After eight days of exhilarating and often unpredictable racing the Tour de France moves into team time trial mode with stage 9 from Vannes to Plumelec, and with only 41.8 kilometres of time trialing in this year’s race, it’s a rare opportunity for the specialists and GC contenders to fight it out before the rest and the looming Pyrenees.
The 28-kilometre course can best be described as hilly with three gradual rises, including the finishing 1.7-kilometre Côte du Cadoudal, which has an average gradient of 6.2 per cent. Although the proceeding two climbs are shallower in terms of incline they will still test the resolve, strength and cohesion of each team. Remember, times are taken from the fifth rider from each squad to cross the line so there’s no point in four riders dropping the rest of their comrades. It’s not about having the strongest riders but about having the strongest team. In recent years Orica-GreenEdge have perfected that art, although they’ll struggle today with only six riders left in the race and almost half that number suffering from early-race crashes.
Another important factor that has been overlooked is that the time trial comes after eight days of racing. Usually teamed events such as this occupy the opening day of grand tours, or at the very least, come within the opening stages. This time around the eye-balls-out effort comes after a week of fraught and demanding racing and that will certainly play a part. Some teams, such as FDJ, have made of point of sitting back and not even posting men in breaks, while Team Sky and some of their rivals have had to defend leads, using up valuable energy. The strong teams should still shine through but the timing of today’s stage in the overall pattern of the race could be key.
Saying that, it’s actually BMC who start today’s stage as favourites. They’re the world champions in this discipline and although they’re missing a few names from that win they have a line up packed with time trial talent. Rohan Dennis, Tejay van Garderen and two others from the Worlds win are present and even their supposedly ‘weaker’ time trialists pack a punch. After their victory in this discipline at the Dauphine they will start as favourites. What’s more, with van Garderen at just 13 seconds off Chris Froome’s lead, BMC have that amazing carrot of the yellow jersey dangling in front of them. There hasn’t been an American in yellow at the Tour de France since 2006 – we’ll let you decide who that was – so the spoils on offer are huge. If the predictions are correct and BMC win or come very close the rest-day questions will centre around the fab-five and not the pre-ordained four.
That brings us to Team Sky, who despite their strong showing so far in the race come into the time trial with a question mark hanging over them after disappointing performances in several team time trials this season – including the Dauphine last month where they conceded 35 seconds to BMC as well as time to Astana, Movistar, Etixx, and Orica. That day Team Sky looked somewhat disjointed, dropping riders early and finishing poorly with Chris Froome even admitting that they had started too quickly. Their squad here at the Tour is stronger, however, with Richie Porte, Leo König and more importantly, Geraint Thomas, tasked with marshaling the line. Holding yellow is certainly a possibility but of greater concern for Froome will be the time gaps to Movistar, Tinkoff and Astana. Conceding a few seconds will not be a disaster but on a purely psychological level, maintaining his current advantage will strike a blow to the likes of Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana and the defending champion.
Vincenzo’s Nibali’s faltering performance yesterday was a turn up for the books and the Italian is now 1’48 off the yellow jersey. The 2014 race winner cannot afford another mistake but he certainly has a team that’s strong enough for such a course. The time gaps between the big four teams should be minimal but with Quintana’s (1’56 off the lead) climbing skills it’s actually Nibali who is under the greatest pressure.
As for Movistar, they start the stage as relative dark horses for the win. Jonathan Castroviejo, Alejandro Valverde, Alex Dowsett, and Adriano Malori help to provide the horsepower and from the favourites they’ve probably done the least amount of work on the front so far in the race – if you excuse their efforts when chasing in the wind on the road to Zelande.
Tinkoff start the stage in a similar position to Team Sky, in that their performance is a little harder to predict. Their C-team were distant at the Dauphine but at the Giro they were the closest challenge Orica faced and they took a creditable second place. Contador is Froome’s closest challenge from of the big four at 36 seconds and the team are certainly stacked with ferocious time trialing talent. One interesting sub plot is that Peter Sagan is just 11 seconds off the race lead. Should BMC miss a step and Froome’s men lose a handful of seconds, the Slovakian could be in yellow, a scenario few would have predicted going into the first rest day.
From the rest, Katusha, AG2R, FDJ, and Europcar will be looking to merely limit their losses.
Orica-GreenEdge are unlikely to muster a challenge given their depleted squad but Etixx could certainly feature. Although they are missing Tony Martin they still have a high calibre squad and with Rigoberto Uran well positioned on GC they will be looking to break into the top three and continue their fine Tour de France.
2015 Tour de France full order of start times
|11||Trek Factory Racing||15:50|
|12||Astana Pro Team||15:55|
|14||Cofidis, Solutions Credits||16:05|
|18||AG2R La Mondiale||16:25|