Two days into the Pyrenees and the overall battle for the yellow jersey at the Tour de France has a multifaceted feel to it.
On the most basic level it feels like business as usual with Chris Froome on the podium and in the maillot jaune. However those expecting Team Sky to simply steamroll the opposition all the way to Paris are jumping ahead of themselves. The race is still two weeks from a finale and the Alps are still to come. Even with one more day in the Pyrenees, and even with a summit finish to Andorra Arcalis, it’s highly unlikely that Froome will establish an unassailable lead going into the first rest-day.
Froome, for all of the thrill and skill he demonstrated on the road into Luchonm, only has a 16 second lead over his nearest rival, Adam Yates, while the principle pre-race threat of Nairo Quintana is 23 seconds in arrears. Come the final stages in the Alps, 23 seconds could count for very little indeed if Froome has a bad day. He has a buffer but at this stage it is a negligible one on a physical level. His win in Luchon had more of a psychological affect if anything.
Thirteen riders still sit within 34 seconds of yellow, with only Thibault Pinot (19:44) and Vincenzo Nibali (33:14) throwing in the towel.
Froome and Team Sky take control
An eternity ago, when the race rolled out from Utah Beach, Froome’s rivals talked up the prospect of working the Team Sky legion into the ground by having them take control for the majority of the race. Eventually, after eight stages of racing, that prophecy has been fulfilled but Sky have had little to be concerned with so far.
Interestingly, Froome’s teammates appear to have reached the race in different states of form, a fact that may well play into their hands come the third week when riders who have worked less – Landa and Poels – find their legs and surround their captain. The five Team Sky riders to Movistar’s and BMC’s three on the final ascent to Luchon was the clearest indication yet that they have the strongest team at this point in the race.
We've also seen that the notion of an alliance between rival teams will never materialize. Tinkoff can't even string nine riders together, Movistar slipped up on stage 8 and BMC are still figuring out who their strongest leader is. Who else is there to collectively take on Sky? What's more, who would gamble a top five place at this stage just for the chance of seeing another rider lose?
Contador still a threat?
At the finish in Luchon, after Contador had conceded yet more time to his rivals, the baton of leadership passed to Roman Kreuziger, at least on a cooperative basis. The Czech was able to hold the pace and looked relatively comfortable in doing so. Contador is now over three minutes down and with one more stage to come in the Pyrenees he looks spent. He can follow a steady pace but once the accelerations occur he cannot respond. Yet his race is only over when and if he climbs into the team car or fails to start. Nibali lost several minutes last year in the opening half of the race and then found form, winning a stage and almost moving onto the podium. Granted the Italian wasn’t injured, but if Contador can regain his health and steady the ship in Andorra then he remains a threat in the final week.
A new generation of challengers
Six of the current top 10 have never finished on the podium at the Tour de France and there's a sense that a gentle changing of the guard is taking place. It's too soon to write Contador off as yesterday's man, but at 33 he is not going to improve. Instead, Yates at just 23 leads a new crop.
Dan Martin has impressed for Etixx-Quickstep. He may have missed out on a stage win but he has at least shown ambition and verve. The road to Andorra is one he knows well and he will be expecting a strong showing on terrain he regularly trains over. Like Yates, the third week will be crucial, and illness has often been the Irishman's Achilles heel.
Although a Grand Tour winner, Fabio Aru is still a Tour debutant. He has been keen to stay under the radar but is on the same time as Quintana. The fact that he has not lost any time, and is a relatively unknown force for the third week means that he is very much a contender.
Louis Meintjes (Lampre-Merida) deserves a mention too. The South African had an inconsistent start to the year but has checked off the first week of the Tour in impressive fashion. Andorra will be a significant test for him, as well as the rolling individual time trial, but a top ten place looks highly achievable.
The old guard
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) has quietly gone about his business, and although he struggled on the final climb on stage 8 he remains a contender for the podium. If he rides as he did in 2013, when he improved as others weakened, then the Alps could certainly be his friend. Bauke Mollema made the top 10 last year and has a stronger team around him than many give him credit for. Franck Shleck and Haimar Zubeldia are in the autumns of their careers but they were both with their leader for the first part of the Peyresourde.
From the homegrown contenders only Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) has held his own. FDJ rider Thibaut Pinot’s mental and physical capitulation has seen him loose all hope and led him to state that his season is already over – hardly what you want to hear from your leader just a week into the race? He bounced back on stage 8 but it already looks like he is clutching at straws.
Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) cracked slightly on stage 7 and the repeated the feat 24r hours later with even greater consequences. He is now 14th overall at 1’51, just a few seconds ahead of Pierre Rolland, who looked impressive until he cracked on the Peyresourde and then crashed. Bardet, at present, looks the business. He has attacked already in the race and his AG2R team have supported him well throughout the race.
Nairo Quintana admitted that he let his guard down when Froome attacked but he wasn’t the only one. The time loss was not a major concern, but what will stress the Spanish team is how much Froome took the fight to them. The days of Froome sitting behind several teammates and then attacking on summit finishes are not over but the team have moved on. The question is, have Movistar? They were caught napping in Luchon and whatever way this is spun, stage 8 was a day the Spanish team were meant to take advantage of.
BMC leadership still unclear
For the last week Tejay van Garderen and Richie Porte have held court outside the BMC team bus. The questions each man has faced have been virtually identical bar stage 2 when Porte lost time and their answers have been from the same hymn book. On stages 7 and 8 both riders faired admirably and took up the chase when Froome escaped for the win. The team currently lead the team classification, which provides an interesting layer to their possible tactics for the next two weeks.
|#||Rider Name (Country) Team||Result|
|1||Christopher Froome (GBr) Team Sky||39:13:04|
|2||Adam Yates (GBr) Orica-BikeExchange||0:00:16|
|3||Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Team Katusha|
|4||Daniel Martin (Irl) Etixx - Quick-Step||0:00:17|
|5||Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team||0:00:19|
|6||Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar Team||0:00:23|
|7||Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana Pro Team|
|8||Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team|
|9||Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale|
|10||Bauke Mollema (Ned) Trek-Segafredo|
|14||Warren Barguil (Fra) Team Giant-Alpecin||0:01:51|
|15||Pierre Rolland (Fra) Cannondale-Drapac||0:01:55|
|18||Richie Porte (Aus) BMC Racing Team||0:02:08|
|20||Alberto Contador (Spa) Tinkoff Team||0:03:12|
|33||Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ||0:19:44|
|54||Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana Pro Team||0:33:14|
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