They are arguably the two strongest GC squads in the race, with Team Sky led by the defending champion and current race leader Chris Froome and Movistar rallying around their pint-sized Colombian climber Nairo Quintana. With no disrespect to Adam Yates (Orica-Bike Exchange) and Dan Martin (Etixx-QuickStep), who both sit high in the overall, Froome and Team Sky and Quintana and Movistar are the favourites who will decide this year’s race.
So far both teams have played contrasting roles with Team Sky taking up the responsibility – even when other teams held yellow – while Movistar have been the cannier of the two. They have encouraged Tam Sky to work by doing just enough to show their strength in the race without actually launching a full assault. Froome leads Quintana by 23 seconds but both Movistar and Team Sky would argue that they have the upper hand at this point. Only time will tell the truth, with the two squads looking to outfox and eventually defeat each other before Paris.
“It’s hard to say if they’re doing enough work,” Team Sky’s Servais Knaven told Cyclingnews about their Spanish rivals.
“Everyone can see that we’re doing all the work. We’re controlling the race and that’s best for us. If other teams want to go for the stage wins then it’s up them but if we do everything then we could run out of energy in the third week. Right now I think that we’re doing just the right amount.”
Running out of gas is clearly what Movistar, and other teams are hoping will happen at Team Sky. There’s no doubt that the team has an embarrassment of riches with potentially six of their nine-man team capable of competing for a top-five place. But even the best riders in the world have a finite number of matches to burn and Paris is still almost two weeks away.
Neither team are leaving anything to chance and the often used but rarely explained term of ‘marginal gains’ is something not trademarked by just one team. An example? On the rest-day press conference in Andorra it was no coincidence that Team Sky’s three men for the flat, Rowe, Stannard and Kiryienka were all missing. The trio had put Froome and the climbing contingent of the team in an excellent position on stage 9 to Arcalis and as a result needed the extra recovery time. The rest of the team attended the media event, while by contrast, only Quintana made it out for bed for Movistar. Not even Alejandro Valverde put in an appearance.
“Luke and Ian have done a lot of work for our climbers group. That was perfect at Arcalis and that why we had so many guys for the final but of course we would be more than happy if the work was shared with other teams,” added Knaven.
The issue of work-rate has been raised several times by Team Sky. They will have known coming into the race that the likely scenario would have seen them pushed into controlling the race. Dave Brailsford has made comments about other ‘big teams’ not taking responsibility but the answer many teams came back with was, ‘why should we?’
“We also worked when we didn’t have the yellow. Now it’s different and we have yellow but we were also working when BMC had yellow,” Knaven pointed out.
Who is in the best position?
Ask a few independent observers around the team buses at the Tour de France and the majority would suggest that Quintana has the strongest hand so far in this year’s race. He’s not attacked once and that will keep Froome and company guessing about his real form until the finish on Mont Ventoux on Thursday. Team Sky will no doubt be hoping to draw the Colombian out of his bunker and severely test him before the following day’s time trial.
A lot will of course depend on how Quintana is feeling. Was his ability on the climb to Arcalis really his limit? Or he is indeed playing the waiting game?
“I think it’s always best to be in the lead because they have to try and take the 23 seconds back,” Knaven argued.
“Of course they have a plan and there are more mountaintop finishes. We also expect Mont Ventoux to be really hard. One day Quintana has to try something. He hasn’t so far but we’ll be ready.”
“But maybe their team isn’t as strong and they just want to save their legs. For sure, they have a reason to ride like that but we can do it. That’s why we selected such a strong team.”
It begs the question, if the shoe was on the other foot and Team Sky were in the wings, waiting and waiting, what would they do?
“Maybe I would try a little bit earlier but I don’t now how they feel. I thought Quintana would attack on Arcalis, maybe he was on the limit, I don’t know. We can’t tell. We don’t know but they also don’t know what we do. If you do the same every year then it becomes predictable but we saw we attacked with Henao and we’ve adapted our tactics.”
Quintana has been waiting quietly in the wings but on the legendary slopes of Mont Ventoux, we may just see him and Froome take centre stage together as they fight for the yellow jersey and victory at the Tour de France.