Sky's Chris Froome is apparently not satisfied with simply winning the Tour de France for the third time. Based on the way he has been riding, it seems the 31-year-old Kenyan wants to prove that he is the best at every cycling discipline as well.
Froome demonstrated that he could win by descending in Stage Eight; he showed that he could attack on the flat in Stage Eleven. He proved that he was an unbeatable climber in Stages 12 and 17. Finally, he outpaced some of the sport's best time trialists while winning Stage 18. About the only aspect of cycling he hasn't dominated in the 2016 Tour is mountain biking—and one suspects he could excel at that too, if he chose.
Short and Steep
Stage 18, a 17-km uphill time trial from Sallanches to Megève, was short and steep with some dangerous twists in the final few hundred meters. The route started flat for four kilometers, then angled sharply up the Côte de Domancy, a 2.5 km climb with an average grade of 8.6 percent—but with some nasty ramps of up to 16 percent in the middle.
The flat start tempted riders to go out fast, and the sudden steep climb threatened to drain them quickly—but there were still ten km left in the stage. Once over the Côte de Domancy the rider had to master the Côte des Chozeaux, eight more kilometers of grades ranging from four to eight percent.
The stage finished with a fast 2.5 km descent, threading through some narrow S-bends near the finish line. That final turn claimed three riders early in the stage, before word got around about how dangerous it was.
Ag2r's Alexis Gougard was the first to misjudge the final narrow 90-dgree right hand bend. Iam Cycling's Oliver Naesen went right over the barrier and into the crowd when he misjudged the corner; FDJ's Jeremy Roy came in too hot but braked enough to only slam sideways into the barriers.
After that riders opted to lose a few seconds braking early as opposed to losing significantly more time extricating themselves from the crowd.
Tool for the Task
Riders used a range of equipment, trying to find the right tool for this extreme and varied stage. most riders opted for road bikes with clip-on aero bars, figuring that the greater climbing efficiency would outweigh the aerodynamic loses compared to a standard time-trail bike. The better time trialists chose full-on TT bikes, but compromised with deep-dish rims instead of solid rear discs.
Froome went all-in with a TT bike and a disc rear wheel. Somehow the way he did his sums, the answer was that the time lost in the first seven kilometers would be more than made up four in the next ten.
Whatever weird mathematics Mr. Froome has learned, he has learned it well. He was fifth at the first time check, 23 seconds behind the ten-leader, Giant-Alpecin's Tom Dumoulin. Froome was ten seconds down at the second time-check, and 13 second ahead at the third. Froome flew through the final kilometer at 60 kph (37 mph) and finished the 17-km course in 0:30:43, 21 seconds faster than Dumoulin, who is widely regarded as the best bet for gold in the time trial at the upcoming Rio Olympics.
By contrast, Richie Porte, on a climbing bike with aero bars added, was nine seconds ahead of Dumoulin's time at the first check, but lost 18 seconds in the second section. He ended up in fourth place, 33 seconds behind Froome.
Using the Right Tool Judiciously
It was more than mere strength which made the difference here. Chris Froome analyzed the course to determine where he could gain time and where he could save energy. While Porte and Dumoulin flew through the flats and hammered up the first hill, Froome took it easier in the beginning. The Sky rider wasn't worried about losing time on the steep opening climb, and so wasn't worried about blasting through the opening flat to compensate.
This gave Froome more energy when he hit the second climb; he could hit the first few kilometers hard, then conserve again when the incline headed up to eight percent again. Once Froome crested the final climb, he was ready to go full gas, where the other riders were gassed and struggling to make good time on the final descent.
Froome might have lost time on the steepest section of the opening climb, but that section was exceedingly short. The aerodynamic advantage of the disc wheel was just enough, when combined with his carefully metered power output, to let him dominate the stage.
Astana's Fabio Aru finished third on the stage, the highest-placed finished on a road bike. In seconds the Astana team leader tied Richie Porte; counting down to milliseconds, Aru took third place, and moved up one place in the General Classification.
Nairo Quintana continued to have a disappointing Tour, finishing tenth on the stage, 1:20 behind. The Movistar leader hung on to fourth in GC, but is now four-and-a-half minutes behind Chris Froome. The Colombian climber might be able to dislodge Best Young Rider Adam Yates from third place in the next two mountain stages. He might even be able to make up the 45 seconds by which he trails Trek's Bauke Mollema, now holding second.
Froome Seems Set for Yellow in Paris
Realistically, barring catastrophe, neither Nairo Quintana, nor Richie Porte, nor any other rider has any chance to dislodge Chris Froome from the top of the roster.
Stage Nineteen is short and brutal. After 18 stages and 3100 kilometers of racing, everyone is tired—and Stage 19, 146km from Albertville to Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc, would be a challenging course for a one-day race.
The stage is devoid of level pavement: rider start out uphill, drop to a valley, and immediately start the Cat 1 Col de la Forclaz de Montmin, 9.8 kilometers at 6.9%. This is followed by the Cat 2 Col de la Forclaz de Queige, 5.6 kilometers at 7.8%.
After a very short descent, the road heads steeply up the Hors Categorie Montée de Bisanne, a 12.4-kilometer climb averaging 8.2% percent. After another swift descent, the riders climb an uncategorized hill to Megève, and then climb 9.8 kilometers at eight percent up to Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc, a Cat 1 mountaintop finish in case the prior climbs were not torture enough.
Any rider who has a hope to move up in GC will need to attack on that final climb—or maybe, for the exceptionally brave, there is the option of an attack on Montée de Bisanne, hoping to get an insurmountable gap before the rest of the GC contenders realized the attacker was serious.
In any case, this will be the stage to make a move.
Stage 20 is another leg-breaking Alpine adventure, opening with the Cat 2 Col des Aravis, followed by a pair of Cat 1 climbs, the Col de la Colombière and the Col de la Ramaz, followed by the Hors Categorie Col de Joux Plane.
This last climb is followed by a 12-km descent—a potentially exciting and potentially dangerous denouement. A rider who lost time on the climb might get a little crazy talking risks on the descent, particularly if podium positions are at stake.
Some riders might decide not to attack during Stage 19, hoping to survive the stage in better shape than their opponents, so that they can seal the deal with a decisive move in Stage 20. Some might figure that their legs will be better in Stage 19, and that their opponents won't have enough left to counterattack the next day.
Whatever the rest of the peloton does, it is fairly certain that Chris Froome won't be worrying. He doesn't need to attack. He can even afford to have a bad day, so long as it is not a terrible day. Froome's team mates have shown themselves to be stronger than their rivals; only Richie Porte ahs the legs to beat Sky and match Froome, but he lost too much time to a flat tire in Stage Two, and lost even more in the Stage 13 Time Trial. Porte has the form, but not the opportunity.
Nothing but a natural disaster or a man-made catastrophe could prevent Chris Froome from winning his third Tour de France come Sunday. Everyone else will need to wait until next year.