EF Education-Nippo directeur sportif Tom Southam does not believe that riders inside the top ten will simply surrender their yellow jersey ambitions and concentrate on the fight for the minor places in this year's Tour de France, even if Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) is currently in a different league to the opposition and dominating the race.
The Slovenian, and defending champion, currently leads the race from Ben O'Connor in second at 2:01, with EF's own Rigoberto Urán third at 5:18. Less than a minute separates third to eighth in the overall standings, and while Pogačar is currently a cut above, Southam believes that there's still much at play – especially with two weeks of the race still remaining.
"It's hard to say that everyone else is racing for second," Southam told Cyclingnews on the first rest day in this year's race.
"Pogačar head and shoulders above everyone else and if we all go to a mountain top finish with him it will be hard to not see him winning. So everyone needs to think about how they can get a victory without that scenario. It's not like another team can ride on the front and keep the pace high and then expect to win the stage.
"He's just going fast at the moment. So even if Ineos rode for Caparaz, by accident Pogačar would win by just accelerating to defend himself. But we're nine days in so there's still a lot of road between here and the finish. So I don't think that putting up the white flag and rolling around for second is what's going to happen with everyone."
Urán kept out of trouble in the opening week of the race and survived the carnage of the crashes and splits. His time trial on stage 5 was solid and his rides in both Alpine stages ensured that he remained in contention for at least a podium spot. On stage 8, after Pogačar had once again distanced his rivals with another powerful attack, it was Urán who lead the chase. With the Pyrenees still to come, the 2017 runner-up looks to be in his best form in years.
"Third and ninth on GC are the same at the moment, no?' Southam said as he played down the confident position his Colombian leader finds himself in.
"He does look great, he looks good though. I said that yesterday we'd see where guys were and some people have gone by the wayside, properly gone by the wayside as we all know. Then when we looked at that group yesterday, we could see who was strong and who wasn't and Rigo was good.
One concern for the likes of Urán is that with UAE unable to chase every break that goes up the road, more and more riders will pull themselves back into contention. It happened on stage 9 with stage winner O'Connor jumping from 14th to 12th in a single day.
"We thought it might happen yesterday and it did. It might happen again but now AG2R are going to defend but there's always a risk that more riders are going to come back into the race. It's an unusual situation but that's not just on us to manage," Southam said.
"There's still a lot to play for though and as we go further south we'll see what the weather does. The last couple of days the cold played a role and people were just knackered by both the intensity of the race and the conditions. I still think that a lot of things can happen.
"But Rigoberto is in a really nice position, he's confident and he's good. It's impossible or at least hard for Rigo to do something like what O'Connor did yesterday. You're talking more about the scraps towards the end of stages, unless the race totally blows apart. If it does then Rigo is in a good position among those top five to deal with that situation."
Southam believes that it will be the battle for the minor classifications, such as the polka dot and green jerseys that will determine the racing pattern over the coming days.
"Most of the bunch can go into the break without UAE pulling so there's going to be a lot fighting for the breakaway. QuickStep, any time it's flat, will ride for Cavendish and he'll want to score points because Colbrelli has been sneaking around and getting points on the climbing stages.
"What dominates the race now will be the secondary competitions like the mountains jersey, the green, and if Bahrain tries and rides Cavendish out of the race, or something like that. Like what we saw last year with Bora and how they rode hard on climbs in order to try and get rid of Sam Bennett. Those secondary competitions will be the main feature, as opposed to what happens with the yellow jersey."
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