The first week of the Tour, the race smoldered. This week in the Pyrenees, it exploded.
During Week One, the Yellow jersey contender stayed safe and avoided trouble, but even a ‘safety first’ strategy fell foul of crosswinds and crashes, as both Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) lost time. At this point, Chris Froome (Team Sky) would rather chase yellow than defend it. But found himself wearing yellow, by default than design. Both Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) and Toni Martin (Etixx QuickStep), when leading, suffered crashes, withdrew, and left Froome in the jersey.
Of the original Big Four, Nibali was looking disturbingly off the pace. It was still a competitive foursome as Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) had ridden into podium and jersey contention.
The Green jersey had become a points shootout between Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff Saxo), with others riders like Mark Cavendish (Etixx QuickStep) and John Degenkolb (Giant Alpecin) cherry-picking the stages they wish to contest.
The first first phase of the Tour finished with the Team Trial which consolidated Froome in yellow; Sagan in Green and also White; and Daniel Teklehaimanot (MTN Qhubeka) in the Polka Dot.
The Pyrenees beckoned.
Stage 10: Tarbes-La Pierre St. Martin 167km
Initially the stage was a gentle roll for the first 150km. The final section of the stage was the grueling Hors Categorie climb, 15km at 7.4% incline, to La Pierre St. Martin. A severe test after a Rest Day.
Pierrick Fedrigo (Bretagne Seche Environnement) lead at the start, and was joined by Robert Gesink (Lotto NL Jumbo) and Rafael Valls (Lampre Merida). One by one, riders in the main peloton found the climb too much, and dropped back…including Vincenzo Nibali, whose tour was imploding on the slope. Other leading names to suffer, were Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr), Roman Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), Rui Costa (Lampre Merida), Michael Kwiatkowski (Etixx QuickStep) and the Polka Dot jersey leader, Daniel Teklehaimanot.
The leading trio was slowly caught by the relentless peloton, guided by the master tacticians, Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas (both Team Sky), protecting Chris Froome up the slope, pulling along Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Alberto Contador and Tejay can Garderen (BMC Racing). Then with 6.5km to go, as the riders played cat-and-mouse, huffed and bluffed, Froome, in an instant went from seemingly struggling, to an assertive, powerful, lung-bursting drive, leaving all riders, bar Quintana unable to respond. It was an incredible statement of intent. Catch me if you can. None could. The stage was his.
Quintana fought bravely, but the effort was too much. Riche Porte, inexorably clawed back to pip Quintana on the line to take second and deny Quintana bonus seconds. It was cruel to watch.
It’s too early to say who will win the Tour; should Chris Froome stay in yellow, it will be, that precise moment, with 6.5km to go on La Pierre St. Martin, that victory was assured. One sensed that was a pivotal moment.
Froome, did not just win the stage, he put precious time and distance on his nearest rivals. Tejay van Garderen was now 2m52s behind; Quintana by 3m09s; Alberto Contador 4m04s; and Vincenzo Nibali 6m57s. His stage victory also gave him the Polka Dot. Andre Greipel had edged the Green jersey from Peter Sagan; and Nairo Quintana was in White.
Stage 11: Pau-Caterets 188km
After the exertion of the day before, this stage was going to feel anticlimactic. Team Sky ensured no one gained on Froome. In fairness, the other leading contenders did not look as though they wanted to try.
Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), in a small lead group, put in a tremendous solo break on the Col du Tourmalet, and led thereon over the summit, and for the 31km descent to finish on the Col de Cauterets, to win by a minute from Dan Martin (Cannondale Garmin).
The only change in the points classification was Peter Sagan was back in Green! Notable in the General Classification, is Vincenzo Nibali dropped out of the top ten (to 11th), with Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory racing) moving into 10th.
Stage 12: Lannemezan-Beille 195km
This was expected to be the day when potential General Classification riders would attempt to gain time on Chris Froome. It didn’t happen. Maybe due to the awful weather, but more likely Team Sky, through Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas controlled led the elite peloton up the final climb. Every breakaway was matched, clawed-back and absorbed. No time gained, no time lost. It was punch and counterpunch.
The stage winner was Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), his second of the Tour: Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) was next 1m12s behind. Encouraging for the French audience, who’ve had little to cheer on this Tour, bar Alexis Vuillermoz (AG2R La Mondiale) winning Stage 8, was Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) coming third, Romain Sicard (Team Europcar) 7th and Mikael Chevel (AG2R La Mondiale) 8th.
There was a minor shift in the General Classification with Vincenzo Nibali returning to the top ten. He’s now 9th after a much better performance on the final climb to Beille, perhaps in response to Team criticism. And Peter Sagan retained Green, two points ahead of Andre Greipel. Nairo Quintana retained White; with the impressive young French rider, Warren Barguil (Giant Alpecin) next.
The Tour heads to the hilly stages in southern France, before the Alps, and Paris. In the Pyrenees, Stage 10 was decisive for Froome; but Stages 11 and 12 showed that the main contenders, Tejay van Garderen, Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana, are still in the frame. The elite peloton climbing to the Plateau de Beille on Stage 12, punched and probed all the way up. Team Sky will need to continue to defend furiously in the Alps. One crucial break can still turn the Tour from disappointment to glory, and any one of the leading riders has a chance of yellow in Paris.
Grahame Carder is a sports enthusiast and ?former player from representative Schoolboy level, through University and most corners where he’s lived. Currently works as Consultant on Strategy and Marketing.