There's always a collective sigh of relief from the survivors of any Tour de France once the last mountain is climbed and this year has been no exception. There are a lot of tired bodies out there who are just hanging on, hoping to see the Eiffel Tower and though the riders might not have been able to see Paris from the top of Pla d'Adet, it would certainly have felt like it once they crossed the finishing line on the last day of the Pyrenees.
However whilst there's a certain happiness amongst the guys doing the pedalling to see the end of the big climbs, in the team cars there are many principals who will have been taking stock of their situation and then reaching for the worry beads. The time trial would just have confirmed what they didn't want to admit before they had to.
The miserable are …......
BMC might seem to be involved in the GC battle with Tejay van Garderen and he might be up to 5th after luck went his way in the time trial but when riders say they are dreaming of a top five placing before the Tour starts what they are really thinking is they are good enough for a podium. That scenario never looked like happening for the American. Too often he's seen the front of the race leave him behind when it was crunch time. Some stages he was strong enough to be in the chase of Nibali once the sort out had happened but when you come to the Tour secretly expecting a podium in Paris that's not good enough. You have to be with the number one guy at least a couple of times even if it's only to be dropped in the final push, at least you will have showed some sparkle. TVG has been missing the cut, then limiting his losses and that sums it up. Limited.
Europcar were actively seeking something, anything from this year’s race. Brian Coquard started well in the first week, mixing it with the big boys in the sprints but then it all went pear shaped. Tommy Voeckler made the breaks with regularity, as did his sidekick Cyril Gautier, but their companions of the days were consistently better, smarter or fresher. They probably smelt the desperation. Their GC hope, Pierre Rolland, is worn out after doing the Giro and can barely get out the saddle.
Sky are sixth in the team classification and I was surprised by that, I thought they were worse. Much worse. They've been shocking considering this is the outfit which dominated the last two editions of the Tour. With Froome gone, Richie Porte tried to step into the main man's shoes but that lasted one big day and then it was over. Since then we've seen a lack of flexibility. It's as if the domestiques, even the delux ones, that were going to be on the front all day towing Froome along have lost the ability to race for themselves and are stuck at one speed unable to go with an acceleration or make the difference.
Nieve and Kiryenka don't seem to have all the zip trained out of them just yet but they chose the wrong days to try their luck. It would be all too easy to say there was no plan B, even though they were warned in advance of this eventuality but the most disappointing thing has been the realisation that they have no-one who can go in the break and be expected to win from that situation. Wiggins might have been sidelined by the ambitions of Froome but Sky have missed guys like Kennaugh and Boassen Hagen in their line-up.
Trek, otherwise known as Team Schleck, and as soon as Andy went home all hope left them. Actually that's not true, as they had to know he was a gamble waiting to go wrong but as one brother can't be without the other what choice did they have. Harsh it may be but once Fabian Cancellera didn't win the cobbled stage all hope left them. They haven't troubled the GC fight once or the stage victories for that matter and though they have been in a few escapes, if Jensie hadn't worn the climbers jersey for a day, then from podium visits no-one have noticed their presence. Zubeldia is 8th apparently.
Lampre came to the Tour with Rui Costa as their leader but leave the race with little reward. Chris Horner attacked once and then said he was aiming for the Vuelta. So its that it? The Tour is training for the Italian squad because I've always thought they got sent to France as punishment for not doing well at home. Although Rui Costa was likely to make the top ten (just) until the curse of the rainbow jersey put paid to that idea, from their showing this time around I've yet to see anything that changes my perception that the Tour holds no pleasure for them at all.
IAM Cycling might just as well be named 'I AM doing the best I can but it's not enough'. Swiss Champion Martin Elmiger is excused as he's been seen a number of times at the front of the race flying the flag but the other riders have been invisible. Haussler briefly showed his face in Nîmes but Sylvain Chavanel has been a shadow of the rider who wore the yellow jersey during 2010.
Cofidis almost always had a man in the escape and yet nothing to show for it at the end of the day. For a credit company, that's a disappointing return on investment. Rein Taarmäe hasn't really put one foot in front of the other and though they often had riders survive the first selection down to 40 souls, the next acceleration saw the men in red left to their own devices. With no interests in GC and no interest in stage wins there has to be a monetary pun in there somewhere.
Garmin had to re-route after losing Andrew Talansky and if it wasn't for the epic close call of Jack Bauer at Nîmes and the face saving solo from Ramunas Navardauskas on stage 19, they would be deep in the brown stuff. For the peloton Dandies who like their blues, it's not been a great show. When you look at the results they are behind Bretagne in the team standings so though it could have been worse it's not by much.
Are Orica GreenEdge really the team that had such a fabulous start to the Giro? Other than wiping out Mark Cavendish on the first day, there hasn't been one headline moment. Young Simon Yates was the only beacon of light in an otherwise dismal showing from the Aussies, and Gerrans never bounced back from his misfortunes and no-one else stepped up.
Into the mountains we go but Nibali has work to do
With Vincenzo Nibali comfortably installed in the yellow jersey and the only one of the three pre-race favourites to make it to the big mountain stages you could be excused for thinking it's all over in the Tour de France. That would be doing a disservice to the riders directly behind the Italian because although they might be wondering what they can do against a Nibali in top form they'll also be wondering how they can ambush each other. The two Alpine stages will tell us who can still race after two weeks and who seems to be hanging and on hoping for better days but you also need to consider there'll be some of the top ten GC riders better suited to one set of mountains compared to the later ones, which will undoubtedly decide the race.
It might seem like Nibali doesn't need to do anything other than control his nearest rivals, namely Richie Porte and Alejandro Valverde but to be truly comfortable before the final time trial he'll probably want a bigger lead. Something like five minutes in case he has a bad day so a couple of attacks 4 kilometres out ought to achieve that, maybe when the squabbling has become serious and the others are frazzled.
The typical question I used to get asked at the Tour was which are harder, 'the Alps or Pyrenees?' and I always said which ever came second because for me that was more important. I didn't have a preference but I did notice the differences between the two.
The Alpine roads are in better condition, the surfaces are generally excellent (holidays in ski stations being the reason) and although the climbs can be long they tend not to be brutally steep so the racing is faster. That can affect drafting on the climbs and it's also windier in the valleys, especially when it's sunny and hot. It's pretty humid too.
The descents are usually on good roads though the way the route goes this year, down the Izoard, is pretty bumpy for the first part. On some of the smaller cols there can be holes and gravel to deal with but on the big roads and the mountain top finishes it's the speed of the race more than the severity of the slope which makes the decision.
By contrast, the Pyrenees are more of a slog. The surfaces are rougher and though it might be less windy on the actual climbs the grippy nature of the roads saps the strength out of you. Just to add to the obstacles, melting tarmac and loose gravel are certainties if it's warm. The gradients tend to be much less uniform than in the Alps, thus it's harder to get rhythm and most climbs in the Pyrenees have a section or two which is steeper than the profile suggests.
The eastern side of the Tourmalet, just before reaching La Mongie, is the perfect example of this. Just as the road passes through the tunnels is typical of how the Pyrenees likes to surprise you. It's less humid though and it's easier to breathe compared to the Alps plus there's the crazy Spanish fans to cheer up proceedings.
So how do those differences affect the guys still racing for the top ten?
Quite simply the riders who like to climb sitting down will be more comfortable in the Alps and those who do it en danseuse will suit the Pyrenees with its changes in gradient.
In the Alpine suited group you have Richie Porte and Sky team mate Geraint Thomas, Thibaut Pinot, Tejay van Garderen, Bauke Mollema, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Pierre Rolland, Jakob Fuglsang, Michal Kwiatkowski and if he recovers, Rui Costa. They prefer their climbing at a steady tempo.
The Pyrenees in theory ought to be better for Nibali though I can see him winning in the Alps as well, Valverde, the Ag2r pairing of Bardet and Peraud, Mikel Nieve, Chris Horner and Leopold König because they can provoke or cope with variations better and they need to get a chuff on because the TT will be a chore.
There are three other riders not to be forgotten for the mountains: Polka dot chaser Joaquim Rodriguez, Nicolas Roche and good old Tommy Voeckler. They sit in a separate category of trouble makers who could find themselves in an escape with any of the above GC guys. Then it's just a matter of, as Jensie would say, "Shut up legs."
I was dropped from the lead group about halfway up and then gradually lost control of my breathing and then my emotions. The only solution was to stop, as it happened under the only tree for several kilometres, and try to regain my senses. If it hadn't been for my directeur sportif calming me down, removing the drama from the situation then I would probably have had to abandon. Even though I was far from being eliminated I just couldn't continue.
It took four or five minutes of just sitting there in the shade, gradually regaining normality before I could set off again and without the help of the guys in the team car I doubt I would have had enough life experience to know what to do.
No-one pressured me to continue and it wasn't easy but just like Andrew Talansky did, I thanked the guys in the team and the support staff for giving me the option of finishing that day. Toughening up wasn't mentioned. The Tour de France when it goes badly is as much an emotional challenge as it is physical.
The decision to discount Bradley Wiggins from the Team Sky selection that was taken by Dave Brailsford three weeks ago isn't looking too smart this morning. He can take some solace that even the great manager's get it wrong , look at the position Brazil's Scolari finds himself in after the World Cup drubbing from the Germans but all the same there'll be lots of #toldyouso on Twitter for the next few days.
Of course it's not as easy as saying Wiggins would have had any better luck than Chris Froome had, and there's the nag that 2012 Tour de France winner doesn't like the rain either but you can't help think a stronger plan B of sorts might have been a wiser choice given the carnage of stage five. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Abandoning the Tour de France isn't a decision taken lightly by any rider. There are frequently tears involved because it means so much and when you're sitting in the team car you naturally start to wonder if you might have continued, maybe it wasn't that bad, maybe you ought to have been harder. Then you move the offending body part and the pain instantly reminds you that you had no choice. You might cry a bit more then.
So what now for Sky? Stage hunting or look after Richie Porte and hope he steps up. First they have to regroup, re-assess and get some confidence back from the disaster that has befallen them. It's not an easy thing to do when everyone came to do a job and then it all starts to go wrong. They can take heart from Porte who with the help of Geraint Thomas saw off Garmin's Talansky on the last cobbled section and put time into Contador and Valverde. But it's almost two minutes to Nibali and the Italian champion along with his Astana team is looking remarkably strong.
The Spaniards will be thankful they came out the day relatively unscathed health wise and still in the game, but psychologically they'll be wounded. However if they can stay safe and recover from the nightmare of the cobbles they might be back.
Chris Froome didn't have the luck that you sometimes need to survive and now that he's out that changes the tactics for everyone. One person’s misfortune can be another’s chance and now the Tour opens up as an opportunity for riders like Talansky, Van den Broecke and Pierre Rolland to show what they can do.
With Sky no longer needing to do the familiar high tempo pace setting on the mountain stages it'll be up to Astana to control the race and with a team of climbers at his disposal Contador is in a better position even though he lost time on the cobbles to most of his rivals. I'm sure he considers his chances improved against the remaining GC contenders in the long time trial at the end of the race now that Froome has gone. It's still a long way to the Alps and Pyrenees and there's plenty of kilometres for the Kazakh squad to be worn down by the pressure of defending the yellow jersey so the first skirmishes in the Vosges mountains heading towards the rest day will be interesting.
The Spanish aren't in such close contention that Nibali needs to panic if he has to let Valverde or Contador take back some time and he can afford to bluff in the medium mountains and then murder them all at La Planche des Belles Filles. Until then Astana can manage the situation with relative serenity.
As for Chris Froome, it wasn't what he was hoping for and you can only wish him and everyone else who fell a speedy recovery.
Stay near the front. Drink. Eat. Wash new shorts before wearing. Put on suntan cream. Be at the front at the feed zone. Keep fighting for position. Slide back when the sprint starts. No talking at the back with your friends. No ice cream. No freezing cold drinks at the finish. Move up on a wheel. Stay out of the wind. Watch the favourites. No Coca Cola, chocolate, crisps or fried food. Stay off your legs. Don't drink too many coffees. Don't don't don't don't don't....
That's just some of the advice that is offered to you when you stick a Tour de France number on your jersey every morning and none of that sounds like any fun. And yet it is the best bike race you'll ever do.
However, there's one vital thing missing from the advice list that you're meant to have playing on a constant loop in your mind. Don't fall off. No one dares to tell you that in those very words but you know that's what the directeur sportif means when he says in the daily pre-stage meeting “Stay near the front and pay attention.”
He might as well say “good luck” but somehow that sounds less professional so he sticks to the time honoured phrases and we pretend it'll all be OK.
Even the organisers pretend. When the road book says there'll be dangerous corners, road furniture and pinch points what they really mean is DON'T FALL OFF.
Of course when you say to any of your friends “Oh, I just missed that crash yesterday” or “I haven't fallen off yet” you are pushing your luck to the limit.
But what happens when you do fall off? Well, that depends on your bounce-ability or lack of it. Just ask Mark Cavendish. Crashing is one of those things you are very likely to do at the Tour, once is about average, any more than that and you can complain.
The worst thing you can do is fall off on the first day and hurt yourself just enough not to abandon but still be in a bad way. The Tour isn't the place to be carrying an injury because the energy your body uses repairing itself is no longer available for recovery. I've seen it myself during the 91 Tour with Z.
One of our most trusted riders Atle Kvalsvoll fell heavily on the opening stage. Then a couple of days later I fell off (my fault by the way, as I touched the wheel in front) and ended up riding with a neck support.
The following days for both of us were about basic survival at the back of the peloton with the other guys on the team fetching water for us, getting food out of our pockets because we couldn't work our arms properly ... it was pretty desperate stuff. We would hang at the back, dodging the crashes and the panic braking. It became a game of surviving until we would be dropped near enough to the finish, not to be eliminated. Once out the back there isn't the nervous tension to deal with but it does your head in because physically you’re hurting yet not going fast. And you're out in the sun longer so the road rash you've picked up is literally cooking.
Then there were the consequences that caught up with us later as we were both out of contract at the end of the year and on sticky ground come negotiation time. Atle, I believe, ended up seeing a significant pay cut and I was shown the door. Professional cycling is a cruel world.
If you can keep upright all the other things on the advice list are a bonus. If you're riding for GC then you need team mates round you all day and only to make an effort when it becomes unavoidable. So you chose a rider, another favourite maybe or someone you can trust not to do something stupid and you make sure you can see them all the time. It begins to feel like stalking after a few days but it's what you have to do. Pre-radios, you had to remember to keep eating, drinking and be well-placed but nowadays the DS is on the radio with that good advice because even though you might not feel the need to refuel that day, it will be important for the next stage or when you dip into your reserves when the mountains start.
You wouldn't think it would be possible but occasionally everything goes perfectly. Those are the stages where you are in the wheels the whole day, take no wind and make no big efforts. In fact you can reach the finish and feel almost as good as you did at the start. It only happened to me once in 11 Tours.
We were going to Alencon in 1984 and that was a good day. Now that everyone has the team in their ear, the communications might be better but then they are more nervous too so you get the reminders. The feed zone is a classic example. It always speeds up because everyone wants their lunch, even though you can get food from the car, it still gets faster so there are four choices to be made: fight for the front and minimises risk, stay in the middle and hope you don’t get a musette in the spokes or hang back accept you might be sprinting with the bag on your back for 5km after the zone because of the accordion effect.
The easiest choice is not to take a bag at all and get your food before or afterwards but strangely not many guys do. It's the least stressful option and the first week of the Tour is all about controlling your nervous output.
Positioning is another thing you have to learn. Some guys can do it easily and some have to force themselves to stay in the front. As a GC rider, you can hang with the sprinters and have a good place, hardly use the brakes and take no wind but it'll cost you a lot of nervous energy if you aren’t that comfortable pushing and shoving, so you balance that with the physical savings. Come the last kilometers, you can slip back a bit from the madness when the lead-outs really start because then even your own sprinter will treat you with no mercy.
Also, in the first few stages, unlike normal racing, you can't count on moving up on the hills even if you're a climber. No one wants to give up their place so the big guys hang on for dear life and instead of dropping back they make themselves wider. As we've seen in Yorkshire the really populated climbs are just as dangerous for crashes as the town centre run-ins, so you really have stay near the front and pay attention.
A look at the challenges facing the defending champion
One thing Sky might want to consider obtaining for Chris Froome before he begins his Tour de France title defence in Yorkshire is the latest development in personal care, the Happiness Blanket. Unlike the one from last century by Charlie Brown, which just kept you warm and cosy, the new, all-singing, all-dazzling marvel comes with fibre optics and bluetooth technology to battle stress. I was thinking that once linked into the Sky bus mood lighting, Froome could have the perfect environment based on his brainwave responses – blue for calm, and red to prepare for some of the daily aggression he'll be receiving.
Every Tour is different – the riders, the route, the circumstances of the race dictate that – and for the dossard numéro un that's undoubtedly going to be the case. If he thought he was stressed during the last two editions, then this time around he's going to be in altogether much more toxic atmosphere.
Froome’s season up until now hasn't been that convincing, certainly not anything like as stellar as 2013 when he swept up all before him. Much like his predecessor Bradley Wiggins, the season after the big one hasn't been plain sailing. There have been glimpses of the Froome to be feared but they've mostly been in print. Sure, the first two days of the Dauphiné were impressive but then he fell off and the others pounced on his misfortune. Sky are being tested like never before as the rival teams have caught up in the planning department and they are confident enough to take the boys in black on.
Confidence might not seem like a characteristic lacking in Chris Froome’s make-up, but you have to wonder how much self-belief he's going to need to cover up that things haven't been going his way lately. With just 19 days of racing in his legs, will that be sufficient to beat Alberto Contador and the newly-crowned Italian champion Vincenzo Nibali? They'll both take any opportunity to attack Froome, whatever the terrain, and that's something which he is never going to have any control over.
Not that the Sky man won't do the same to them, he'll just do it less elegantly.
Froome's biggest problem, though, is going to be the constant bombardment from the media over the Tour de Romandie TUE. Every day there'll be someone wanting to know if he'll be using or has used an inhaler on the race, and if so, then, is that because he's got a touch of bronchitis, or is it exercised-induced asthma? And you can't blame them because the squeaky clean image of Sky took a knock when the affair emerged. Add in the Tramadol accusations from Michael Barry and there's smoke to be imagined by the pack of wolves that inhabit the press room, and they are at their happiest when there's a fire to report on and flames to be fanned. The Bradley Wiggins removal will be a topic when in Britain and if there's a weakness in the team it'll resurface for that occasion, but the drugs theme will be a constant nag.
The TUE ambiguity is another case of cycling shooting itself in the foot again with practices that appear distinctly questionable to the outsider. In the layman's eyes you're either ill or you aren't. Taking medication and suddenly being healthy enough to beat everyone looks bad.
The non-selection of Wiggins has, along with the timely publishing of Froome's autobiography The Climb, brought attention to the personality behind the calm, thoughtful exterior that the 2013 champion presents to the world. It isn't an entirely rosy picture either. Quiet and reflective on the outside, but hiding a ruthless streak and relentless need to succeed on the inside, it's the classic description of a top athlete, the ones who'll do everything they have to do in order to win.
Froome is no different in that respect, as almost everyone who inhabits the top level in sport has those characteristics, but it's not exactly a complete or likeable person that's been portrayed. Most authors try to balance the bad with something good, typically finding a story with an aspect of soft and cuddly to it. So when Froome tells us he grew up feeding his pet snakes with other people’s rabbits, it’s strange to say the least. I can understand the killer instinct when competition is involved, but I can't be alone in thinking the pet animal story is a tad bizarre.
You're also reminded of something lacking in the likeable stakes when watching Chris Froome perform. The dangling head, the flailing arms and sticky out knees I've seen in person and thought ‘how does that work?’ but clearly it does, or has up until now. Actually I thought something less printable but kids might be reading. Most people like a bit of style, a bit of flair and that's what Wiggo had in abundance for Sky the sponsor. By contrast, the images coming out of Froome and the cycling team are of a uncaring drive for results and a sense that you're only ever as good as your last race. I thought things had supposedly moved on from that American style of governance but apparently not.
Chris Froome still remains the favourite for the 2014 Tour de France but I can see things being much more interesting this time around. The Deputy might have run the old Sheriff out of town but there's still the gunfight to deal with.
Scrutinizing the form of Froome, Contador and Nibali after the Criterium du Dauphine
It's a couple of weeks to go to the Yorkshire start of this years Tour de France and the big players for the overall victory have recently completed what will be their final race preparations at the Criterium de Dauphine. The situation report for the three main characters which I've called the three bears: Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali, is looking much clearer.
Bear one: Chris Froome
Chris Froome started in the usual manner employed by Team Sky: win the time trial, dominate the first mountain stage and then control the rest of the race. However that plan was upset by two things. Firstly the other teams have had enough of being dragged around races by Team Sky and so continually attacked the race leader until he was isolated or with his teammates worn out. Secondly, Froome crashed hard and hurt himself. Just how much damage was done only Team Sky knows and they're not saying. But there must have been some consequences as he didn't look as strong on the last two days when Contador attacked and mugged him.
There is also a possibility that Team Sky told Froome to back off in order to lull his rivals into a false sense of hope at the Tour de France, so that Froome can come out and wipe the floor with them on the first crucial mountain stage. It's not unknown for teams to be that sneaky and though you might think it's the Dauphine and it's an important race, it's no where near as important as the Tour de France.
There several good points for Froome at the Dauphine. His time trialing was way better than either that of Contador or Nibali. Significantly so compared to the Italian. Froome's climbing skills, before his crash, was also excellent.
Team Sky was under pressure to perform and control the race but Richie Porte improved as the race went on and Nieve, Thomas and Kiryienka were solid throughout. At the Tour de France Team Sky can expect other teams with separate interests to get involved in controlling the race. So while they may have seemed vulnerable in certain moments, the Dauphine was a very harder situation to control.
Good points: There are still some unanswered questions on Froome's condition after his crash and his confidence may well be smarting from Contador's return to top form but he must be happy. Things could have been fare worse as he recovers and prepares his yellow jersey defence at home in Monaco.
Bear two: Alberto Contador
Alberto Contador showed he is ready to race and is in great shape. He might have messed up his final result at the Dauphine by staying with Froome too long on the final day and allowing Andrew Talansky too much of a head start but his confidence will be high nevertheless.
The impressive thing about the Spaniard is his willingness to attack whenever an opportunity arises, be it uphill or downhill. Contador is smart and raced accordingly.
The first two stages were probably his worst days, losing three seconds per kilometre to Froome on the flatter part of the time trial in Lyon will worry him slightly as will not being able to out sprint his main rival on the mountain top finish the next day. But after those two poor days, he looked mean and seemed to be recovering perfectly as the race progressed. Maybe Froome came to the start of the Dauphine in slightly sharper form but Contador finished his race in significantly better condition.
Good points: Contador's overall race was aggressive, confident and tactically astute. His climbing was excellent and he wasn't afraid of testing Team Sky when given the chance, though he'll need to fine tune his flat time trialing ability. However overall, the Spaniard moved up a notch in the stakes with his Dauphine performance.
Bear three: Vincenzo Nibali
Vincenzo Nibali was in all the right places at the right time during the Dauphine but he never seemed a true contender.
He lost just over twenty seconds in the opening time trial. That seemed a reasonable start to his race until you looked closely at his performance and realised he lost that amount in the last five kilometres. He certainly can't afford to do that in the longer time trials at the Tour de France.
His climbing ability was also average and the Sicilian is certainly not in the form we expected, given all the hype over his preparation at altitude on Mount Teide. Fortunately he hasn't lost his ability to read a race and knows when to attack. But he just didn't have the legs to make an attack and so when Froome and Contador opened up, the Italian was quickly found wanting. He was not isolated because he had Astana teammates around him and they won the team prize. I think he looked tired, dare I say jaded, perhaps over-trained.
I don't know what he has changed this year in terms of his preparation but it isn't working for him yet and with three weeks to go he must be slightly worried.
Good points: Nibali is tactically smart and knows when to attack, he is an excellent descender and also has a strong team that is dedicated to his cause. However he's looking frayed at the edges.
Robert Millar was one of the last pure climbers of the Tour de France, winning several stages in the mountain stages and finishing fourth overall in 1984. He is also the only English speaker to have ever won the prestigious polka-dot jersey climber's competition jersey.
Millar retired in 1995 but has continued to follow the sport closely. He was often critical of the media and quickly cuts through the excuses and spin to understand why and how riders win and lose.