MONTPELLIER, France (CT) – “Today was just something you cannot plan — it’s something special. Green jersey with yellow jersey in the front group?”
The words of stage winner Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) summed up the day’s racing perfectly. In theory, stage 11 of the 2016 Tour de France was supposed be one of the most straightforward of the race — a regulation transition stage seemingly destined to end in a bunch sprint. But what unfolded instead was a chaotic, wind-affected stage with a most unpredictable finale.
With 12km to go and the expected bunch kick on the horizon, Tinkoff duo Maciej Bodnar and Peter Sagan saw an opportunity and went for it, prizing open a small gap at the head of a strung-out peloton. Overall leader Chris Froome (Sky) and teammate Geraint Thomas battled their way across and the race-winning selection had been made.
It was a remarkable sight. The yellow jersey and green jersey off the front of the peloton in the dying minutes of a sprint stage. The two teams of two riders, each working towards the shared interest of holding off the bunch. The four riders all contributing equally to the effort.
The quartet managed to stay away, leaving both Tinkoff and Sky with plenty to celebrate. Froome and Thomas had managed to secure more time in the former’s battle for the GC. And Sagan and Bodnar had finished the stage with first and third respectively.
Speaking in his post-race press conference, Sagan paid tribute to his break-mates and the way they had worked together.
“Thank you to Maciej Bodnar — he did very big work today and also to Team Sky because they were working with us and I am very happy for that,” the world champion said. “[To] win the stage that was maybe for the sprinters? It was just a crazy day.”
While the end to today’s stage was far from predictable, the same can be said of Chris Froome’s journey through this year’s Tour. In the 2013 and 2015 editions it was the Briton’s explosive climbing ability that set him apart from his rivals, eventually leading to victories in both editions. So far in 2016, it’s been everywhere but the climbs that Froome has made his mark on the GC.
The time he gained with victory on stage 8 was the result of a timely attack and daring descent after struggling to distance his rivals uphill. And the time he gained on stage 11 was the result of another timely move, this time on flat roads.
For Sky principal Dave Brailsford, Froome’s ability to get away in the crosswinds was thanks to his having three accomplished Classics specialists in his camp: Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe, and Geraint Thomas.
“He knows that he’s going to be well positioned — it’s highly unlikely he’s going to miss an echelon with those guys, if he sticks with them,” Brailsford said of Froome. “And so I think then it makes you think more offensively than it does defensively.
“You’re not looking to not lose time, you’re looking to think ‘Is there any chance of gaining time?'”
While it was highly unusual to see Froome — a climbing specialist — breaking away on a flat stage, it’s not the first time the two-time Tour winner has used the wind to his advantage. In stage 2 of last year’s race, crosswinds split the field, catching out Froome’s closest rival Nairo Quintana. The Colombian lost nearly 90 seconds that day and had it not been for that mishap, he might well have won the Tour.
“The crosswinds last year was probably the stage where Chris gained most of the time early on,” Brailsford said. “So it’s not a total surprise that he’s chipping away on some of the more flatter or transitional stages.
“I think he’s raced well this year. He’s gone on the attack. Who knows how it’s going to go — we might pay for it, but it’s good fun.”
While Froome’s unusual tactics have been successful thus far, many have questioned whether such moves have showed a lack of confidence in his ability to distance Quintana and others on the big climbs. Descending at breakneck speed on stage 8 to gain less than 20 seconds seemed a significant risk for minimal reward. And the effort required to establish and maintain today’s breakaway in those final kilometres seemed equally risky, given tomorrow’s uphill finish on Mont Ventoux and a decisive time trial the day after.
Froome himself admits questioning whether today’s effort was worth the 12 seconds he ultimately gained.
“I was asking myself that question today in those last 10km, wondering if it was worth spending that energy,” Froome said in his post-stage press conference. “But I think at this moment I really am going to try and take any advantage I can get, especially knowing that Nairo in particular’s really strong in the third week.
“If I can take any seconds at this point I will. I’m just enjoying my racing, taking every opportunity I can and to find myself in yellow by doing that is just amazing.”
With 11 stages of this year’s Tour de France now complete, Chris Froome leads the race by 28 seconds. It’s not an insignificant margin, but it’s not the 3:25 lead he enjoyed at the same point in 2013 or the 2:52 he had last year. And there’s every chance the 28 seconds currently between Froome and Adam Yates (and the 35 seconds between Froome and fourth-placed Quintana) will be eclipsed by greater margins later in the race.
History suggests that tomorrow’s ascent of Mont Ventoux, while not the full climb, will create noteworthy time gaps (Froome won by 29 seconds there in 2013), and the time trial that follows is also likely to be crucial. And that’s to say nothing of the stage 18 mostly-uphill ITT, and the two summit finishes in the final days of the race.
There’s plenty of racing still to come in this year’s Tour de France and the battle for the GC is far from over. For now, we can only hope we’ll be treated to more of the unpredictable and entertaining racing we saw on stage 11.
As Chris Froome said in his press conference: “This is bike racing at its best.”