The Secret Pro at the 2016 Tour de France: Sky is conserving, Cav is back, and squabbles in the gruppetto

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Ten days into the Tour, and there’s a lot to discuss. Where do we start?

Maybe the biggest topic during the first week of racing has been Cavendish. He’s back. Everyone is talking about Cav’s speed. He’s at the same as he was in 2009. It has to come from his track training that he’s done, preparing for the Rio Olympics.

His sprinting is as fast as ever. Another thing that’s been to his advantage is that the sprints have been chaotic, with roundabouts, road islands, traffic islands, road furniture — there is never a straight run-in. None of the lead-out trains have been able to stay together in the final 2km. To fit five guys around a corner, or through a roundabout, it’s just impossible. And Cavendish is perfect at that. Half the time, he doesn’t even follow Mark Renshaw, he just jumps from train to train, and picks the right wheel. You saw on the first stage, he jumped on the Lotto train and played it perfectly.

For the sprints, Cav has got Bernie Eisel, Edvald Boasson Hagen, and Mark Renshaw. Eisel isn’t there in the final, he’s more of a diesel, he’s there more to take care of him, and keep him out of wind, up until about 6-7km to go. Renshaw is there to keep him in position. It’s not really a train to light it up, and for Renshaw to be the last man. They don’t have that, but Cav can do it on his own at the moment. He’s that fast again. He’s been working on that speed for Rio, but he’s also climbing like a brick. On Sunday [Stage 9, finishing in Andorra Arcalis] he was dropped from the gruppetto for a while.

Squabbles in the gruppetto

Stage 9 in the Pyrenees was such a hard stage, everyone was just fucked. We hit that Category 2 climb [Côte de la Comella], and there was more gruppetto than normal. Fabian Cancellara [Trek-Segafredo] was there, it was his first time in the gruppetto at this Tour, and of course he wants to control it. He was telling everyone “just slow down,” and it was like, dude, we don’t have that much time. We have 37 minutes to get to the finish. We can’t slow down. Then he wants to speed up, and then he’s going too hard.

Then Matti Breschel [Cannondale-Drapac] comes up to him and told him “Slow down, you idiot, we don’t need to go this hard.” This is in the last 5km, and we had 20 minutes, so we knew we were good. And Cancellara still wants to be a hero on the front. Breschel just exploded, threw his bottle on the ground, then threw his glasses. I’ve never seen Breschel like that.

Bernie Eisel and Rohan Dennis [BMC Racing] also had a bit of fight in the gruppetto. Bernie was yelling “We’re going too fast, we’re going too fast,” and Rohan yelled back “I’m only doing 320 watts!” followed by some back and forth. Everyone is tired, everyone is fucked from the race, tempers are very short. It was just one of those days, just super hard, we had nearly 80 guys in the gruppetto.

The thing with the gruppetto, when you are facing the time cut, you have to know when to ride. All of a sudden you get these guys who are never in the gruppetto, and they want to stamp on the pedals at the wrong time.

What you normally do is climb a little bit easier, to keep everyone in check, and then crush the downhills and you crush the valleys. You get rolling and you pick up some time, you stay together uphill, and then nail the downhills. But these guys weren’t doing that, they were trying to do the opposite, and it was breaking up the group. It was just strange, maybe they were frustrated, being there in the gruppetto with sprinters and domestiques.

A new Froome?

I think you can almost call this Tour over. I figure Froomey has this one wrapped up.

From what I’ve heard, this year, instead of riding in the wind on stages they don’t have to control, Sky is going to sit 30 or 40 back. I guess they’re very nervous of losing the Tour in the last week, because they nearly lost it in the last week last year. You’ll see this year, Wout Poels won’t even go to the front. He’ll just sit in the middle of the peloton. They’re saving him for the last week. All of Sky’s Tour team was not allowed to ride their nationals, because it’s a hard one-day race where they bash each other for 200km. They’re really aware of the last week, when some guys go seem to go better, miraculously.

Speaking of, there’s been a lot of talk about Froome’s attack on the descent of the Peyresourde.

I think he saw he had a gap over the top, he went hard, the gap got bigger, and he figured he might as well go for it. It’s a nice descent, it doesn’t take a lot out of you to keep a high speed. He’s adopted that crazy downhill pedaling style. He’s not the most coordinated looking character on a bicycle, anyhow, and that looks even more dangerous. But I don’t understand was everyone so worked up about a downhill attack? If you can’t keep up with someone downhill, you’re not a very good bike rider, in my opinion. There’s no real reason why the guy in front of you should be able to go downhill any faster than you.

Right before that, Froome punched a spectator, and was fined for it. Seems ridiculous. I can’t imagine it would hurt that much from those old sparrow’s elbows. I can’t imagine Froome having that much power behind his punch. I haven’t seen the footage, but we’ve seen it happen before, guys getting flags into riders’ wheels and that sort of thing. I think, if you’re close enough to get punched, you’re too close.

Throughout the history of the Tour, we’ve seen fans get pushed away from leaders. They’re just overanxious fans, that’s all it is. There’s no malice involved, they’re just off their heads. Even in the gruppetto, they will run beside you. I can imagine Froome may have had that attack in his mind, it’s 800 metres from the summit, and you’ve got this guy who is about to throw his flag in your front wheel. It’s like, ‘Get out of the way, we’re trying to do battle here.”

I’m not sure what to say about Contador pulling out. He’s not at the Tour to roll around in 20th position. That was a heavy crash he took. It seems like he limped around a lot, when he came across the finish line, and you could see that he favors one shoulder, but if that’s the case, you don’t have to attack on a 20km climb from the beginning [of Stage 9] if you’ve got a fever. I don’t understand that at all. But I do understand him going home. You can’t race the Tour with that kind of injury. No one really wants to see Contador get ninth or tenth. He’s there to battle for the podium, and fit and healthy he would, so what’s the point? Go home and recover from the crash, if not for the Olympics than for the Vuelta.

Chaotic sprints

Another big topic has been the GC guys mixing it up in the sprints. It’s a problem, and I’m not sure what the solution is. I’d be in favor of changing the 3km GC rule to 5km. When the sprints start, there is so much horsepower, and everyone is trying to fit through roundabouts and all that. All of a sudden you have Movistar, and Tinkoff, and you have to respect them, you know they are going for the overall win. I’m not going to shift Nairo the way I might try to shift Sieberg. I might be going for the stage win, but they are going for the overall win. They don’t necessarily want to be in that position, but they have to stay up front to avoid time splits. Every year there’s discussion that we should just bring in a 5km rule.

I heard that someone went up to Contador and said “Why don’t you guys just have a meeting, and agree that at 8km to go, the GC guys are going to pull the pin, and the teams will stick together, and we’ll lose the same amount of time, if we lose any time at all.” I think he just blew it off, and said no one will listen, these guys will fight for every inch. Maybe Froome could do it, just say, “Guys, how about we just back it down?” But then you might get someone who is 11th on GC, who will say, “I’m not really a GC contender,” and then the guy who is 12th wants to keep up with him. It needs to be an official rule, it can’t just be an agreement.

It could get ugly. If I crash, I’m out of the Tour. If I crash and I take out Froome and Valverde, because we are boxing to get through the same roundabout, that’s their Tour de France over. So agreeing to a 5km rule is in the riders’ safety, more than anything.

It’s all about the third week of a Grand Tour

On the other hand, no riders abandoned this Tour after seven days, which is a new record. I think that just shows everyone is a good bike rider now. You see that in smaller racers, there’s no more training races any more, there haven’t been for a few years. At the Tour, everyone is really good— even in the gruppetto, the speed that you climb is just fast. Everyone knows how to train properly, everyone knows how to train their threshold, everyone knows how to train to capacity, there are no real secrets in training any more. I’m sure there are some small things that some guys, or some teams, have that we don’t know about, and we probably won’t know about for five years. But I think the general level of bike rider has come up, even sprinters can climb so much better than they used to.

What about Landa? He’s certainly not climbing as well as he used to. He’s half the bike rider he was last year. It’s weird, every other rider that joins Sky transforms from a good bike rider to an incredible bike rider, but this guy seems to have gone from an incredible bike rider to a good bike rider. At the 2015 Giro, Landa was the strongest, he was dropping everyone, he was dropping Aru and Contador. Now his level is not anywhere near where he used to be.

And look at the Giro this year: How does Nibali come from 4:40 down, and in two mountain stages, take back 5:40. Come on. Seriously? It’s not possible, you do not get better in a Grand Tour, not in the last week. Although it looks like he can only get better at this Tour de France, as he’s clearly not racing for GC.

It takes so much out of you, a grand tour. Nibali won the Giro, now I figure he’ll just take a crack at a stage win. It’s impossible now to race for GC at two Grand Tours in the same season now. Even Chris Froome has tried to do the Tour and the Vuelta, but it’s just so hard. Clean, it’s just not possible. Nibali has achieved his goal number-one for the season, and in Italy, under so much pressure, I can’t even imagine. Then you take some time off, while the boys are all at altitude training for the Tour. It’s just too try to do both.

Then again, Fabio Aru was all in for the Tour, and he doesn’t look great in the first week, either, dropped on the climb in Andorra. Maybe we’ll see something from him in the third week.

Guys getting better in the third week… I’m sure that’s what Sky is nervous about.

Normally Sky would hit the first mountain and whack, and then defend. Normally Froome would do that up a massive climb, and spend a bunch of energy doing it. But I think they are really nervous about that last week. They want everyone on that team to be as fresh as possible for the last week. They’ve got the jersey, but they are only using two guys, Stannard and Rowe, until they hit the hills, and then it’s Kiryienka, Thomas, Landa, Henao, and Nieve.

On the sprint stages, they’ll look to QuickStep and Lotto and Dimension Data to chase, so they’ll get another day off. They won’t chase if there’s no one important in the breakaway, they’ll let it go to the line. They’ll happily lose the jersey if it’s someone who is seven minutes down already. If the break goes, they’ll say fine, let it go, we’ll get it back later.

I do think Froome will win this Tour, but I think he’ll be a lot more conservative than you’ve seen him in the past.

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