On paper, the final week of the Tour de France, from a yellow jersey perspective at least, would be all about the back-to-back stages in the Alps and the penultimate-day time trial in Marseille. But the crosswinds that blew in the Rhone valley on Tuesday made stage 16 potentially equally decisive and, just to earn the right to fight in the Alps, the overall contenders had to survive an afternoon replete with danger.
Race leader Chris Froome (Team Sky) did just that. The three-time champion lost time in the crosswinds at the 2013 Tour but gained some in last year's race, and today it was his team that forced a crucial split inside the final 15 kilometres.
None of the three other key GC players – Fabio Aru (Astana), Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac), all within 30 seconds – were caught out, but Quick-Step Floors' Dan Martin and UAE Team Emirates' Louis Meintjes lost 50 seconds and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) over a minute.
"It was quite a crazy stage. With the selection coming not long after that [uncategorised] climb, at 20km to go, a lot of the GC guys were quite far up in the bunch ready for that slot given that it came just after a climb. So it maybe wasn't the biggest differences between GC guys that we may have expected on a crosswind stage, but at the same time a few guys in top 10 did get caught out," said Froome in his yellow jersey press conference in Romans-sur-Isère.
"The rest of the GC guys were there and seemed willing to roll through. For myself and Mikel Landa, I'm just glad we were on right side of that split."
Attention now turns to the Alps, which are so pivotal to the outcome of this Tour de France.
Read more on this article
- Tour de France: GC battle ready to reignite in Alpine double-header - Preview
- Simon Yates passes Tour de France crosswind test
- Tour de France: Dan Martin loses ground in crosswinds on stage 16
- Uran and Cannondale-Drapac stay 'tranquilo' as Tour de France shakedown nears
First up on Wednesday is a 183km stage 17 that takes in the Col de la Croix de Fer and the Col du Telegraphe-Col du Galibier combination before a descent to Serre Chevalier. That's followed on Thursday by this year's marquee summit finish at 2,360 metres on the Col d'Izoard.
"I do believe these next two days are the biggest consecutive days in this year's Tour de France," said Froome.
"It's hard to say exactly how selective they're going to be. Whether it will just be a case of the four of us who are within half a minute just chasing each others' shadows, or if it's going to get blown open. That remains to be seen."
Fabio Aru, winner of the 2015 Vuelta a España, is second overall at 18 seconds, while last year's Tour de France runner-up Romain Bardet is third at 23 seconds. But it's the Colombian Rigoberto Urán, fourth at 29 seconds, who Froome suggested is something of a dark horse.
"It's very difficult to say which one I fear the most. We're all within 30 seconds of each other," Froome said. "If we all went into the time trial with the times as they are now, Uran would be the most dangerous given that he's the next best time triallist in that group. But having said that, we need to see how everyone gets through these next two stages."
Much was made of Froome's wobble on the steep final ramp to the line at Peyragudes, but he has since shown little indication that he might crack and lose this Tour de France, even making up 45 seconds on a first-category climb on Sunday after a mechanical.
Having faded in the final week of the 2013 and 2015 Tours – though he still won them – he seemed to rectify the problem last year and insisted he's on course to finish strongly once again.
"Myself and Mikel Landa are feeling great coming into the last week of the race," Froome said. "Certainly for me, that was my goal in terms of preparation for the Tour, to come into third week feeling the way I'm feeling now and I'm quite looking forward to the next days in the Alps now."
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