There was a buzz around Cannondale-Drapac on Friday morning in Foix. Clusters of print and TV media waited by the American squad’s team bus, with one thing on their mind: just how far could Rigoberto Uran go in this race?
Winning stage nine to Chambery despite being stuck for kilometers in his bike’s highest gear had shown his condition. So too his second to Romain Bardet on Thursday’s tough uphill finish in Peyragudes. Both performances ensured he started Friday’s stage fourth overall, just 35 seconds off yellow.
The Colombian is in form, he’s psyched and he’s dangerous.
“We will see what he can do, but I think he can do a lot,” Cannondale-Drapac directeur sportif Tom Southam told CyclingTips prior to the start. “And he’s not a guy who is going to particularly feel the pressure or stress, or become a mental milkshake. So that’s an important thing.
“I think he can go far. I mean, the guy has been second in the Giro twice…”
Uran rode well in the hours after that, finishing with his main GC riders in Foix. They crossed the line one minute 48 seconds behind stage winner Warren Barguil (Team Sunweb), who won a four-man sprint.
He remained fourth overall, staying 35 seconds behind Fabio Aru (Astana) and 29 off three-time Tour champion Chris Froome (Team Sky). He is just ten seconds behind the third place of Romain Bardet (Ag2r la Mondiale) and, with plenty more racing coming up, will be thinking of yellow.
He’s both a strong climber and decent against the clock and this combination means he could well pose a major threat in the battle for the final maillot jaune.
“You would be an idiot not to aim for yellow,” said Southam. “The [stage 20] time trial should suit him. He has been up there in TTs before and he can time trial well when he is shape. So why not?”
Uran moved to Cannondale prior to the start of the 2016 season. As a double runner-up in the Giro d’Italia, he was seen as someone who could continue contending for Grand Tour titles.
He lined out in that year’s Giro d’Italia hoping to wear the final pink jersey in Turin, but things didn’t work out. Uran was below his previous level and ended up seventh overall, over 11 minutes behind the race winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).
He didn’t ride that year’s Tour, but rallied later in the season to take a hat-trick of third places, in the Giro dell’Emilia, Milan-Turin and Il Lombardia.
And, while he was eighth in this year’s Vuelta a Andalucia and Tirreno-Adriatico plus ninth in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, he didn’t appear high on the list of pre-race favourites for the Tour de France.
With the media and the bookies focussing on Froome, Richie Porte (BMC Racing Team), Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar), he didn’t face anything like as much expectation.
So, is Southam surprised by how well he is going?
“Not at all, to be honest,” he answered. “Seeing how well he went at Tirreno already at the start of the year, seeing how good he was with the Ardennes. We were riding for him at Liège. He didn’t quite have it in the final, but was super good.
“He was third in Lombardy last year and nearly won the World Cup there. So his form has been coming up and he is a top-quality rider.
“It is not like he has been not performing, but now it is just clicking a bit more and it has been working.”
Still, even if his team had faith in him, it’s clear that he has flown under the radar to some extent.
Southam accepts that took the pressure off early on. “We have to be realistic that we haven’t come here as a Sky, to try and dominate and just bulldoze every day,” he said.
“So that kinds of suits us. But everybody knows Rigo. He rode for Sky, he rode for Etixx. It’s not like he’s a surprise to them. He didn’t ride for those teams for no reason.”
His message is clear: his quality has been shown before, and people shouldn’t be surprised as to where he is now. Even if he wasn’t watched closely early on, he has pushed himself into the spotlight with his performances thus far.
And, with Froome suffering an unexpected time loss on Thursday, it has increased speculation that there could be a new winner in Paris.
Seeing the Briton lose yellow was one key topic of conversation on Thursday evening and Friday morning. However Southam said that Uran and Cannondale-Drapac weren’t focussing on that.
“We are genuinely not looking at other people like that,” he insisted. “We are looking at ourselves and what we can do. And to have the most positive race that way. Because once you start going down the road of what so and so is doing, you are already not concentrating on what you’re doing. We are just focussed on what we doing.”
The race now changes focus slightly, with a lumpy stage on Saturday being followed by a somewhat hillier race to Le Puy En Velay on Sunday. The profiles aren’t as tough as the past two stages, and it is possible that the GC battle might be a little quieter prior to the Alps.
However Uran and his team will continue to look for opportunities, and will seize any chance they can to make up time and inch closer to yellow.
Southam has faith that he can continue to contend all the way.
“He is climbing with the best. He is tactically astute,” he said, listing his attributes. “He’s looking after himself incredibly well. To me, the stage he won – he didn’t look under pressure at all on the climb.
“In terms of his qualities, the course is so hard. And it just gets harder and harder and harder. And that is what is going to suit him, in my opinion.”
Rivals be warned. He might not have been high on the favourites list in Dusseldorf, but nobody will forget Rigoberto Uran now.