Sky find their limits – VCSE’s Racing Digest #12

The Pyrenean stages 

In the last Racing Digest we talked about the 2013 Tour de France starting for real as the peloton entered the Pyrenees last weekend. After its offshore sojourn on Corsica and the practical annexation of the Maillot Jaune by Orica Green Edge in week one, the general classification dice were due to get their first roll.

Nairo Quintana
Nairo Quintana (Photo credit: nuestrociclismo.com)

From the outset Sky’s Chris Froome has been VCSE’s and most people’s favourite. Froome demonstrated his superiority on the Tour climbs in 2012 and when riding a similar profile this year from Oman to the Alpes he has been in dominant form. Froome weakness and indeed that of 2012 Tour winner and erstwhile Sky team leader Bradley Wiggins is on the steeper ramps that don’t feature in the ASO’s idea of what a parcours should look like. Although key rivals like Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez missed the Tour last year, their form so far this year positioned Froome as the man whose race this was to lose. The question was; who would show their hand first in the mountains?

Stage 8 with a summit finish also featured this years highest col at Pailheres, just over 2000 metres at its crest. There’s a special award named for Tour founder Henri Desgrange for the rider who reaches the years highest climb first and it was Nairo Quintana who managed this convincingly. VCSE’s tip for the King of the Mountains classification made the climb look easy, although as Paul Sherwen pointed out (several times!) a climb over a pass at 2000 metres should hold no fears for a rider who was born at 3000 metres. Whatever advantages his birthplace gave Quintana on the way up, they didn’t extend to his ability to descend. Whether there was a rider in the field that could have skipped up the Col de Pailheres as lightly as Quintana we’ll never know, but the drop into the valley called for the sadly absent Vincenzo Nibali. Quintana is no Nibali and as he made a mess of his lines into the valley before the final ascent to Ax 3 Domaines the leaders began to peg him back.

Froome was enjoying the typical assiduous Sky close support. Peter Kennaugh, a Tour debutant but long since identified as a GC ‘prospect’ buried himself to get Froome and Richie Porte to the final climb in the perfect place. For Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen this was almost too much after the Quintana show, both commentators seemingly about to suggest that Kennaugh had “..come from nowhere”. Froome isn’t the surprise package anymore and his demonstration on the climb to Ax 3 Domaines showed his superiority. Quintana, now within touching distance of the chasing group was dispatched by a burst of speed from Froome that he continued and suddenly it was him alone ready to ride into yellow. There were shades of the Criterium International from earlier in the year as Froome rode away and Porte, realising that no one was getting up from the canvas, kicked on himself to deliver a Sky 1-2 and the race lead for Froome. Other than Quintana’s cameo, it was an almost depressingly dominant performance from Sky with Froome and Porte going first and second on GC and the emergence (for Liggett and Sherwen at least) of Kennaugh. The following morning’s L’Equipe headline ‘A First Round Knockout’ summed up the consensus view that the Tour was as good as over. The second and final day in the Pyrenees made all of the conclusions jumped to seem extremely foolish and certainly premature.

A case is sometimes made for televising the early part of a stage ‘live’. Dependent on your choice of feed, the opportunity to see the chess match that is played out as the teams agree just who will be allowed to form a break is something that might never be seen. The armchair fan is reliant on the presenter and / or commentator to fill in the gaps and describe just how you come to be watching the race that has developed. Thanks to the joys of social media it was pretty clear on Sunday that scripts written less than 24 hours ago were being torn up across the press, TV and peloton. Whether by deals made in smoke filled rooms or just pure synchronicity between the teams the plan for the day seemed to be let’s all attack Sky. And up to a point it worked. Viewers watching the ITV feed joined the action to find Chris Froome alone. The previous days revelation Peter Kennaugh had taken a tumble off the road and was struggling to get back to the lead group, but the regular ‘engines’ of the Sky train Suitsou, Kiryenka and Porte had apparently blown in the face of a mass team effort from Movistar. With three first category climbs left and his GC rivals circling you waited for Froome to be delivered a final fatal blow, but none came. As commentary shifted between discussing what had happened and what might / should happen next Froome dug deep and hung on. He showed the biggest balls of all when responding to digs from Quintana on the final climb over La Hourquette d’Ancizan. VCSE had tipped Garmin’s Dan Martin as someone who could pull off a win over the weekend and already well down on GC, his attack with Astana’s Jakob Fulsang was allowed to go late on the stage. Froome maintained the 1.25 advantage he had enjoyed over Alejandro Valverde going into the stage, the difference being that he was now in second place, Porte had fallen out of contention completely. Worse still for Sky was the news that Kiryenka had missed the time cut depriving Froome of one of his most powerful domestiques. For the Tour, Sunday was the best result possible. Although the favourite was still in yellow, it looked like there was still a race on. Froome deserved as much credit for his solo effort as his win the previous day. For his competitors questions remained as to why no one had delivered the killer blow to Sky’s isolated team leader. Certainly for all of the effort they put in Movistar had not appeared to get much from the stage. If nothing else as the peloton looked forward to the first rest day, they had established something: Sky were human after all.

The Tour heads north and then south again (with a time trial in between!)

After the excitement of the Pyrenees Sky were perhaps glad of a week of stages where the yellow jersey wouldn’t be under much threat with an interlude for an individual time trial where Chris Froome would be very much the dominant rider. In week one sprint honours had been split relatively evenly with Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel and Peter Sagan all taking wins. Sagan was proving dominant in the points classification having been there or thereabouts at the last even if he only had one victory to his name. Marcel Kittel who had upset the Cav in yellow storyline in stage one was first to strike again in week two taking the win on stage 10 to St Malo. There was no controversy for Kittel in victory, but the waters that ebb and flow around Mark Cavendish became stormy after he appeared to nudge Kittel’s Argos Shimano teammate Tom Veelers off during the sprint. The opinion that counts in these situations (the race officials) said “no foul”, but not before some heat of the moment interviews had taken place that resulted in Cavendish stealing a reporters tape recorder and Veelers saying Cavendish was at fault. Peace was restored pretty quickly and Cavendish presented a cooler head later on via social media that redeemed him at least as far as VCSE is concerned.

The stage 48 hours later told perhaps a bigger story when Cavendish seemingly poised for victory was denied at the line by Kittel for his second win in three days and the third win by a German rider in as many days. Whether Kittel’s win signified a change at the top of the sprinters tree remains to be seen although that could be answered to an extent next Sunday on the Champs Elysee. With Peter Sagan holding onto a strong, if not unassailable lead in the green jersey competition a win in Paris could already have been inked in as Cavendish’s priority for this year. Kittel shows no fear where Cavendish is concerned and his Argos team have been every bit as determined as Omega Pharma to get their rider into the right place at the right time. With the Alp’s fast approaching it’s going to be interesting to see who comes out the least damaged of the sprinters group a week tomorrow.

Sandwiched in between the sprints; the TT. Omega Pharma’s TT world champion Tony Martin had a long wait in the hot seat thanks to his lowly position on GC. As befits the Maillot Jaune Chris Froome was last to leave the starters hut. Part one of the test was to put time into his GC rivals. Mission accomplished as Valverde, Contador, Evans and others lost chunks of time reinforced by a ride from Froome that as late as the second time check suggested a second stage win. Denied by a change in wind direction, Froome could still feel happy with an additional two minutes lead over his closest rival Valverde.

Sky still weren’t having things their own way. With the focus naturally on the GC, on sprint stages Edvald Boasson Hagen had been given the licence to go for the win and had delivered some decent results in week one. On stage 12 into Tours an accident in the final stages costed Sky another rider as Boasson Hagen crashed heavily and broke his scapula. Despite the Norwegians exit the following days stage looked easy enough, with little climbing and a likely sprint finish. What no one anticipated was the cross wind that first detached a group of riders including Marcel Kittel. Next to fall victim was Valverde, puncturing and forced to take a wheel from a teammate. At the other end of the race, Saxo  Bank marshalled by ex Sky road captain Mick Rogers saw Froome well back in the peloton and forced another split. Missing helpers Froome eventually had to admit defeat and lost over a minute at the end. Valverde’s challenge was over, but now Contador was back in the hunt. Cavendish, who had been the last rider to make the break, took the stage win. Froome still had the lead, but his advantage had dropped to less than 2.30 from in form Bauke Mollema who had been installed as Belkin team leader just before the Tour started.

The stage could have been described as a breakaway win, but in its purest sense today’s stage to Lyon was a breakaway proper. On the anniversary of Tom Simpsons death, David Millar was part of the large group that got away. Millar didn’t have the legs in the end, but the heartbreak was felt most by Sojasun’s Julien Simon who came so close to delivering the first French win in this years Tour. Omega Pharma got their third win this week instead with Tour debutant Matteo Trentin.

And so week two closes and the final week of Tdf 2013 begins with a massive stage and summit finish at Mont Ventoux. In all likelihood the action before the ‘Giant’ will be between the French teams desperate to get someone strong into the break on Bastille Day. It could be a day for Pierre Rolland or even Thomas Voeckler who has been pretty anonymous so far. As there is no descent involved it might also be time for Thibaut Pinot to show himself. The VCSE view on the stage is that the profile will probably suit Froome as it has some similarities with the stage to Ax 3 Domaines. Even if he is alone for the climb, Froome has shown he has the legs to ride away on a single HC climb. Don’t anticipate to many changes to the GC tomorrow, but as for next week; when the race gets to the Alps Sky will have a real battle on their hands.

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