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BAGNÈRES-DE-LUCHON, France (CT) – When the dust settles, when stage 8 is analysed, those trying to beat Chris Froome to win the 2016 Tour de France may need to do a little soul-searching. The race to Bagnères de Luchon didn’t see major time gaps but the tactics of those seeking to prevent his third Tour win were a little perplexing.
Froome tried to shake off his rivals on the ascent of the Pyresourde. In previous Tours he has stamped his authority on the first big mountain stage of the race. This time around, his surges didn’t break his challengers. However just before the summit he accelerated and, as the others dithered, he opened a small but growing lead.
From there he plummeted down the descent, sitting on his top tube to adopt a more aerodynamic tuck and gradually pulling clear.
Behind, Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde ended up doing the bulk of the chasing. His teammate – and designated team leader – Nairo Quintana was there and the Spaniard tried to ensure the double Tour runner-up didn’t lose out.
However, Valverde had been dropped on the climb before the summit and wasn’t the strongest in the group. Twelve others were also there, yet nobody committed to the chase until it was too late.
“I attacked into the final slopes of the Peyresourde, just like I was told, and later on lost a bit of distance because I was struggling after such a strong move,” Valverde explained. “When I dropped back, Nairo was still there with Froome; I didn’t see his move happen, I just saw Froome away seconds later.
“When I realized that was the situation, I went to the front of the group as fast as I could, even before the first turn of the descent, and went downhill with all I had left in the tank.
“The other GC contenders started working when it was too late. Everyone wants to win the Tour, but at the end, we always end up working alone.”
Perhaps the most glaring of those holding back were the BMC Racing Team duo Tejay van Garderen and Richie Porte. Having two from one team there meant they arguably had a bigger obligation than the individuals in the group did, yet they left much of the pursuit up to Movistar.
Asked about it afterwards, Porte suggested that obligation lay elsewhere. “He [Froome] just got the gap and Quintana didn’t want to chase. There you go.”
His team realised the danger and communicated instructions to knuckle down. Yet a committed chase didn’t unfold until it was too late. “We got told on the radio to pull together and try and bring Froome back as much as we could,” he continued. “But by that stage, it was out of sight, out of mind, to be honest.”
Van Garderen is the better placed of the duo, having started the day level on time with Froome and in 12th place overall. Porte had conceded one minute 45 seconds earlier in the race due to a puncture.
The American gave his own account of things. “It looked like it was all together over the top but then Froome put in one last sneak attack, right at the top there,” he stated.
“I was thinking, ‘oh well it’s a long way to go down hill, that’s kind of a bold move. But you should never underestimate Froome, you give him an inch and he’ll take a mile.”
They did give him an inch, and he grabbed both the stage win and the yellow jersey. By virtue of the time bonus he also opened a 23 second advantage over van Garderen and increased his buffer over Porte to two minutes and eight seconds.
It’s by no means game over, but hesitancy in chasing a two time Tour de France winner is difficult to understand. Had those behind reacted quickly and worked together, the yellow jersey may well be on the shoulders of someone else instead.
More importantly, the two-time Tour winner wouldn’t have been handed a time advantage plus a boost to his morale.
‘Valverde is fast’
Yvon Ledanois is the team’s directeur sportif and was in the car supporting the BMC Racing Team leaders. He defended the tactics afterwards.
“It is not a surprise [that Movistar were left to do the work – ed.]. I saw also that Valverde is fast,” he said. “If we finish all together, he wins the stage and he takes the jersey. Maybe for this reason Froomey wanted to take the jersey. It is clear now the strategy – ‘I am the leader for the Tour and I take the jersey.’”
Froome has previously gained time on his rivals on the uphills, but this time around he wasn’t able to create a gap. Did Ledanois feel that there was perhaps a lack of confidence from Froome in relation to his climbing, given that he took chances on the downhill to stay clear?
“No, I don’t think so,” he responded. “The descent was not technical, it was not dangerous. It is very fast. He doesn’t take risks.”
Porte also plays down any suggestion that Froome might be feeling insecure about his ability to gap rivals such as Quintana.
“I am not sure, he was still looking good on top of the Pyresourde there,” he said. “I guess he is just a fighter and he is going to take time anywhere he can. So chapeau to him.”
Van Garderen said that he believed the attack was not premeditated. Describing Froome as a ‘pretty instinctual guy,’ he suggested that the decision was made on the spur of the moment. “I think he was shooting from the hip.
“At first it looked like Valverde was going to chase it back and we thought that they’ve got it. But the gap started to stretch out, and we were hearing that over the radio. Then it was kind of instinct, we’ve got to get some chase going here.”
By that time it was too late for Froome to be recaptured.
The initial battle was lost, but Ledanois insists that there is plenty of racing ahead.
“Now we look to tomorrow. The Tour is not one week, it is three weeks,” he said. “He [Froome] is strong for the moment, but I remember also that last year he was less strong in the last week. So we will look day by day.
“I think tomorrow the strategy is easy if you have the legs. It is a very, very hard stage. I think the key for a lot of leaders now is if you need to try, you need the legs. If you don’t have the legs, tomorrow you lose time for sure.
Porte echoed this, suggesting that the gains and losses could be far bigger on Sunday’s stage to Andorra.
“On the back of the last two days, tomorrow is possibly going to be the hardest stage of the Tour,” he insisted. “If the two of us are up there, and Froome or Quintana are isolated, then let’s see what we can do.”
Van Garderen also indicates fireworks are in store.
“The stage is really brutal,” he stressed. “I know that the altitude could pay just as much of a factor as the climbs themselves, so I don’t think it’s going to be easy.”
The message is this: gains by Froome on stage 8 might not prove to be crucial if he has weaker legs on stage 9.
However, if riders look at each other to chase if the Briton gets clear again, the race for yellow will seem more like a tussle for second and third.