Final-week fireworks: Every second counts as the Tour de France heads to the Alps

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LE PUY-EN-VELAY, France (CT) – The first half of the 2017 Tour de France did little to capture the imagination. There was an abundance of long, uneventful transition stages, the sprints were dominated by one rider, and the race for yellow seemed to be over before it even began. But since stage 12 the Tour has taken a turn for the better, and as the riders enjoy their second rest day, the 2017 Tour is delicately poised.

It was on stage 12 that Chris Froome (Sky) lost the yellow jersey to Fabio Aru (Astana), the three-time former winner cracking on the steep final ramp to the Pyrenean ski resort of Peyragudes. That stage breathed life into the race and kick-started a thoroughly enjoyable few days of racing.

Aru held yellow for two stages before handing it back to Froome on a seemingly innocuous day for the GC contenders. Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) was back at his aggressive best. Ag2r La Mondiale took the race to Sky with great vigour. And on stage 15, Froome had an ill-timed mechanical and had to give everything just to stay in yellow.

And so a tantalising final ‘week’ of the Tour awaits. Froome sits just 18 seconds clear at the top of the general classification, ahead of Aru. It’s the closest GC margin after stage 15 of the Tour since 2010 when Alberto Contador was just eight seconds clear of Andy Schleck. On that occasion though, the rider in third place, Samuel Sanchez, was two minutes off the lead. In 2017, things are considerably tighter.

The top four on GC are within just 30 seconds of one another after 15 stages — Froome leading, Aru at 18 seconds, Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) at 23 seconds, and Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) at 29 seconds. It’s not since 2008 that we’ve had so many riders so close to yellow after 15 stages. That year Frank Schleck was leading the race, Bernard Kohl was seven seconds down, Cadel Evans was at eight seconds, Denis Menchov was at 38, Christian Vandevelde at 39, and eventual winner Carlos Sastre was at 49 seconds.

So why is the 2017 Tour de France proving to be such a tight contest? As Orica-Scott sports director Matt White said before the Tour began, it’s down to the fact the race has just three summit finishes and so few time-trial kilometres.

“I think in the end it will be probably be one of the tightest Tour de Frances [sic.] for general classification we’ve seen in a long time,” White predicted. “Because I don’t think there’s too many opportunities for the GC guys to really make a difference, so when they do make a difference it will be a big one.”

Another factor is the vulnerability Froome has shown in this year’s race. In the three Tours the Briton won, his lead after 15 stages was considerably larger than it is this year — 4:14 in 2013, 3:10 in 2015 and 1:47 in 2016. His narrow, 18-second lead this year is certainly due, at least in part, to the limited number of mountain-top finishes this year, but that’s not the full story.

Froome cracked on stage 12 in a way we haven’t seen from him in recent Tours. He also hasn’t been able to ride away from his rivals (uphill or downhill) with the same apparent ease he did in the past. Indeed, Froome himself has described this year’s Tour as “the biggest challenge of my career”.

So what might the rest of the Tour have in store? Six stages remain but only half of those should have an impact on the general classification. Stage 17 features four climbs in the Alps, including the Col de la Croix de Fer and the Col du Telegraphe/Col du Galibier combo, before a long descent to the finish. Stage 18 features the race’s final summit finish, to the Col d’Izoard, and then stage 20 is a 22.5km time trial which includes a steep, 1.2km climb halfway through.

Of the top four on GC, Froome is certainly the strongest time triallist. As Matt White told Cyclingnews, Froome’s rivals will need a significant buffer going into that stage if they’re going to win the Tour.

“Everyone needs a lead of more than one minute going into that time trial with Froome,” White said. “Who would be happy with any less?”

The upshot is that for Aru, Bardet and Uran, just two stages remain to try and get time back on Froome. They’ll need to continue to attack the Sky leader in the mountains, and hope that the defending champion has another bad day. But as Ag2r La Mondiale sports director Julien Jurdie notes, that will be far from easy.

“It’s clear we have to move on those two days in the Alps – we have high hopes for those two stages,” said Jurdie. “We know it’s a very, very, very difficult task faced with such a tough opponent as Froome, but I think we have the keys to turn some things around.”

Froome himself is not expecting it to be an easy battle in the days that remain.

“I’m certainly feeling the pressure,” Froome said in his post-stage 15 press conference. “It’s a close race, but we knew that coming into this year’s Tour de France with so few time trial kilometres, so few summit finishes.

“I think we still have a lot of very difficult road ahead of us, especially going into the Alps. Obviously I hope to be able to keep the yellow jersey until the time trial in Marseille where it’s obviously the final test for the general classification, but before then we’ve got some very tricky stages as well. It’s going to be very aggressive racing I imagine.”

Froome can draw confidence from the fact he’s the one currently wearing yellow, the fact that he and his team have defended their way through some challenging situations in recent days, and the fact he’s the rider with the time-trial trump card.

“I’m very grateful that I’m on the right side of the time split at the moment,” Froome said. “I’m not trying to make up time on anyone at the moment, which is a great position to be in, especially with two big mountain stages to come and obviously the final time trial in Marseille that I’m certainly looking forward to as well.”

On paper it would seem that Chris Froome is on his way to winning a fourth Tour de France title, but the Tour is not raced on paper. Froome has showed a vulnerability this year that we haven’t seen in the past, and his rivals — especially Ag2r La Mondiale — have showed a willingness to target that vulnerability. The race for yellow is still incredibly tight and with two hard days in the mountains to come, just about anything can still happen.

“At this point it’s such a close race,” Froome said after stage 15. “There’s still so many guys up there within one minute of the overall title. It’s going to be every second, at this point — every second all the way until Paris.”

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