Few would argue against Sky being the strongest team at the Tour de France, as has been the case for a number of years now, but one of the themes of the 2017 edition so far has been the emergence of Romain Bardet's AG2R La Mondiale team as an influential force.
The French team caused mid-stage chaos in the Jura mountains last Sunday, briefly dropping Chris Froome on the descent of the Col de la Biche, and they were back at it today in the Massif Central.
With the stage finishing in Bardet's home region of Haute Loire, the Frenchman, who had also done a reconnaissance in the spring, set his teammates to work on the approach to the first-category Col de Payra Taillade, which peaked 31km from the finish in Le Puy-en-Velay.
"The plan was to try and take advantage of a stage I knew well to try and put some of my direct rivals in difficulty," Bardet told reporters in Le Puy-en-Velay.
"The race is very tight so we have to exploit each opportunity and make a difference where we can. We knew the final part of the stage wasn't made for big attacks, so we had to really go full gas for the climb."
Almost immediately, there were splits in the peloton and Chris Froome and Fabio Aru, first and second overall ahead of Bardet, were both caught out. Aru would regain contact quickly but Froome, who also had to change his rear wheel, started the climb 45 seconds adrift and had to burn through teammates and his own resources to rejoin before the summit.
In the end, Bardet finished on the same time as each rider in the top five, and Dan Martin gained 14 seconds with a late attack, but Nairo Quintana, still a danger man at just over two minutes, was kicked definitively out of contention.
"My teammates did a phenomenal job and we can be really proud of what we did today," said Bardet. "It was an incredible experience out there to open up the race with my eight teammates around me, and try and shake up the Tour de France. That's what we work for. We try to make a battle of it."
'We showed AG2R are not afraid'
The masterminds behind the tactics were the team's directeurs sportif, Julien Jurdie and Stephane Goubert, whose instructions were followed "down to the last detail," according to the team's general manager, Vincent Lavenu.
"Romain had reconned the stage so we knew it was narrow and technical, and that the peloton could split," said Jurdie of the approach to the climb. "We knew exactly who would do what in those kilometres."
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Froome was the one who found himself in big trouble, but he wasn't actually the target of AG2R's raid. In fact, they saw him as a potential ally as they primarily looked to inflict damage on Aru, one place and five seconds ahead of Bardet on GC, and Rigoberto Uran, one place and six seconds down. In the end, all three escaped unscathed, though a statement of intent had been received at the very least.
"Today showed that AG2R La Mondiale isn't afraid and that we're ready to try things," said Jurdie. "It's important from a confidence point of view to show that we can impose ourselves on a difficult stage."
The Tour de France now heads to its second rest day but next up, after a sprint stage on Tuesday, are the Alps. As a true endurance athlete who 'stays' well in the third week of a Grand Tour, and also someone who can perform at high-altitude, much is expected of Bardet, who has hardly put a foot wrong so far.
"It's clear we have to move on those two days in the Alps – we have high hopes for those two stages," said Jurdie. "We know it's a very very, very difficult task faced with such a tough opponent as Froome, but I think we have the keys to turn some things around."
And from what we've seen of the Tour so far, despite the way he completely dwarfs all others in the team in terms of popularity and status, those keys don't just lie with Bardet the individual.
"Romain's not going to win the Tour de France on his own," said Jurdie. "If he's going to win it, it will be with his team – that's for sure."
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