As the late, great Kenneth Wolstenhome said “They think it’s all over..” and with one stage left to shuffle the GC classification it’s hard to see Team Sky’s Chris Froome losing his lead and the Maillot Jaune. VCSE’s prediction for the 2013 Tour de France looks safe, but as we went for most peoples favourite it was a pretty safe bet. Froome has ridden a dominant race. He has won two stages in the final week including Sunday’s summit finish at Mont Ventoux and the rather more closely fought second Time Trial stage in the Alps on Wednesday.
After winning the first stage in the Pyrenees on a very similar profile the likelihood was that Froome could achieve the same outcome on Ventoux as he had done at Ax 3 Domaines. The resemblance between the stage profile was mirrored by the result as Movistars Nairo Quintana attacked only to be reeled in and eventually defeated by the Sky mans pace. And rather like his first win this year it was Froome’s pace that gathered the most headlines afterwards.
Whether it’s the first post Lance ‘confession’ Tour or a dig at the rider / team or a combination of all three Team Sky in general and Chris Froome in particular have suffered a huge amount of scrutiny during this race. It had reached enough of a crescendo on the second rest day that Sky decided to counter punch with the release of Froome’s power data to L’Equipe and his biological information to WADA. It’s possibly a little unfair on the rider that he has had to deal with the volume and intensity of “Is he doping?” questions that come his way, directly or indirectly via social media. In previous generations (read pre Lance) the way Froome has gone about his attempt to win this Tour would have been celebrated. Three stage wins, including two summit finishes and the way he rode unsupported for an entire day in the Pyrenees is the stuff of legend. Yet he has been dogged by the doping question throughout the race in a way that only in the last couple of days (and perhaps not until the race finishes) has the tone of the reporting calmed down. In contrast to Sky’s erstwhile team leader Wiggins, Froome seems not to want to cause offence and perhaps an expletive laden rebuttal a la Wiggo might have silenced some of the doubters. The media have been quick to jump on any unfortunate quote or quip from the race leader to try and illustrate a tenuous guilt by association to the Tour’s fallen idols, but at least the sideshow appears to be abating now that Sky have wrested back control of the agenda with their information release.
It has felt a bit like the only thing that could derail the Sky train this year was themselves. In 2012 Sky established complete control over the peloton and while breakaways happened the rivals that mattered were kept firmly in the place by metronomic, power metered pace. This suited a team leader like Bradley Wiggins who essentially has one gear, but in 2013 Sky have Froome who is able to deliver multiple changes of pace even if he could be an illustration to define the phrase ‘win ugly’ with his all arms and legs riding style. And how they have needed Froome this year as the Sky train has been largely non existent. Other than his summit wins, the supporting cast (with the notable exception of Richie Porte) have been bit part players often falling away when Sky’s rivals have had domestiques in hand. Pete Kennaugh had another good ride on the Ventoux stage, but the other riders have suffered in comparison to say Movistar and Saxo Bank’s supporting cast. Of course, Sky lost Vasil Kireyenka early in the race, but they lost a similar engine last year without the same effect. Froome will n0 doubt show a great deal of humility and thank his team if he wins, but for VCSE at least the seeds for the victory were laid when he was alone in the Pyrenees on stage 9.
When Chris Froome is casting around for people to thank he should also spare a thought or two for the respective managers and strategists at Movistar and Saxo Bank. As brave as Froome was across the cols of the Pyrenees his opponents were indecisive or unwilling to deliver a fatal blow allowing the Sky rider to retain the lead and be in a position to consolidate it during the first time trial. Other than an opportunistic break on the wind effected stage 13 by Saxo Bank the opportunities to put some hurt onto Froome and Sky have largely been missed. For Saxo Bank Alberto Contador has been ably supported by Roman Kreuziger to the extent that the Amstel Gold winner has a solid top 10 result to look forward to. Contador had said he had his “..strongest ever team” going into this Tour but even if his teams tactics have been misplayed even Alberto admits that he cannot match Froome one on one. Whether climbing the Ventoux or on the second ascent of Alpe d’Huez Contador just hasn’t had the legs to see off the Maillot Jaune.
It was Movistar who had put Sky under pressure on stage 9 and Nairo Quintana who looked like their rider most likely to profit from a Sky slip, but the Spanish team suffered from not knowing which horse to back. Alejandro Valverde’s untimely wheel change on stage 13 settled that but while Quintana was able to move up the GC and take over the young rider classification it was hard to see him challenging to overhaul the top two. Where Movistar have profited this week is from stage wins from breaks and it’s all thanks to just one rider. Rui Costa book ended the second TT and the Alpe d’Huez stages with two fine solo victories. VCSE predicts a swansong for Valverde in this years Vuelta, but expect to see Costa and Quintana as the GC hopes for Movistar next year.
With neither Movistar or Saxo able to put Sky under much pressure in the Alps this week the excitement has needed to come from elsewhere and Thursday’s queen stage to Alp d’Huez had all of this and more. Encroaching fans on climbs are probably considerably more frustrating to negotiate for a rider than they are borderline tedious to the armchair viewer. The fans lining the hairpins on the Alp take things to a whole different level however. For the leading group any hope of attacking on the climb was ruled out in favour of just surviving the no doubt well-intentioned gauntlet of fans. The second and final ascent fell into two distinct halves; those riders that still had something to race for and those who would be just happy to finish and ‘would have that beer thank you’ as they passed Dutch corner. In the 100th Tour no French rider had one a stage before the Alp and for a large portion of the race that looked as if it would remain. BMC’s Tejay van Garderen had imploded in the Pyrenees and this was going to be his salvation. A mechanical on the descent of the Col de Sarenne held him up for a while but he was the first rider onto the Alp for the final ascent. His lead began to plummet as he climbed and the remnants of the peloton raced along the valley floor, but of closer and more urgent concern was the pace of AG2R’s Christophe Riblon. Riblon had finished second to Costa earlier in the week and must have felt the weight of that near miss along with the need to win something for the team after his teammate and highest placed French GC rider Jean-Christophe Peraud had abandoned after a double crash and fracture on the previous days TT. As both riders emerged from the crowds into the barriered section of the course it was clear that the Frenchman was catching Van Garderen. You had to feel for the American and as Riblon closed in thoughts of the two riding together Hinault and Lemond style to the line flickered. But no, Riblon showed no mercy, riding past without a moments hesitation and any suggestion of ruthlessness towards Van Garderen was quickly forgotten as the prospect of a French stage win on this stage in this race dawned over the fans, the commentators and the viewers at home. Alongside Chris Froome’s solo battle on stage 9 in the Pyrenees and with two stages still to go a contender for the stage of the Tour.
Today’s stage promised much but didn’t really deliver. The second win for Costa was well taken, but Sky seemed to be given a fairly easy day on a potential banana skin parcours. Of course there is one more GC stage to come, a short and sharp 120 kilometres to Mont Semnoz outside Annecy. Will there be a last roll of the dice? Taking more than 4 minutes out of Froome at this point would probably involve an attack of epic proportions from Saxo and or Movistar from the flag. VCSE’s view is that the opportunity has passed and if anything changes tomorrow it will be the podium places. Katusha’s Jaoquim Rodriguez has climbed up the GC this week and he could be the rider to shake up the places in search of a podium spot. Otherwise it’s down to the teams and riders that need to make an impression with time running out for them; an Andy Schleck or Jakob Fuglsang perhaps?
And so we will leave the mountains and head for the nocturne in Paris. Can Mark Cavendish get five in a row on the Champs Elysee. It will no doubt come down to which sprinter has left enough in his legs following a week in the Alps, but the VCSE Top 3 prediction would be from these; Cavendish, Greipel, Kittel.