Cream rises to the top as the Tour de France leaves the Alps - Analysis

Team Sky's choreographed dominance leaves the door ajar for Dumoulin

First we had the relative stalemate at Le Grand Bornand, before the race exploded with Team Sky's choreographed dominance on display at La Rosiere, and on Alpe d'Huez we were provided with the clearest indication yet as to who will occupy the podium places in Paris, with Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin leading the standings.

While the cream has most certainly risen to the top, and the weak have faltered, there are legitimate questions about the long-term prospects for all three of the aforementioned candidates. After three days of racing in the Alps, the Tour de France is still far from over.

While the first stage in the Alps resulted in few changes in terms of the overall standings, the cumulative fatigue from racing three days in the high mountains cannot be overlooked. One GC rider may have joked that the first day in the Alps was a rest-day but he wasn't laughing on stage 11 when he began to slip out the back of the first group of elite climbers. The first stage towards Le Grand Bornand saw only Dan Martin attempt an attack, while Julian Alaphilippe made light work of the day's break. Bob Jungels, Rigoberto Uran, Bauke Mollema, Rafal Majka and - surprisingly - Ilnur Zakarin lost time, but the majority of the GC contenders remained in contention.

The reason for a lack of action on that stage can be attributed to two main factors. The headwind on the final climb and descent to the line played its part but so did the unknown factor of racing in the mountains just 48 hours after the bruising experience of the Roubaix cobbles. As one DS told Cyclingnews, "Everyone was shitting themselves for the first stage in the Alps because we've never had to do the Roubaix stage and then go into the mountains. Some guys recovered and some really paid for it."

While Le Grand Bornand illustrated cracks, the following stage to La Rosière exposed the fragile fault lines on which a number of GC contenders' Tours have been built. Adam Yates, Jakob Fuglsang, and once more Jungels, Mollema, Uran, Majka and Zakarin were all put to the sword and effectively eliminated from top-five contention after a stage of non-stop action. Team Movistar played their hand by catapulting Alejando Valverde up the road, while Vincenzo Nibali inexplicably assisted Team Sky by effectively chasing down the Spaniard.

On the final climb, however, Team Sky's numbers and sheer force was enough to swat away the challenge from Landa and Quintana, while Nibali and Romain Bardet were also caught short of the neccesary standard. Thomas' first mountain stage win, with Froome taking third, was Team Sky's first mountain stage in the Tour since 2016 and while it was nowhere near the astonishing performance we saw from Froome at La Pierre-Saint-Martin in 2015, it was still enough to suggest that they were in control.

The pressure on stage 12 came not from Movistar or the depleated AG2R but from this year's surprise package, LottoNL Jumbo. The Dutch team started the stage to Alpe d'Huez with Roglic and Kruijswijk fifth and sixth overall but very much flying under the radar. This was supposed to be the Mollema-ten Dam pairing from a few years ago, when both riders were well placed in the top 10 before faltering in the final week and falling from contention, but the Dutch team's growing status was on show when Kruijswijk effectively sacrificed himself for Roglic with a huge 75km solo break. This forced Team Sky to burn through Gianni Moscon, Luke Rowe and a sub-par Wout Poels much earlier than expected and, after working so hard on stage 11, Castroviejo was unable to assist much either. This forced Kwiatkowski into play far earlier than Team Sky would have liked but it was Egan Bernal who turned the race back in their favour with a dogged ride on Alpe d'Huez. The 21-year-old saw off several volleys from Landa, Quintana and Bardet until peeling off with 5km to go.

The final stretches of the ascent saw the Tour de France truly come alive. Tom Dumoulin, who had impressed 24 hours earlier, looked sharp and responsive, and tellingly it was he who nullified Froome's power grab after the defending champion attacked.

Romain Bardet managed to steady the ship, while Vincenzo Nibali's race ended with his unfortunate crash. Dan Martin showed frailty after his sterling ride at La Rosière and lost time, while once again a number of pre-race contenders lost an abundance of time.

"I don't remember the race blowing up that much in the Alps," one DS told us last night.

"No one thought that stage 11 would be so selective. I thought there would be a bit of a selection on the final climb but with Dumoulin and Valverde up there it became a really intense stage."

General classification after stage 12

1 Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Sky 49:24:43
2 Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky 0:01:39
3 Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Team Sunweb 0:01:50
4 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Bahrain-Merida 0:02:37
5 Primoz Roglic (Slo) LottoNL-Jumbo 0:02:46
6 Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 0:03:07
7 Mikel Landa (Spa) Movistar Team 0:03:13
8 Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo 0:03:43
9 Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar Team 0:04:13
10 Daniel Martin (Irl) UAE Team Emirates 0:05:11

Analysing Thomas, Froome and Dumoulin

While Thomas leads from Froome and Dumoulin - and they are the currently the strongest riders in the race - there are legitimate questions surrounding all three.

Dumoulin has never raced back-to-back Grand Tours and has never targeted the GC at the Tour. Of course, he won the Giro at his first attempt at the maglia rosa but this is a different beast entirely. His team are respectable but far from the standard of Team Sky and Movistar, although he does have the final TT to pin his hopes on. His best ally is his consistency and he will hope that Thomas has a bad day and that he can keep Froome within touching distance. He is very much a favourite at this stage and the fact that Movistar have tried and failed could work in his favour. The racing could become less aggressive, with more breaks surviving to the line and Team Sky saving their resources. In the Pyrenees this could mean that races are determined solely by the pace on the final climb, a scenario Dumoulin would be more than happy with.

As for Froome, he too came into the race on the back of the Giro. His form guide is less predictable in the sense that his ride on the Finestre means that predicting when and how he gains form is almost an impossible task. Only Froome and Dave Braislford's hand-drawn training plans know the answers, so until that scientific data is released to the BBC or another willing outlet, the defending champion's third week form remains unclear.

Although Thomas leads, he has the biggest question mark hanging over him. At the finish at Alpe d'Huez, Dumoulin was asked about Team Sky's 1-2 tactics, and whether this truly is a 2 vs 1 scenario - rather than 1 v 1 v 1 - remains to be seen. Thomas, for now, is the strongest rider in the race and his lead is healthy after coming through the first nine stages unscathed and then winning two key stages in the Alps. He has never been in this position before and the inner workings at Team Sky are unclear as to whether he will be given the chance to win or if Froome will assume control in the final week. If Thomas does have genuine thoughts on winning then he needs to seize the opportunity. So far, he has not put a foot wrong, both in terms of on the road and in the media, but there's a long way to go until we reach Paris.

As for Bardet, Landa, Quintana, they look below their best, although Bardet did show signs of improvement on stage 12. All three must keep faith that the podium is still within reach and that one if not more of the current occupants suffers a bad day later in the race.

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