The 2017 Tour de France is set to go into the final decisive stage, Saturday’s 22.5km time trial in Marseille, with a mere 29 seconds separating the top three positions. Chris Froome (Team Sky) will be forced to defend his lead against Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), both of whom sit less than 30-seconds behind the three-time champion.
And while Bardet is not in the same class as Froome racing against the clock, it’s not so simple comparing Uran and Froome in time trials.
Could Uran win the Tour de France in Saturday’s time trial? It’s certainly possible.
Anything can happen on any day in the Tour de France, which makes speculation and assumption a risky endeavor. If the Mistral winds of southern France act up, Friday’s stage into Salon-De-Provence could see changes in the general classification.
But if the wind is calm, the stage should be a rather formulaic duel between the breakaway and sprinters. Even if the group splits up in the echelons, it is difficult to imagine either Uran or Froome being caught out. Both possess tactical acumen and teams strong enough to keep them at the front and out of trouble.
With Froome leading the race into the final time trial, his fourth Tour win appears imminent. Froome is very good against the clock, while Bardet is middling in the race of truth on his best day. However, Uran’s enigmatic nature makes it difficult to call the race for Froome.
Uran, 30, hit the pro ranks as an up-and-coming Grand Tour contender with great skill against the clock. This early potential seemed to fade in recent seasons, with his last major result in a Grand Tour his second place at the 2014 Giro d’Italia.
Uran’s highlights against the clock include a TT stage win at the 2014 Giro and a 36.7km time trial at the 2014 Vuelta a España where he finished only 15 seconds behind world champion Tony Martin — and 77 seconds ahead of Froome.
Replicating this two-seconds-per-kilometer gain would be enough to leapfrog Froome in the overall standings in Saturday’s 22.5km time trial.
“Rigo is definitely my biggest threat,” Froome said after Stage 18. “From the GC riders, he’s the next-strongest time trialist and he’s only 29 seconds down. I imagine he’ll be the guy to look out for in Marseille.”
That 2014 Vuelta a España win is an outlier in the Uran-Froome head-to-head TT data set. Since 2010 they have raced 14 time trials against each other, with Uran prevailing five times, Froome on top eight times, and one tie, at the 2016 Tour de Romandie prologue.
It should be noted that three of these time trials were prologues, and that two of these Uran “wins” came in 2010, which was prior to the 2011 Vuelta a España, where Froome first emerged as the dominant Grand Tour rider he is today.
In his eight head to head “wins,” Froome has beaten Uran by an average of 2.67 seconds per kilometer. In Uran’s five “wins,” he has beaten Froome by an average of 1.78 seconds per kilometer.
Uran hasn’t beaten Froome in a time trial since the 2015 Tour de Romandie, largely due to Uran having the two worst years of his career in 2015 and 2016.
This season, Uran’s level from 2012-2014 appears to be back, and then some; this Tour has seen Uran riding at the highest level of his career.
While he lost 51 seconds to Froome in the 14km opening TT in Dusseldorf, it is difficult to know if this was due to UCI commissaires deciding five minutes before his start time that his TT handlebar position didn’t conform to the setup regulations, requiring a bike change, or to him being overly cautious on the rain-soaked course, or some combination of those factors.
Uran has looked unshakable since he incurred those losses on the opening stage, and appears to be on the form of his life.
Yet despite this form, Uran hasn’t outright attacked Froome in this year’s Tour. This could mean that he is pragmatic about what a second overall finish would mean to him and his team, knowing that he simply isn’t strong enough to make the energy spent worthwhile, or it could mean he is quietly feeling confident about his chances going into the final time trial.
Following Stage 17, Froome expressed that he was confident going into the final time trial with less than half a minute lead. “The time trial is something I’m looking forward to. It’s something I’ve worked really hard at,” he said. “I’ve been up to Marseille, I’ve looked at the route. I think it’s a good route for me. I’d be happy to go into the time trial with these same time gaps we have now.”
Sky’s attempt to split the field in the crosswinds at the end of Stage 16 and their aggressive riding on the Col d’Izoard made clear that while Froome feels confident, he would have preferred a larger gap going into Saturday. He said as much after Thursday’s summit finish.
“Of course it would have been nice to take a little bit of time today,” Froome said. “I got a few seconds over Uran, who I think will be my main rival in the time trial.”
Speculating on time trials at the tail end of a Grand Tour is an inexact science. Twenty days of racing takes an immense toll on a rider’s body and the added motivation of a life-changing win can yield surprising results.
At the 2008 Tour, Carlos Sastre, a climbing specialist, took a 94-second advantage over Cadel Evans heading into the stage 20 time trial.
Evans, a decorated time trial rider, was the odds-on favorite to overtake the Spanish climber and win the Tour. Evans was ultimately unable to make up the deficit and Sastre took his career-defining win by 65 seconds.
As Cannondale Director Charly Wegelius said in a recent Cyclingnews podcast, “When you do a TT like that, especially one as hard as that, one with so many rhythm changes, after 20 days of racing, you can pretty much leave the formbook at home.”
Froome’s fourth Tour victory is certainly probable, but with a rider as talented as Uran only 29 seconds behind, it’s far from certain. Heading into a discipline where Uran has a history of success, the race can’t be called until the winner crosses the line in Paris.
About the author
Spencer Martin is an elite road racer, and evangelist for the sport of professional cycling. When he isn’t creating content for cycling brands in his day job, or breaking down European classics for his own amusement, he is busy enjoying the riding from his base in Boulder, Colorado.