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ANDORRA-LA-VELLA, Andorra (CT) – Chris Froome (Sky) came into this year’s Tour de France expecting the “biggest battle” of his career. After nine stages, that’s exactly how it appears to be shaping up.
Froome might lead the race overall on the first rest day, but he does so with a slender lead of just 16 seconds. His biggest rival, Nairo Quintana (Movistar), is within 23 seconds and a total of eight riders are within a minute.
More importantly, Froome hasn’t yet showed the explosive climbing ability that saw him ride to overall victory in the 2013 and 2015 editions of the Tour.
In 2013, Froome won the race’s first summit finish to Ax-3-Domaines, more than a minute ahead of his closest rival. That win moved him into the yellow jersey by 1:25 over Alejandro Valverde (his teammate Porte was second). He never relinquished the lead.
On the first summit finish of last year’s race, the Kenyan-born Briton also rode away to a solo victory, again more than a minute ahead of his nearest rival. He lead the race by nearly three minutes after that, again never being overtaken.
In 2016 though, Froome hasn’t been able to distance his rivals on the climbs. He’s tried, several times, but to this point Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and several others have proven largely unshakeable.
On the first mountain-top finish of this year’s race, yesterday’s stage 9 to the Arcalis ski resort, Froome attacked several times but was unable to dislodge Quintana, former teammate Richie Porte (BMC) and Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange). The result: Froome leads the overall by just 16 seconds — a stark contrast to the margin of previous editions he’s won.
And it’s notable that the lead he does have is the result of a daring descent on stage 8, set up by a surprising attack over the top of the day’s final climb.
“[I thought], at the moment when I attacked at the top of the Peyresourde there before the descent into Luchon, ‘Well, a lot of people will think I’m just going for the [KOM] points here’,” Froome said on the Tour’s first rest day. “‘But push on and use that as a little bit of a disguise, if you like, to try and get a small gap and catch people out’. I’m glad I did.”
But to win his third Tour de France, Froome will likely have to show more on the climbs than he has to this point. For the moment, though, he’s in yellow and it’s up to the other teams to take it from him.
“Tactically, [being in yellow] puts the shoe on the other foot,” Froome said. “It means that it’s up to other teams now to have to go out there and gain back time that they’ve lost already.
Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford was more forthright in his analysis.
“At the end of the day there’s only one team controlling this race, and that’s us,” Brailsford said. “No other team has made any attempt whatsoever to control the race.
“We’ve controlled the race even when another of the big teams was in the jersey. And so at some point in time, either the race gets taken on and some of the teams … we have a battle with it, or we’re going to continue to control the race until a couple of key showdown moments.”
The two stages following today’s first rest day seem unlikely to have much of an impact on the GC, but things change after that. Stage 12 concludes with the legendarily tough Mont Ventoux climb, the site of another devastating Chris Froome attack and stage win back in 2013. The final nine stages of the race contain two time trials — one of them mostly uphill — and several other key mountain stages.
“I think especially the the time trials are going to be quite important — those are going to be quite pivotal days,” Froome said in his rest day press conference. “But also looking towards … stage 17, 18, 19 and 20. Those stages — that’s where, in my opinion, the race will be won or lost.”
Ominously for Chris Froome, the man widely regarded as his biggest rival, Nairo Quintana, hasn’t yet seemed under too much pressure and hasn’t yet showed his cards.
“In the back of my mind today I was waiting for his attack,” Froome said after the stage 9 summit finish. “All the way up until the last km … I thought ‘He hasn’t attacked yet. Maybe he’s saving it for one big move.’
“But that never came so I’d like to think he was on his limit.”
The stony-faced Colombian is famously difficult to read on the bike and has given little away so far. In last year’s race Quintana was the strongest climber in the final week, taking more than a minute off Froome on the race’s final summit finish. But he’d left his run too late, eventually falling one minute short of the race overall.
Will the Colombian chance his arm a little earlier this time around? And will he prove to have the edge over the defending champion? Or will Froome manage to maintain if not extend his lead from here?
The race is but young.