating Team Sky’s attack on the stifling 15.3-kilometre climb of the Col de Soudet would be. Every rider with ambitions of winning the 102nd Tour saw his hopes evaporate on Stage 10, as the relentless heat sapped their energy.

We wondered at the time whether Froome was just too good. Was it the heat? Or the shock of a serious climb at the end of a flat stage following a rest day?

Was it all three?

Some even wondered (aloud) whether it was more ‘evidence’ of doping, or perhaps even ‘mechanical doping’.

A week later, we’re still wondering. We’re also still wondering whether anyone or anything can expose a fatal crack in Froome’s seemingly impenetrable armour.

Nothing that’s happened in the Pyrenees and the transitional stages that have brought us to the foot of the Alps has made us any wiser as to why Froome is so far ahead of anyone else. All we know is what the bare numbers say, and they’re telling us that he’s better. 3:10 better thus far.

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At this point in last year’s race, Vincenzo Nibali was 4:37 ahead of his nearest rival Alejandro Valverde, and he increased his margin to 7:10 by the time we reached Paris. He did that with a solid third at Pla d’Adet in Stage 17 and then a dominating solo victory on Hautacam the following day.

Neither stage was raced in hot weather, but it will be on Wednesday as the hottest Tour de France in years rolls on. Based on what we saw in Stages 10 and 11 that can only be good news for Chris Froome and bad news for his rivals.

And with an extra day in the Alps compared to the Pyrenees, what are the chances that Froome’s lead will soon rival Nibali’s from last year?

So like last year, what we’re left with is the battle to fill the podium.

Realistically, and of course barring a mishap, these are the only contenders for the Paris podium.

Nairo Quintana: Movistar – 0:03:10
Tejay van Garderen: BMC – 0:03:32
Alejandro Valverde: Movistar – 0:04:02
Alberto Contador: Tinkoff-Saxo – 0:04:23
Geraint Thomas: Team Sky – 0:05:32

The next best-placed rider is Robert Gesink at 6:23. Right now that looks a bridge too far.

With so much climbing, including La Toussuire on Friday and Alpe D’Huez on the penultimate day, it’s hard to see Quintana losing his second place. Tejay van Garderen occupies the other spot, and his BMC team hasn’t really put a foot wrong thus far.

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Sean Lee highlighted his consistency on Sunday, and there’s no reason to suggest that will change, except that I think it will. I have a hunch that Contador will seriously challenge Van Garderen because he won’t be able to match the Spaniard on those climbs.

Contador hasn’t looked in peak condition at any time in the first two weeks, but I think in the third week he’ll rediscover his best form. It won’t be enough to overtake Froome, but should be sufficient to pass an impressive but ageing Valverde and wrangle the final podium position from Tejay’s grasp.

Before they get to Alpe d’Huez, though, there’s several other stages to ride, including tomorrow’s from Digne-les Bains to Pra Loup. An uphill finish will cause some time gaps, but the climb is only 6.2 kilometres at 6.5 per cent, so it will be a fast ascent.

What could be more enthralling and definitely more dangerous is the descent of the Col d’Allos that precedes the finale to Pra Loup. An 18-kilometre, highly technical plunge on a patchwork of roughly-laid bitumen, laced with sheer drops, walls and off-camber corners, will ensure most riders take only minimal risks.

This col was raced during the Criterium du Dauphine, and AG2R’s Romain Bardet gained more than a minute over Chris Froome on the descent, before going on to win the stage. If you haven’t seen it, as Molly Meldrum would say, do yourself a favour, because it’s beyond spectacular.

As we saw in the Dauphine, Chris Froome wasn’t overly keen to take risks on this descent, and if he needed any reminder why, he got it last night when teammate Geraint Thomas smashed his head on a pole and flipped over a fence on the road into Gap. So expect Froome to lose time.

As we saw last night Vincenzo Nibali is one who will most likely benefit, but others may also fancy their chances.

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It won’t be enough to alter the destiny of the Maillot Jaune, but it will shake things up a little.