Sunday's stage through the Jura mountains to Chambéry was hardly short of storylines, but one of the most significant was the way the AG2R La Mondiale team ignited the race, playing no small part in one of the most thrilling days of racing in recent Tour de France history.
On the descent of the Col de la Biche, the French team put numbers on the front of both the breakaway and the peloton, causing a period of chaos as maillot jaune Chris Froome (Team Sky) and two-time champion Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), among others, were briefly cut adrift. The drama would only intensify on the way up and down the Mont du Chat, with the team's talisman Romain Bardet forcing his way clear from an already select group on the descent and very nearly hanging on for the stage win.
One of the areas for progress identified by Bardet, by now well known for his adventurous streak, in the aftermath of his breakthrough runner-up finish at last year's Tour was his team exerting more authority on proceedings, and Sunday was extremely promising in that regard.
"We took the race by the scruff of the neck from the start, and that was important," team general manager Vincent Lavenu told Cyclingnews in Eymet on Wednesday.
So, while Froome in yellow gives the Tour a very familiar feel, there is some hope that the mountains of the second half of the race – starting on Thursday with the Pyrenees – could see the race veer from the script to which we've become so accustomed.
"We aren't on the same level as Sky," said Lavenu, marvelling at the way the British team can take Grand Tour contenders and former world champions, and deploy them as domestiques, "but at certain moments, in certain circumstances, we can impose ourselves on the race."
When Lavenu talks of the impact his team can have, with a yellow jersey to chase and 51 seconds to make up, he repeatedly refers to 'destabilising' the race.
“What we want is a hard race where Sky are forced onto the back foot and are knocked off balance as a unit. If you have a first-category or hors-category final climb, and you have five sky riders at the front, the race cannot be destabilised. So it's for that reason we try to make it a 'race of movement'."
In trying to expose cracks in the armoury of Froome's team, Lavenu all-but called for the teams of the other GC contenders to unite against a common enemy. Astana would seem to be the other team with the most onus, with Fabio Aru just 18 seconds off Froome and Jakob Fuglsang also in the top five, while the likes of Nairo Quintana, Dan Martin, and Rigoberto Uran are hardly out of the picture.
"I think destabilising Froome is also in the interest of all the other teams who a thinking of a podium in Paris. Everyone has to act upon that and look to make the race early on to put the Sky collective in difficulty," said Lavenu.
"Every team has its own strategy, and you have to respect that, but it seems to me that that logic must be applied."
Bardet brushes off stage 11 crash
There were a few gasps and cries of 'oh la la' in the press room in Pau as Bardet hit the deck in a feed zone crash on stage 11 on Wednesday. France's great hope was seen shaking out his right hand as he made his way back through the cars, and it soon emerged he had also taken a blow to the knee.
At the bus after the stage, though, Bardet reassured the media that he had no serious physical problems beyond a few 'aches and pains'.
"I'm happy to have come off unscathed, and to have finished with these flat stages," he said. "It's never nice, crashing twice. It was very nervy out there – days like this you never enjoy, you just have to suck it up and wait for better days."
Bardet sits third overall, 51 seconds down on Froome and 33 seconds down on Aru in second place. Asked how he saw Thursday's stage to Peyragudes – which the reporter described as the 'queen stage' – playing out, it was clear the day's event hadn't dampened his spirits too much.
"We had a queen stage on Sunday. This one, it's the queen stage in the Pyrenees and I guess there's another queen stage in the Alps. There seem to be a lot of queen stages at this Tour de France," he joked.
"On a more serious note, it's a good mountain stage. It's over 200 kilometres so it'll be a marathon. I hope it goes well and that I can take up the battle."
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