For Ax 3 Domaines in 2013 and La Pierre Saint Martin in 2015, read La Caverne du Pont d'Arc in 2016? There is still more than a week of the Tour de France to go and a whole mountain range yet to be traversed, of course, but there was a distinct sense in the Ardèche on Friday evening that Chris Froome (Team Sky) may already have landed the decisive blow in the battle for final overall victory in this year’s race.
In the thirteen days of racing to date, only a collision with a television motorbike on Mont Ventoux has ruffled Froome and amid considerable uncertainty, the commissaires made the weighty decision to undo the damage. Then in Friday’s hilly time trial, Froome gained time on all hid rivals and deposited a hefty down payment towards securing the yellow jersey in Paris.
The Pyrenean victories of 2013 and 2015 offered a more striking, visual demonstration of Froome’s dominance, but a glance at the results sheet after stage 13 will have made for sobering reading for the other contenders. Not only did Froome put two minutes into his chief rival Nairo Quintana (Movistar), he also made similar gains on men with the time trialing pedigree of BMC’s Tejay van Garderen and Richie Porte.
Two weeks into this year’s race, Froome has yet to solo clear on a set-piece mountain stage as he did in 2013 and 2015, but his seemingly prodigious powers of recovery have put him 1:47 clear of Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), 2:45 up on Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) and 2:59 ahead of Quintana.
Although Mollema is the rider closest to Froome in the overall standings and the rival who has enjoyed the best form in recent days, it was telling that Sky directeur sportif Nicolas Portal was reluctant to cite the Dutchman as the biggest threat to the yellow jersey. “Nairo is still up there,” he said. “We know he’s always good in the final week.”
Indeed, at the corresponding point a year ago, Quintana’s deficit to Froome was almost equivalent. With the Alps still to come, the Colombian trailed by 3:09, but managed to shave two minutes off that gap by Paris and give Froome something of a scare into the bargain.
Quintana didn’t launch a telling attack on Froome until stage 19, mind, and may have come away from the Tour harbouring regrets that he hadn’t tested his resolve a little sooner. This year’s exceedingly tough final days in the Alps certainly provide ample terrain for a rider of his talents. But two weeks into the Tour, Quintana has not yet gained so much as a second on Froome on any given day and, so far, the momentum has shown no sign of shifting.
Mollema and Yates fight for second place
If Froome is still most fearful of Quintana it’s perhaps because finishing any lower than the top step of the podium would be considered a disappointment for the Colombian, whereas you suspect Yates and Mollema would take a podium gladly.
Yates especially. The 23-year-old came to this Tour – his second – with the ambition of winning a stage, and testing his consistency GC-wise would only be a secondary focus. His potential has been heralded in various corners but no one at Orica-BikeExchange could have expected this. He has barely put a foot wrong, riding with an assuredness that belies his years. Indeed, this has not been a case of hanging on; he’s taken the fight to his more experienced companions, going on the front foot on the stage to Lac de Peyolle, and even breaking free of the main GC group – behind Froome, Porte, and Mollema – on Mont Ventoux.
The stage 13 time trial was always a bit of a concern but once again Yates can be pleased with how it went. He was seven seconds quicker than Quintana and Porte, and only 10 or so seconds slower than Valverde and Van Garderen. Granted, he lost second place to Mollema, and 2:45 now seems a long way off the race lead, but on the other hand he now has nearly a three-minute buffer in the top 10 – which he’d surely have settled for at the start of the race.
The big issue will be how he copes with the third week. He made it all the way to Paris last year but the final week becomes a very different beast when you’ve been engaged in a GC battle day in day out. The Alps, you suspect, are where Yates’s inexperience and relative immaturity may well tell, though the white jersey is his to lose, and he looks very good for a place in the top 10.
And where has Mollema sprung from? Quintana may still cause the most concern but the Dutchman, having ridden a quiet race for the most part, has emerged as a real podium contender in the past couple of days.
While Quintana failed to make one iota of impact with his attack on Ventoux, Mollema looked really strong and confident as he reacted to Froome’s attack and kicked on to be the first GC rider to finish – though he was given the same time as Froome and Porte after the motorbike crash and ensuing chaos. If the time gaps at Chalet Reynard were minor (19 seconds), the inroads he made the following day were major.
He described it as “the best time trial of my life” and it saw him move up to second, having put around a minute into most of the other GC riders – barring Froome, obviously. Due to Froome’s storming ride, Mollema is further off the race lead but he has a one-minute buffer between himself and Yates in third and, with the legs growing stronger, there’ll be every hope he can bag a podium. The 29-year-old has taken after teammate Haimar Zubeldia to a certain degree – unassumingly racking up Grand Tour top tens – three of them in the past three Tours – but a podium would be his finest ever result and a real step forward.
Flying less high than Mollema and Yates but still nevertheless content is Romain Bardet (7th), who also looks like he could be on his way to his best ever Tour de France result. Given the travails of Thibaut Pinot and – to a lesser degree – Warren Barguil, the Frenchman’s performance has been cast in a particularly favourable light and he now represents the major home hope.
The 25-year-old is a featherweight and was buffeted across the road by the strong winds in the Ardèche department on Friday’s time trial, losing nearly a minute to Quintana and Yates, and slightly more to Van Garderen and Valverde. Still, Bardet claims his legs are improving, and there’s every chance he can make an impact in the final week in the Alps. Valverde should make way in the top five, and then it’s a case of dislodging Yates or Van Garderen, in all probability, to crack the top 5.
BMC double act, Aru's struggl aganist the clock and Dan Martin's disappointment
The second week hasn’t been quite as kind to some riders as they look increasingly like they are fighting for minor placings as the podium edges further away from them. BMC has had a particularly bumpy road in recent days, with Richie Porte suffering the most. Porte had a disastrous start to the Tour de France with an untimely puncture on day two but had been slowly clawing it back. He appeared to be one of the strongest climbers when the race hit the Pyrenees and helped set the agenda on the climb to Arcalis with multiple attacks.
As the race has moved east, Porte’s fortunes have taken a blow. On Mont Ventoux, he proved that his Andorra performance was not a one-off as he followed Chris Froome’s two stinging attacks. He looked set to grab more time back but things came tumbling down, literally, when he collided with a motorbike that had stopped on the climb. To add insult to injury, his two break companions landed on top of him when they both fell. The aftereffects of the impact played out in Friday’s time trial as Porte struggled on what should have suited him. With some respite from the mountains to come, he could recover but making the podium is now a much harder task.
Porte’s teammate Tejay van Garderen has had a much less eventful week than the Australian. Van Garderen’s performances in recent days have not been bad but nor have they been exceptional. He has been gradually moving up the standings since the rest day but has not looked strong enough to overhaul many of those ahead of him. He would have hoped to utilise the time trial to bring him closer to the top riders but in the end he could only cut the gap to current third place Adam Yates by 11 seconds and still lies in sixth.
Both of BMC’s leaders are having a better time of it than Astana’s Fabio Aru. As the reigning Vuelta a Espana champion, Aru came into the Tour de France with plenty of expectations on his young and inexperienced shoulders. However, aside from his umpteen bike changes on the road to Ventoux, the Sardinian has been practically invisible. Aru managed to move up as high as eighth following Ventoux but a poor time trial dropped him to 10th. There is every chance that he could regain a few spots in the GC but this Tour will likely be seen as a failure by Astana.
Dan Martin has also had a tough two days, falling from third to ninth overall after suffering on Mont Ventoux. Martin has always insisted that he is not fighting for the top end of the GC and his team say that they will be happy if he can cling on to a top 10 placing.