Team Sky’s lead directeur sportif Nicolas Portal says that he’s very much relieved that Chris Froome came away losing just 43 seconds to Tom Dumoulin on stage 19 of the Tour de France and so remains a podium contender. Portal hopes that Froome’s travails on the Col du Portet were a one-off, a un jour sans but Team Sky is concerned about the final mountain and time trial stages.
Froome slipped down a podium spot to third after struggling in the final three kilometres of the stage and now sits 32 seconds behind Dumoulin in the overall classification. Teammate Geraint Thomas strengthened his overall. He is 1:59 ahead of Dumoulin and 2:31 ahead of Froome, who conceded team leadership to Thomas.
Portal hinted that the challenges of winning the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in the same season might have played its part in Froome's difficult day.
“It could have been horrible and I’m a bit relieved. It’s not nice for Chris, he lost his second place. It’s not a lot and I think that the guys raced really well. What can you do? It wasn’t about strategy, if you’ve got the legs you deserve your spot,” Portal told Cyclingnews. "It just seems like he was on the limit."
“He’s had a really hard season and the way he won the Giro was unbelievable. I don’t think anyone else could win like he did, be at this level at the Tour and be competitive and only lose a few seconds on this stage.”
Prior to cracking, Froome had followed an attack from Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) with 13 kilometres to go. The attack didn’t last long with Dumoulin pulling the pair back and when Roglic went again 10 kilometres later, Froome went in the opposite direction. Portal believes that Froome would likely have cracked whether or not he had gone with Roglic, and says his move was a bid to gain time on Dumoulin.
“I think it would have happened either way,” said Portal. Everybody was on the limit and nobody knows when they will have a un jour sans. Thomas was also saying: 'I don’t know how I feel, it’s quite hard.' Chris said: 'I need to take some time on Dumoulin, let’s try it because it will be good to see where he is'. He tried, he paid the price, but you never know.
“When Roglic tried, Froome was feeling a bit better. He moved and I think that the move was alright but the last kilometres were already above 1500 metres so the altitude makes the climb harder. There aren’t too many things to say. It was hard and the other guys went a bit faster.”
Teammate Egan Bernal dropped back to help Froome when he began struggling, pacing him all the way to the line along with Mikel Landa, who had also been distance. With Bernal dropping back, Thomas was left to his own devices in the main group. The choice to move back and help Froome was one made by the Colombian on the road and Portal thinks that it was the right call.
“Egan himself decided, and it was the right thing to do, to stay with Froome,” said Portal. ”He was only 11 seconds ahead of Dumoulin on GC and Thomas has plenty of time, and if he had a problem a bike change would be quick and he wouldn’t lose that much time. Also, mentally, when you have a teammate with you when you’re in trouble it helps you not to lose too much time.”
Earlier in the day, Thomas had not been feeling great too, but ended up pulling out five seconds on Dumoulin and Roglic at the finish and took the four bonus seconds for third place too.
“On the Col de Val-Louron-Azet, he said I’m not sure how I feel and Froome told him on the radio ‘everybody feels the same, keep strong’,” revealed Portal.
Tough days to come
There are two very important days remaining for the overall contenders, with the time trial on Saturday their last opportunity to gain time on their rivals.
However, before that, there is one final and very difficult Pyrenean stage to come. The 200 kilometre test from Lourdes to Laruns features six climbs, including the Col d’Aspin, the Tourmalet and the Col d’Aubisique – which is immediately preceded by the Col des Borderes and the uncategorised Col du Soulor. Portal believes that Thomas looks strong at the moment, but says there is every potential that the race could be taken away from them on this brutal day.
“We could lose the Tour de France on the stage to the Col d’Aubisque,” Portal told Cyclingnews.
“Everybody is talking about the downhill, but everybody could race super hard to the summit and then try something on the descent. We could really lose everything on this stage. Of course, Thomas looks super strong, he doesn’t look like he’s going to crack but we need to approach this day like a proper hard day and don’t think that it is won.”
Team Sky will play a defensive game, according to Portal, putting the onus on Dumoulin to do something if he hopes to gain time on Thomas ahead of Saturday’s time trial.
“Thomas gained time on Dumoulin so he has a comfortable margin on Dumoulin at the moment,” Portal said.
“Obviously, who knows but I think with this margin it would be crazy to smash the day and go on the limit so I think it is not up to Thomas and us to force the race. I think it will be down to Dumoulin to try and take time on Thomas before the TT.”