The battle for the yellow jersey is down to just two people at best with Chris Froome (Team Sky) seemingly in control with just two more days in the mountains remaining, while Nairo Quintana (Movistar) does his level best to knock him from the top spot. Behind the duelling pair Alejandro Valverde is sitting comfortably in the final podium spot, despite suffering on Thursday, but there is a battle heating up for the remaining positions within the top 10.
Just over two minutes separate fourth through to eighth, while those towards the bottom of the top 10 have a tough two days ahead if they want to keep it. Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) leads the best of the rest, as it were. The Welshman has been enjoying his best Tour de France to date, currently sitting in fourth and 2:25 behind the final podium spot. Thomas showed his first signs of weakness in Wednesday’s ride to Pra Loup, getting dropped on the penultimate climb of the Col d’Allos but remains in fourth.
Alberto Contador is just six seconds behind him, though, and Robert Gesink is at 1:05 down on the team Sky rider. As much as he’d like to protect his own position overall, he has the race leader Froome to consider. “It’s one of those, when Contador and Gesink went, half of me was like oh I’ll go but it’s got to be everything for the team so I stuck with the boys and I didn’t panic,” said Thomas.
“If the team is as strong as it is then my job won’t come until the end of the stages so that gives me the best chance of holding my GC but as long as Froomey wins and I do my job for him then that’s all I can ask for.”
Go big or go home is an adage that could be applied to Contador’s approach to racing. It hasn’t been for a want of trying that the Spaniard finds himself at 6:40 down overall. Despite having already admitting defeat in the general classification after his crash on stage 17, Contador made a concerted effort on the Col du Glandon. The efforts are beginning to show and Contador accepts that perhaps the podium is out of his grasp.
“If you told me that I would attack the leader’s group at the start of the day then I wouldn’t have believed it. It has been a really hard day on the bike and I hurt all over. Tomorrow I will have a hard time but we are already here so we have to try something,” said Contador. “Obviously the position that I am in now in the general classification is not to my liking but it would have to be something really big for Alejandro to lose the podium.”
The shark bites
Another rider that is still pushing hard to salvage something from this Tour de France is the defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). A shadow of the rider we saw last season, Nibali was struggling to keep himself inside the top 10 in the first half of the race. He’s hit his stride now and has been gradually moving his way up the standings and now lies seventh overall at 8:04.
“I don’t have anything to lose so I can take a bet on doing something,” said Nibali. “People are trying to mark me because maybe they can see that I’m better now and I can do something from far out.
“I’d love to fight back in some way but it’s about being in the right mood. Contador and I looked at each other but nothing happened.”
Mathias Frank (IAM Cycling) wraps up this cluster of riders battling each other behind the podium spots, after a solid ride on the opening day of the Alps. Frank held firm en-route to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne but the next two stages will be a much sterner test on his overall placing. He’s got a healthy advantage of 3:19 over Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing), who looked in trouble on Thursday and slipped to 12:06 back.
Romain Bardet’s (AG2R-La Mondiale) victory on stage 18 has jumped him into the top 10 at 12:52 down but, like Mollema, he is under threat from the likes of Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) and Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin). The former is just 16 seconds back on his compatriot.
Perhaps the overall victory is all but decided but the fight behind the yellow jersey could go down to the wire and, as this Tour de France has shown us time and again, anything can happen.