'We can't see any weakness in Froome or his team'. A trip to the Movistar bus after stage 15 of the Tour de France yielded that one virtually identical sentence from multiple figures. The question is, are they looking hard enough?
Nairo Quintana, twice runner-up to Chris Froome, has made a habit this July of saying 'queda mucho Tour' – ‘there's a lot of this Tour remaining' – but on Sunday he let another day – another mountain stage no less – slip by without any threat to Froome's now-considerable buffer atop the general classification.
Alejandro Valverde, fourth overall and a useful tactical card for the Spanish team, put in one attack just after Fabio Aru tried his luck on the final ascent, but was dragged to heel by Woet Poels – almost effortlessly so.
"The truth is they're really strong – they have a very, very strong team. You saw it there – attacks that normally cause trouble, they rapidly neutralised them," said Quintana with a sigh, giving his assessment to a gathering of journalists from the steps of the team bus in Culoz.
"Although we attacked we saw the strength of his [Froome's] team. Astana tried as well but it was impossible due to the strong rhythm they set all day, and also the high temperatures."
The mercury hit 35 degres in the cloudless Jura mountains, which should, in theory, have provided fertile ground for the Colombian climber, with the hors-catégorie Grand Colombier followed by the first-category ‘lacets' ascent from the other angle. It seems, however, that the Tour so far has been an exercise in waiting for the Alps.
Quintana's only attack to date came on Mont Ventoux, where he was quickly reeled in by Poels and subsequently dropped by Froome, but he stayed behind the yellow jersey for the duration of the stage 15, with Valverde's cursory attack the only moment the team was on the front foot.
The reason, according to team manager Eusebio Unzué? The strength of Sky and, in particular, Poels.
When it was put to him that Froome hadn't shown any signs of suffering, he agreed: "Not at all. And his team – above all Poels – even less," he told Cyclingnews and a couple of Spanish journalists with a despairing smile and a tone of amazement at the Dutchman's vice-like grip on proceedings.
"You saw that Aru went, and Alejandro went after him to see if between them they could get a decent gap…Impossible. He closed that down at will. Then [Romain] Bardet attacked and once again he shut it down when he liked."
If it's not Poels, it's another member of Sky's enviably strong line-up, which also includes Mikel Landa, Sergio Henao, Geraint Thomas, Mikel Nieve, and Vasil Kiryienka.
"Each day, each test they're set, you see them pass with top marks," continued Unzué.
"If it's not one of them, it's another, and they're always perfectly grouped together. Isolating Froome is very difficult. In the following days we'll see if we can see any signs of weakness."
For Valverde and head directeur sportif José Luis Arrieta's views on the might of Sky, read Unzué's and Quintana's.
Waiting for the Alps
Movistar, it has become increasingly clear, have been waiting for this Tour de France to play out in the Alps. The problem is, via a couple of unlikely attacking forays and a roaring stage 13 time trial, Froome has opened up three minutes on Quintana – a similar gap to that which he held going into last year's final week.
They are surely hoping the Briton will fade towards the end of the race, as has been the case in both of his overall victories.
Valverde noted that on Sunday Quintana was looking to save himself, with a flat stage and a rest-day on the menu before the Alpine denouement, and Arrieta agreed.
"Today wasn't the stage [for recouping time]; there was difficulty but he'd have had to take a lot of risks on the complicated descents. In Nairo's case, it wasn't worth it. Last year we didn't see Froome in difficulty until the penultimate day, and this year we don't know where it might be."
The viewing public, and indeed anyone interested in a closer contest, would surely like to see a more offensive approach, but those at Movistar would tell you it's not as easy as holding a Playstation controller.
"At times people want us to attack more," recognised Unzué. "It's not that we haven't tried – we tried on Ventoux. Attacking costs nothing; the problem is making it effective. It's not that we don't want to attack; the problem is that when we've tried, you've also seen the response of our rivals."
One of his comments – in relation to the hot, Sky-dominated stage 15 – was alarmingly defeatist in tone.
"With the race, the speed, and the conditions, there are a series of variables that condition our attitude, and sometimes you have to be satisfied with still being able to form part of the select group."
Movistar were widely criticised last year for a perceived failure to lay it all on the line for the yellow jersey, seemingly happier with two riders on the podium rather than one on the top step. Valverde himself, it was thought, was reluctant to sacrifice his chances of a first-ever Tour de France podium.
With the Spaniard fifth overall and showing little sign of fatigue after his third place at the Giro d'Italia in May – whose winner Vincenzo Nibali is already an hour back – there are concerns the situation is repeating itself.
"We're not going to renounce anything – that's clear," said Unzué, doing little to assuage those fears.
"It's not that it's an objective. We came here with another idea and thinking that at this level the efforts of the Giro would take their toll. Luckily he's going well and while he's still recovering and looking good each day, and his legs don't fail him, we'll try to be up there like today, and go on the move to see if one day we discover a sign of weakness in the leader and his team."
In the midst of the head-scratching and general bewilderment at the strength of Sky, Valverde was the only one who deviated from the defeatist tone.
"At the moment we don't see any weakness – we'll see it later," he said brazenly.
Like his attack on the Lacets du Grand Colombier, his words lacked any true conviction.
Thank you for signing up to Cycling News. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.