An intriguing Tour de France reached its first rest day in Andorra with the familiar face of Chris Froome (Team Sky) sitting pretty in the yellow jersey, but with a swarm of threats at his shoulder, and two weeks of racing and the Alps still to come.
The defending champion has reached Andorra and crested the Pyrenees with a 16-second lead over 23-year-old Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) and 19 seconds over Dan Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) – not the two riders many would have predicted for podium berths at this point. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) is 23 seconds off the lead and has intently marked Froome and, were it not for a lack concentration on stage 8, would be much closer to the yellow jersey.
At Team Sky’s press conference on Monday, a relaxed Froome spun the positives of his situation, and he has reason for optimism. His team has looked more impregnable than ever, he has the race lead, picked up a stage win, and one of his main rivals – Alberto Contador – has already gone home.
“It’s a really good place to be tactically and for the team. Tactically it means that other teams have to go out there and attack to gain the time they’ve lost. Also with the team that I’ve got they’ve shown just in terms of numbers that we do have the strongest team here,” Froome said. “The guys can ride in a defensive way to help me so that when other riders have one or two teammates I’m sitting with four or five. That’s definitely going to be in my favour.”
There is no doubt that Froome has altered his tactics to suit the race. Typically, he blows the race apart on the first summit finish, but on stage 8 he attacked just over the top of the last climb and held off the challengers to take the stage and move into yellow. At Andorra, Froome had the luxury of Sergio Henao attacking for him before he held off strong moves from Dan Martin.
Quintana, meanwhile, glued himself to Froome’s wheel and is clearly looking for Team Sky to run themselves ragged before major assault in the Pyrenees. It will be interesting to see how both men tackle Mont Ventoux on Thursday with an individual time trial 24 hours later.
“It will be interesting to find out from him,” Froome said when asked why he thought Quintana had not attacked at Arcalis. “I was always waiting for him to attack and kept something in reserve and in the back of my mind waiting for his big move.”
Team manager Dave Brailsford rather robustly added that only his team had controlled the race, even when another ‘big team’, in his words, had held the leader’s jersey. It was a clear shot across the bows at Movistar, who have occasionally probed but never really engaged Froome into a one-on-one battle with Quintana. And it’s worth remembering that at this point last year, the Colombian was 1:59 down on Froome.
With 11 riders within a minute of Froome’s lead, this year’s Tour has been a race in which riders have measured their performances ahead of the final showdowns. Froome, he says, is not worried about the small gaps and Dave Brailsford reiterated that the race could be won by seconds rather than minutes.
“It doesn’t worry me but as I’ve said from the beginning of the Tour this is going to be one of, if not the hardest fought race that I’ve ridden,” Froome said.
“When I put in a big attack in Andorra, Quintana followed me and I obviously wasn’t going to keep riding with him on my wheel but he seems to be in great shape. It’s going to be an interesting 10 days.
“For me personally, I made it my personal mission to come into this race a little bit fresher with the hope that I’ll have more in the third week than I had in the past. Let’s see. It a week away and we’ve still got two more weeks of racing now. Let’s see what happens.”
As for Yates and Martin, who currently occupy the remaining podium spots, Froome stressed that the pair were genuine GC contenders.
“I think that they’ve already shown themselves as contenders. If they can do what they’ve done in the first half again then they’ll be on the podium come Paris. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be up there but three weeks is a long time but so far they’ve not shown any weakness.”
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