Grand Tour racing is often like a game of snakes and ladders, and the uphill finish of stage 14 of the Tour de France in Rodez produced another shuffling of the general classification, with Fabio Aru (Astana) losing contact with his rivals on the uphill finish and as a consequence the yellow jersey.
Chris Froome and Team Sky had perhaps expected a quiet few days in the Massif Central before a final showdown in the Alps. Indeed, Froome needed a moment to realise what had happened in the chaos of the uphill finish. But he was soon smiling, pleased to be back in yellow after he and his teammates exposed the weakness of Aru and his Astana squad.
The Team Sky riders celebrated behind the podium area before going up to collect yet another team prize. They lead AG2R La Mondiale by a significant 19:07 and showed why, with perfect execution of a plan that came about after studying the hectic finish of 2015. The devil is in the detail in Grand Tour racing, even if it now called a marginal gain.
Many in the peloton were expecting a simple fight between Michael Mathews (Team Sunweb), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data). That happened, with Matthews crowned the king of lactic acid for his win. However, behind – and largely out of view of the television camera – the peloton split several times, and then again and again as the line approach.
Team Sky ensured that Froome was up front and so on the right side of the numerous splits thanks to a superb effort, in particular from Michal Kwiatkowski. They have by far the strongest team in the race and used it to drop off Froome right on the tail of the sprinters. Froome finished seventh on the stage but won the sprint amongst the overall contenders.
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He crossed the line a single second behind Matthews but only Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) and Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) finished in the same time. Behind them, riders cracked and lost contact with the wheel in front, and others, including struggling sprinters such as John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and early attacker Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale), slipped back, creating the official time gaps of five, 12, 15, 20, 22 and 25 seconds, amongst the overall contenders.
The riders were scattered all over the road, with results showing 16 different groups spread across a minute just in the top 60 places on the stage. Other riders were timed much farther back as they reached the finish in ones and twos.
Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Simon Yates (Orica-Scott) lost four seconds but limited the damage; Mikel Landa (Team Sky) lost 14 seconds, while Nairo Quintana (Movistar) lost a more significant 21 seconds, as did Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo). Aru was even further back, somehow losing 24 seconds to Froome, Martin and Uran.
Aru had gained 20 seconds on Froome at La Planche des Belles Filles and 20 seconds on the airport ramp of Peyragudes, but a lack of a strong team and poor positioning in the finale cost him dearly. He lost yellow to Froome as the tables turned quickly in a tumultuous Tour de France.
The 'A-Team' deliver, Aru left embarrassed
Froome's prize for his and Team Sky's aggression was the yellow jersey and an 18-second lead on Aru, and a few seconds of psychological advantage on virtually everyone else. Bardet remains at 23 seconds, Uran is at 29, with everyone over a minute back.
Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), who again played a major role and helped Froome in the finale, described their collective performance as that of the A-Team. Froome quickly replied with an animated image of Hannibal from the popular television series saying: "I love it when a plan comes together."
Everyone in the overall classification was not as boastful after being given a lesson in racing by by Team Sky.
Fabio Aru was caught with his pants down and he knew it as he quickly abandoned the podium area and rode to his bus, with the media who had realised what had happened in the hectic finale quickly following in his slipstream.
There was no sign of team manager Alexander Vinokourov at the Astana team bus this time, and the mood was dire as Aru walked the tightrope of trying to explain what happened without blaming the lack of team support. In truth, both Aru and Astana were at fault. He lost the Team Sky bullet train in the finale and his teammates were simply unable to help him.
Now Team Sky are back on top and back in charge. It is again up to Aru, Bardet, Uran and anyone else to come up with an attack to topple Froome and Team Sky.