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PEYRAGUDES, France (CT) – Before Thursday’s stage 12, the 2017 Tour de France was a largely uninspiring affair. Sure, there’d been plenty of drama — Peter Sagan’s disqualification for bringing down Mark Cavendish, Fabio Aru’s controversial attack on an in-trouble race leader, race-ending crashes for GC contenders — but it wasn’t the right sort of drama. There’d been newsworthy incidents, but very few days of engaging or exciting racing. The Tour was progressing in a frustratingly predictable way.
Marcel Kittel (QuickStep Floors) had proven virtually unbeatable in the sprints, having won five stages and looking set to win the green jersey at a gallop. Meanwhile Sky took yellow on the very first day with Geraint Thomas, handed it to Chris Froome on stage 5 and, based on previous Tours, didn’t look like giving it up.
But on Thursday’s stage 12 into the Pyrenees, the complexion of the 2017 Tour de France changed completely.
Sky controlled the stage from start to finish, setting the scene for another day in yellow for Froome, but the Sky leader wasn’t able to finish the job. Instead, the 32-year-old was distanced on the steep final ramp to the Peyragudes ski resort and finished in seventh place, 22 seconds down on stage winner Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale). By finishing second on the stage, Italian champion Fabio Aru (Astana) was able to leapfrog Froome to take the yellow jersey.
Speaking to a thick media scrum outside his team bus post-stage, Froome was calm and measured.
“Certainly a tough day for me in the final,” he said. “My teammates did such an amazing job today but I didn’t have the legs in the end to finish it off. Simple as that. No excuses — I just didn’t have the legs on the final kick.
“I can only say congratulations to Romain Bardet for winning the stage, and also to Fabio Aru for taking the yellow jersey. The race is certainly on now.”
It certainly is and the Tour is all the more exciting as a result.
Froome is just six seconds behind Aru in second place, and there’s every chance Froome will regain yellow in the days ahead. But the 2017 Tour de France is now an entirely different race.
It’s now unlikely we’ll see Team Sky lined out on the front of the peloton for hours on end, smothering attacks from any would-be rivals. For Sky, defence will have to make way for aggression — Froome will have to go on the attack if he wants to win a fourth Tour.
Hopefully today’s result also means that Froome’s closest rivals — Aru, Bardet, Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) and Dan Martin (QuickStep Floors) — start to see vulnerability in the defending champion. After all, Sky rode the front of the peloton all day, and had three of the 10 riders that remained in the elite lead group with 5km to go, and yet Froome wasn’t able to get the job done.
There’s perhaps also some inspiration to be drawn from apparent disunity in Sky. Rather than waiting for Froome on the stage’s final ramp, Mikel Landa rode clear of his team leader to finish in fourth, 17 seconds ahead of Froome. It was cause for frustration from director sportif Nicolas Portal.
So what does the 2017 Tour de France need from here, to ensure an interesting and engaging spectacle all the way to Paris? For a start, it needs more breakaways to survive, to reward the swashbuckling efforts of riders like Steve Cummings (on stage 12) and Maciej Bodnar (on stage 11).
It needs another contender to step up in the sprint finishes, to give Marcel Kittel a genuine run for his money. It perhaps even needs a photo finish to go the way of the underdog, the opposite of what happened on stage 7 when Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) was denied a stage victory by just 6 millimetres.
It needs more attacks from Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), albeit longer-lasting than his tentative effort on stage 12, and hopefully from long range as he’s done so often in the past.
In hindsight, the Tour probably also needs fewer sprint finishes and a generally more interesting parcours, in order to justify the start-to-finish live TV broadcasts.
It needs less waiting around for the yellow jersey in situations where waiting is not required. Case in point: stage 12 when the GC contenders waited for Froome after the race leader misjudged a corner and left the road.
Along the same lines, the 2017 Tour certainly needs more aggression from those in the top 10; for the GC contenders to take risks in order to have a shot at overall victory, rather than simply defending their GC position. And it needs for meaningful attacks to come well before the final 800 metres of a nearly six-hour stage.
Predicting the future will forever be a fraught exercise, but it’s certainly worth looking to previous races to get a sense of what might lie ahead. In the three editions of the Tour de France that Chris Froome has won to date, he’s only dropped the yellow jersey once. On that occasion, in 2015, it was time-trial specialist Tony Martin that borrowed the maillot jaune, before returning it to Froome three days later.
That is, Froome’s never had a GC contender take a Tour de France yellow jersey off him, and certainly never in the mountains.
For Froome and Sky, the days ahead are uncharted territory. And as for the 2017 Tour de France as a whole, the race is now in an exciting place. Finally.