Two of cycling's most experienced team managers, Australian Matt White (Orica-Scott) and BMC Racing's Jim Ochowicz, recognise that in all their long years as either directors or riders, this year's Tour de France has been highly unusual, with four riders - Chris Froome, Fabio Aru, Romain Bardet and Rigoberto Uran separated by less than half a minute at the top of the standings at the start of the final week of racing.
"We are heading into unknown territory because it's a different race in some respects, some of the favourites aren't here even now," BMC Racing Manager Ochowicz told Cyclingnews at the start of stage 14. "And those that are here are packed quite tight on the time standard. But there's still a long way to go and there's a time trial in Marseille on the second last day, and you can count on that, if the GC is like it is today (Saturday), to dictate the winner."
This is the main reason why the race is so wide open, Ochowicz said.
"I think a lot of people don't want to go into that time trial in that situation," he said. "So that will put some people on the offensive, given [Chris] Froome (Team Sky) will be the favourite for the time trial."
Orica-Scott director White said this year's Tour is playing out a lot like the Giro d'Italia in May.
"It's like the Giro, with four boys going for the win on the last stage," he said. "I think the Giro's been just as tight, but at the Tour, I definitely don't remember it being this tight."
The similarities between cycling's two biggest Grand Tours this year do not end there, White says.
"There's the way that this is being raced and the conservative style certain teams have, but that's modern-day racing," White said. "People don't race like they used to. I'm talking to our guys about how early on a normal stage, guys are taking position in the neutralised zone, as a team. Things that wouldn't have happened 10 or 15 years ago.
"It's a lot more tense, and I suppose here, when you're in the biggest fishbowl of world sport, everything's amplified," White said. "It's another level of stress and tension, and that's why the Tour panned out the way it did in the first week."
Read more on this article
- Analysis: Froome retakes yellow as Sky prove to be the Tour's A-Team
- Aru loses Tour de France lead after 'being too far back'
- Tour de France: Order restored as Froome reclaims yellow
- Tour de France: Bardet wary after 'opening the door' for GC rivals
Ochowicz said that as the Tour moves towards its final third week, though, the chances for breakthroughs are shrinking fast.
"You got to make time when you can make time, at any opportunity," Ochowicz said. "[Stage 13] was unpredictable. No one thought that Contador and Quintana would come back, so that changes the dynamics again. Now you've got two more teams (Movistar and Trek-Segafredo) that had basically left the race, almost, from a team perspective, they'll chase to keep the time gaps, they'll do other things. It motivates them to do things.
"It's completely unpredictable," Ochowicz said. "I didn't expect to see [Rigoberto] Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) in the hunt. And if you go back a couple of months and look through all the expert commentary" - he grins broadly - "they're all off the back. Been there, done that…"
White believes, though, that those climbing opportunities could be there, but few people are a real position to take them.
"Everyone needs a lead of more than one minute going into that time trial with Froome," White said. "I don't think they'd be happy. Who would be happy with any less? But from what I've seen so far, the level of the top seven or eight climbers is very, very similar. I think the only thing that will happen between now and Marseilles is is that someone on GC will have a bad day.
"I don't really see any of those guys, although I'm willing to be proved wrong, will have an exceptional day," White said. "There'll be seconds lost and gained here. It'll be very similar when we get there, and I think Chris Froome is still the man to beat."
Ochowicz is not quite as categorical as White on that particular issue.
"Froome, people thought in the first few days that he was the guy, and he's laid back a little bit," said Ochowicz, the former manager at 7-Eleven and Motorola. "I don't think he's faking it, but I think he's maybe got a different strategy."
Asked to name three favourites for the podium, Ochowicz replied immediately, "I can't give you them. It's way too early."
Prior to Froome regaining the yellow at Rodez, the GC rider who seemed to have come out of the Pyrenees with the greatest momentum was Froome's teammate Mikel Landa, and again Ochowicz is cautious about the implications.
"Landa keeps things under control for Sky, but you have to remember he and Quintana both did the Giro d'Italia, and that changes the dynamics a bit for them," Ochowicz said. "Some people think you can't do the Giro and the Tour, but they seem to be coming back from that position."
White was obviously not prepared to be too beguiled by Team Sky's apparent 'pincer movement' with Landa and the Briton.
"They've got one more guy for their little game of chess there, but I have no doubts they want Chris Froome to win the Tour de France," White said.
As for Simon Yates (Orica-Scott), White said he could not be more satisfied with how his British rider is performing.
"He's going really well," White said. "We came here to win the white jersey, and he's got a stranglehold on that. Where he finishes in the top 10 we don't know, but it's his first Tour for GC, and you ride top 10 you've had a successful Tour. There's a long way to go, but he's in a good position."
As Ochowicz pointed out, what makes this Tour even stranger is that many of the favourites are not even present on the Tour anymore, and BMC Racing's Richie Porte represented one huge loss to the race after his appalling crash in the Jura. Asked for an update, the veteran American manager was pleased to report that Porte remains on the road to recovery.
"He's out of the clinic and resting at home," Ochowicz said. "It'll take time. Bones take time to heal, but his morale is good. He's keen to get back on the bike, and when he can race, he'll start racing again."
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