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BAGNÉRES-DE-LUCHON, France (CT) – The 2016 Tour de France is barely a week old but already defending champion Chris Froome (Sky) has shown a willingness to take the race to his rivals. And not in the way many might have expected.
Before today, Chris Froome’s four Tour de France road stage victories had all come on summit finishes. But on stage 8 of the 2016 Tour, the Team Sky leader surprised his rivals, fans and seemingly even himself with an impromptu attack and daring descent to win the stage and take yellow.
After a few unsuccessful moves on the final of the day’s four Pyrenean ascents — the Col de Peyresourde — Froome launched one final salvo as the bunch crested the climb, opening up a small gap as he began the 7.5km descent to the finish.
“I gave it a go on the climb and that didn’t really work,” Froome said after the stage. “I could see the guys got on my wheel pretty quickly so I thought ‘Let me give this one more go going over the top of the climb and see if I can get away on the descent.'”
He did just that, turning a small gap into a more considerable one as he descended into Bagneres-de-Luchon at breakneck speed.
“I had a 54[-tooth] chainring on today but that was more just in case I got caught out a little bit on the flat,” Froome explained. “And I thought just going over the top ‘Hold on, I’ve got a 54 chainring; I can pedal a bit more on the descent here than the other guys should be able to if they don’t have the same gearing as me.
“‘I’ll give it a go and see what the reaction is.'”
The reaction from the other GC favourites was less decisive than it needed to be, allowing Froome to stay away and cross the line 13 seconds clear.
“I’m really glad I did take that risk,” Froome said. “Yeah, I didn’t take a massive gap but I’m in yellow this evening and that’s a huge surprise.”
Sky’s methodical approach to controlling races has earned the team its fair share of detractors in recent years. The reliance on power data to determine climbing efforts, rather than intuition or ‘feel’, has attracted particular criticism.
But if Froome and others at Sky are to be believed, the stage victory was a departure from the scripted approach many have come to expect from the British team.
“I think everybody was thinking our tactics are predictable,” team principal Dave Brailsford said after the stage. “Well this year we’ll make them unpredictable and make people guess what we’ll try and do next and use the element of surprise as part of our repertoire.”
Chris Froome offered a similar analysis.
“It really was just a spur-of-the-moment reaction going over the top,” he said. “I thought ‘Everyone’s got to be on the limit a little bit here. I’ll just give it a little squeeze and see what happens.'”
While Froome’s decision to attack where he did was surprising, so too was the way he descended. Despite not being noted as one of the sport’s premier descenders, Froome was able to maintain his lead and hold the chasers at bay.
The two-time Tour winner was an at-times awkward sight as he sat on his top tube, pedalling away in the increasingly popular “super tuck” position. It was the first time he’d be seen using the aerodynamic technique on the world stage.
“We never saw him in a race doing that — maybe [Tour de] Romandie but there was no TV on him,” Sky director sportif Nicolas Portal said after the stage. “It’s a bit ugly but it is actually something that works, so that’s how it is.”
For Froome, the use of the position wasn’t a novelty — it’s a technique he and his teammates have been using in training.
“It’s something you end up doing just with a group of guys together; you do race each other a little bit on descents some times,” Froome said. “I felt like a kid again out there, just trying to race my bike as fast as I could.”
A little under a year ago, Chris Froome took control of the 2015 Tour de France with stage victory at a similarly early point in the race. His win on the stage 10 uphill finish to La-Pierre-Saint-Martin put him into the overall lead by nearly three minutes and he would never relinquished the lead from that point on.
A year later, Froome’s Tour lead is far more tenuous — just 16 seconds over Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) and 23 seconds over a group containing several of his biggest rivals. Crucially, tomorrow’s stage 9 is being billed as one of the hardest of the race.
With four tough climbs, including a 10km uphill finish in Andorra, could it be that Froome’s efforts on stage 8 will put him at a disadvantage come tomorrow’s finale?
“Let’s face it — who knows,” said Dave Brailsford. “He’s gone hard there and I’m sure he’ll get tested tomorrow.”
Froome himself admits he went deep in trying to secure the stage victory, saying he’s unsure of the impact it will have.
“I didn’t save much to be honest,” Froome said. “Maybe I spent a bit too much energy — tomorrow is going to be a hard day.
“Twenty seconds is not a huge margin but I’ll take what I can get.”
Could it be that Froome’s attack on the final descent was a sign he’s unsure of his ability to distance his rivals on the climbs to come? Was his attack indeed just a spur of the moment decision as he and his team claim? And will Froome be able to hold yellow all the way from here to Paris, just as he did last year?
All of these questions will be answered in the days ahead. Perhaps sooner rather than later if stage 9 proves to be as hard as expected.