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The 2017 Tour de France is set to go into the third week as the tightest Tour in the history of the race, with the top four riders sitting within 30 seconds. Adding to this drama, Chris Froome is being forced to defend his razor-thin lead against the other riders sitting in the top four, but his greatest foe could very well come from within Team Sky.
While there will be mano a mano Alpine slugfests in the days to come, the second week of the Tour was a story of teams. Mainly, the three teams occupying podium positions. The Astana team of Fabio Aru has suffered losses to important domestiques and those who remain appear to have lost faith in their leader. Ag2r La Mondiale is the picture of a well-drilled team that knows they are outmatched, but use local knowledge and clever tactics to catch rivals with their guard down. Sky is objectively the strongest team in the race, but the past week has cast their unity into doubt.
At the surface, Team Sky appears to be the bulletproof monolith of years past, a mosaic of the best riders money can buy, assembled for a single, all-consuming goal. But a peep behind the curtain reveals potentially devastating fractures.
Outside of their designated leader, Team Sky support riders don’t often win stages, and would certainly never be bold enough to imagine themselves donning the Yellow Jersey.
Last week, we expressed the possibility that Geraint Thomas was the only rider able to match Chris Froome in the mountains. And while correct that a rival might emerge from within the Sky rank, the rider isn’t Thomas, who went home with a broken collarbone, but rather Basque climbing sensation Mikel Landa.
Froome looked truly vulnerable for the first time in five years on the steep slopes of Peyragudes. Landa, his teammate, rode away from the struggling three-time champion and introduced the possibility that the Basque rider may be staging a coup. Prior to the Briton’s wobble in the final 500 meters, Sky had spent the stage setting a suffocating tempo to set up a trademark Froome knockout blow. Everyone had seen this before, and it appeared the Tour was in for another Team Sky steamrolling. However, in the space of 500 meters, the script of the 2017 Tour evolved, from a formulaic bore to bearing the suspense and intrigue of a John le Carré novel.
Landa’s move was fairly shocking, and was followed by a heated discussion with Sky director Nicolas Portal, caught on camera back at the team bus. Reports of Landa moving to rival Spanish team Movistar at the end of the season only add to the intrigue.
This slight act of insurrection occurred on exactly the same climb where Froome nearly dropped Sky GC leader Bradley Wiggins at the 2012 edition of the race. The poetic symmetry was undeniable.
Landa briefly dropping his team leader could have been waved away as a misunderstanding had Landa not gone up the road with Alberto Contador and nearly taken the race lead for himself on Stage 13 to Foix.
Landa was working well with his fellow Spaniard and seriously pushing the pace. This provided a strange situation where Froome and domestique Michal Kwiatkowski chased down their own teammate and prevented him taking the race lead. Froome’s massive attacks on the ascent and descent of the Mur de Peguere took huge chunks of time from Landa’s lead. These attacks hurt Landa’s chances of taking the race lead and exposed Froome to attacks from his rivals with a long, sweeping descent into the finish. If Froome had overextended himself and was attacked by his rivals, he could have lost major time. Aru would have extended his lead over Froome and Sky would have contributed to both losing time with their favorite and keeping their plan B out of Yellow.
The safe move would have been to sit back and put the onus on the others to chase, which is the point of having a teammate highly placed on the GC. Either Froome was very confident is his ability to throw down attacks without being dropped by a counter, or really didn’t want his teammate to ride into the race lead. This would have shifted the dynamics of the team significantly and placed a taboo on potential attacks later in the race.
If Froome wants to win the 2017 Tour de France, keeping Landa out of the maillot jaune was a good idea. Landa appears to be the strongest climber in the race, occasionally appearing bored while sitting in the lead group. It is tantalizing to imagine the damage he could inflict on the GC favorites if given the freedom to attack. He also has allies within the peloton that would be willing to help out the Spaniard if given the chance. When Contador was asked about his long-range attack on Stage 13, he responded with, “I was doing all I could to help Landa, It’s better to keep the Tour ‘in house.’”
Contador’s “in-house” comment shows that while modern cycling is competed by trade teams, national loyalties run deep.
When Froome flatted at the base of the Col de Peyra Taillade on Stage 15, Landa was conspicuously absent from the group of Sky riders working to bring their leader back into the race. While he did eventually drop back from the lead GC group to pace, it appeared to be a token gesture and only occurred after it was obvious Froome would make it back. As the pair made contact with the group, Landa immediately accelerated to the front of the group, leaving his team leader isolated near the back when the risk of the others attacking was incredibly high. Froome may have noticed this “mistake,” as the Sky teammates had what appeared to be a tense exchange after Froome aggressively pulled up to Landa with 14km remaining to share words and a brief shoulder bump.
Of course Sky has put on a stoic face and insisted this is all part of the plan, but reports of Landa and Froome refusing to acknowledge each other following Stage 13 paint a different picture.
Since then, Landa has given multiple pledges of support. He discussed the situation with Spanish radio, saying, “The team’s in a great position and although we’re obviously working for Chris here I think I’ll be part of the game.”
When asked directly if he saw himself winning the Tour, Landa said “I don’t think so. I’m still a minute down, and hopefully, I can fight for a place on the podium, but without affecting Chris’s chances and trying to help him.”
However, these pledges have been tempered by his enigmatic answer when asked if he was annoyed that the team ordered him to wait for Froome after his Stage 15 puncture. “Everyone has their way of seeing things,” he said. “You can’t please everyone.”
That seemed more in line with his comments on his ascending GC position following Stage 13. “It’s nice I am closer on GC. I have the legs, I just don’t have the ‘galones’ [officer’s stripes].”
This shifting tone when asked about his relationship to the team and the GC at the Tour raise some questions.
Landa certainly won’t attack Froome, but if the the Briton has his trademark third week bobble in the mountains, it will be incredibly intriguing to see if Landa drops back to play the loyal teammate or continues on in the lead group.
Was the Tour decided on the short climb into Rodez?
Despite the elevated drama and intrigue on stages 12, 13, and 15, one of the biggest time differences in this year’s Tour de France was seen on the short finishing climb to Rodez on Stage 14, where Froome took 24 seconds and the yellow jersey from Aru. Stage 13 of the 2005 Tour de France finished on this same climb, and the race similarly broke up in the final kilometer. The only GC riders who didn’t lose time were the attentive Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) and Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac).
If Aru and Astana had reviewed this stage they would have known that finishing 30 riders back would cost them time. Aru had two Astana teammates up front in the final 10km, and was sitting a few wheels behind them with 8.6km to go. A small group off the front accelerated immediately after this and the field lined out. Sky was patrolling the front attentively. With 5km left to race, Aru had slipped back to the last 10 in the bunch. The rest of the stage was strung out over small roads with high speeds, which makes moving up from that far back next to impossible.
The bizarre scenes that followed this finish asked big questions about the tactics and objectives of Team Astana. When Aru’s teammate Michael Valgren was asked what happened to Aru, he answered, “I don’t know. Ask him. I tried to take him to the front, but he didn’t stick on my wheel. Did we lose the jersey?”
After being informed that they did indeed lose the Yellow Jersey to Chris Froome, he responded with “Good.”
While is it easier for Astana and Valgren to not carry the burden of race leadership, the team’s GC contender just gave up 24 seconds in the closest race in the history of the Tour. This indifference speaks volumes to the team ethos, or lack thereof, within Astana. If Aru wants to win this Tour, he is going to need a complete buy-in from his already depleted squad.
On the other end of the spectrum is Romain Bardet’s Ag2r squad. In a scene eerily similar to Stage 9, Ag2r once again took the race to Sky on Stage 15. On the rolling approach to the Cat 1 Col de Peyra Taillade, Ag2r, which had earlier launched Jan Bakelants into the break, called the rest of the team to the front and briefly split the main field, catching Froome out, and ultimately leaving him on the side of the road with a flat tire. If Froome hadn’t put in a massive effort on the climb to pull back close to a minute after his flat, he could have lost minutes over the long and fast run to the finish.
This was Ag2r’s dream scenario and perhaps the best shot they are going to get at Froome. However, the inability of Ag2r and the other contenders to hold off Froome after his wheel change shows that it is going to be very difficult to drop him in the final few Alpine stages. Froome’s rivals are surely going to regret not attacking him earlier on Stage 12, when he was deeply suffering and could have ceded major time. It appears that the only rider capable of dropping Froome in the high Alps is his own teammate. Landa will certainly be hoping for aggressive racing and an opportunity to spread his wings.
A conservative estimate would have Froome taking at least 30 seconds to the other GC favorites in the final 22.5km time trial. The Tour organizers have done a fantastic job of setting up a race where hesitation will not rewarded and race craft matters nearly as much as watts per kilo.
The longer this race stays close, the more and more riders will believe Froome is truly beatable. The three-time champion is looking stronger than he was in the first week, but still hasn’t been able to drop his rivals when the race goes into the mountains. This uncharacteristic weakness means that the door has been left open for any rider, and team, with a plan over the final two Alpine stages.
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.