Froome agrees that Sky's strength 'must be demoralising for people'
Yellow jersey surprised by lack of aggression on stage 15
No alarms and no surprises. When the route of the Tour de France was unveiled last October, the trek through the Jura on stage 15 had the feel of ambush country. As it turned out, there was little appetite for insurgency, with Chris Froome's Team Sky guard continuing to impose their will on the yellow jersey group.
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It has been the fashion for some time to insist, like Roland Barthes on the author or Friedrich Nietzsche on God, that the figure of the patron in the Tour peloton is dead, but it hasn't seemed that way on this year's race.
Indeed, when Astana sent Diego Rosa to the front to set a very brisk tempo on the day's penultimate climb, the Grand Colombier, Froome seemed to take it almost as an affront, and he felt moved to ask Fabio Aru what he thought he was doing.
"I was asking him what their tactics were, why they were pulling so hard," Froome said when an Italian television crew pressed him on the exchange in the mixed zone. "But everyone has his own race to ride."
Everyone's race, however, seems utterly conditioned by the pre-eminence of Froome's Sky team. Aru dutifully launched a telegraphed attack on the final ascent, Lacets du Grand Colombier, which Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) followed, and Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) gamely offered signs of resistance near the summit, but the men closest to Froome in the overall standings stayed hidden.
With Wout Poels policing matters at the front of the yellow jersey group, neither Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) nor Nairo Quintana (Movistar) felt of a mind to test the waters, while third-placed Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) at times flitted dangerously towards the rear of the group.
"If I'm honest, yeah, I am kind of surprised," Froome said of the lack of aggression from his rivals. "Today was a day where I expected Movistar in particular. They had two strong guys in the breakaway so I thought they'd try to do more on the final climb. Valverde had a go but it was just to follow Aru. Apart from that, Romain Bardet gave it a try over the top but I just had the feeling that everyone was so on the limit that nobody really had the legs to make a big difference."
Perhaps the biggest frisson on the final ascent was provided by Froome himself, who feinted as though intent on launching an attack midway up the climb, before settling back into position behind Poels and Mikel Nieve. Some might have been grateful for the patron's largesse. "When it looked like Quintana was going to attack, he threw a dummy and that quietened everyone down," Richie Porte (BMC Racing) said.
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"I just wanted to see exactly what the state of play was, to see what reaction I'd get, who would be looking to follow me," Froome said. "It was interesting just to see that Nairo was on my wheel quite quickly. It was just to give me an idea of who might be making a move over the top."
Quintana's only attack at this Tour came on the slopes of Mont Ventoux on Thursday, and he suffered the indignity of having his move shut down by Wout Poels rather than by Froome himself. Like Renault and La Vie Claire in the 1980s – or other, less welcome comparisons from more recent history – there is an increasing sense on this Tour that the domestiques in Froome's service at Sky are stronger than the men trying to topple him.
"That's one of the things I said coming into this race. I really am in such a privileged position to have such a strong team around me, possibly the strongest team that Team Sky has ever put in the Tour de France, with guys who would be leaders in other teams in their own right," Froome said.
"You mentioned Wout Poels. He's not just any other rider. He won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, one of the biggest classics in the world. I'm really fortunate to be in this position and it must be demoralising for people to have to think of attacking, knowing that this calibre of rider will be chasing them, and riding at a tempo that can neutralise their attacks."
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.