Chris Froome and Team Sky insisted that his attack over the top of the Col de Peyresourde and his tucked pedalling position were spur of the moment tactics, but Dave Brailsford’s smile and his evasive answers about Team Sky’s race strategy told a different story.
There were other several indications that Froome’s attack during stage 8 of the Tour de France had in fact been carefully planned. Team Sky rarely does anything on the spur of the moment; almost everything the British team does comes after rational thinking and analysis, including deciding to attack on a descent.
Froome’s Pinarello bike had a 54-tooth oval chainring and he used the big gear to storm down the descent, spinning the pedals as he stayed tucked over his bike. Before the summit of the climb, teammate Sergio Henao also set a fast pace that lined out the peloton. Then, when Nairo Quintana (Movistar) eased to take a bottle, Froome went for it on the attack and quickly got a gap.
A marginal gain of 13 seconds
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) tried to lead the chase and BMC went on the front later on the descent but for the most time, the select group of riders seemed too tired and unable to organise a chase after Team Sky had made them suffer for much of the preceding four climbs. Froome took calculated risks on each corner and stretch of the descent to the finish, knowing when to push his skills and bike to the limit and when to ease off. He only gained 13 second on his rivals but he pulled on the yellow jersey and had outwitted with a brave attack.
It was a display of panache and of brand-new marginal gains that turned the Tour de France upside down. The decision and courage to attack left Froome's rivals stunned, even before Sunday's third Pyrenean stage to Andorra and the first mountain top finish to Arcalis.
"You've always got to think differently. Marginal gains are about constant improvement and using the element of surprise. That's what sport is all about," Brailsford told a small huddle of journalists, including Cyclingnews, behind the podium area after Froome had celebrated on the podium.
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Brailsford seemed irritated that the other major teams with overall contenders had refused to share the work on the front of the peloton during the stage, and that appears to have convinced Team Sky to activate their new tactic.
"Nobody wanted to ride all day, so we rode. Then instead of doing what everyone expected us to do, we said, 'Okay, lets shake it up a little bit,'" the British team manager revealed.
"I think Chris won the race rather than the others losing it. I think today Chris won those seconds fair and square, by racing, rather than by his rivals losing it. We've come here to try to win the race. People were thinking our tactics would be predictable and so this year we decided to make them unpredictable and make people guess what were going to try to do next. We're going to use the element of surprise as part of our repertoire, rather than just using physical ability."
Inspired by Graeme Obree, delivered with a ballsy ride
Brailsford suggested that Froome's aero tuck position and pedalling while crouched low had been inspired by former Hour Record holder and time trialist Graeme Obree, who is famous for developing aero positions that give significant advantages. He also admitted that Froome had perhaps learnt the technique from new signing Michal Kwiatkowski.
Wherever it came from, Froome has practised the position while at training camps in Tenerife and perhaps at home near Monaco in the south of France.
"You've got to give Chris 100 per cent credit for that. He's out on the road and he's a smart guy and he's brave; that took some balls," Brailsford said with praise.
"Chris is a fantastic racer, he's a great bike rider; he's brave, he's courageous, he takes his opportunity, as we saw today. Everyone thinks he can only go uphill and we've been criticised for going downhill… But that guy has something incredible about him. When he sees an opportunity he takes it and he never ceases to amaze us, and he showed why he has won two Tours already."