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The first nine stages of the Tour de France featured an astonishing, at times even overwhelming, amount of drama. The disqualification of the world’s most popular rider, multiple favorites crashing out, controversial and thrilling sprint finishes and the emergence of a GC threat with panache to spare, Astana’s Fabio Aru.
If we slow down and look past these storylines, the thing that sticks out most from a tactical point of view is that race leader and three-time Tour champion Chris Froome (Team Sky) is being ridden to Paris with the help of his rivals, yet still has a very real chance of going into the third week with the smallest ever lead in any of his Tour de France wins.
For reasons unknown, BMC Racing took over pacemaking duties from Team Sky on stage 5 to Planche des Belles Filles. This move was odd due to both BMC’s limited firepower and Team Sky possessing the strongest team in the race. If BMC was trying to give Sky an armchair ride into the final climb so that they could unleash their trademark SkyTrain on the field and use their all-star team to asphyxiate the field, this tactic was a success.
It is somewhat baffling why a team that is attempting to topple the strongest team in the race would voluntarily take away their biggest advantage — the ability to sit back while the burden of controlling the race fell to Sky.
It is possible that BMC’s goal was to put Sky under pressure to crack and drop Froome’s teammates on the lower slopes of La Planche des Belles Filles. This would have isolated Froome and let Richie Porte have a mano a mano battle with the race favorite.
This scenario did not unfold on Stage 5, and Froome had full concierge service up the final climb. Three-time Tour champion Greg LeMond was critical of BMC’s tactics on Stage 5, telling Reuters, “If you are good, save your team until the later part of the stage. I did not see the point of what they were doing. Leave it to the favorites, put the pressure on them. [Porte] put the pressure on himself. Why do that? It’s a three-week race and you’re 16 days out, you have to save your team.”
However, Froome’s rivals accomplished the rare feat of isolating Froome from his Team Sky mountain fortress at a critical point in the race on Sunday’s chaotic Stage 9, which ended with the HC climb and descent of Mont du Chat.
One major factor to be read between the lines is that the stakes are much higher at the Tour de France compared with the Vuelta a España or Giro d’Italia. Podium finishes at the Tour carry a massive amount of WorldTour points, increase a team’s chances of sponsorship renewal, and mean a significant pay increase of for an individual rider. This allows a favorite like Froome to rely on rivals that have also been caught out to work with and/or for him. The harsh reality of the Tour’s popularity is that value of results decreases the chances of an ambush similar to the thrilling 2016 Vuelta Stage 15 into Formigal, when Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana caught Team Sky napping, and killed Froome’s GC hopes.
This was illustrated perfectly in the final 14km of Sunday’s stage 9 into Chambery. Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), second overall at last year’s Tour and a legitimate contender for overall victory in this year’s edition, had attacked on the treacherous descent off the Mont du Chat and gained close to 30 seconds on the maillot jaune group.
Attacks from the Astana duo of Aru and Jakob Fuglsang had shed Froome of his teammates. The race leader was isolated on the descent and final run-in to the finish, which is exactly what every team has been trying to accomplish during the entire Froome era. In theory, the rivals in the chasing group could have taken half-hearted pulls and forced Froome, as the race favorite and GC leader, to take responsibility to pull Bardet back. This could have opened Froome up to attacks in the final few kilometers and netted one of the two Astana riders a valuable time bonus. Instead of this tactic, Fuglsang, Aru and Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) committed fully to the chase and took massive pulls to catch Bardet.
Aru and Fuglsang helped Froome in an attempt to solidify Aru’s second place, moving Fuglsang into fifth overall. In doing so, they pulled Froome to the line and to a four-second time bonus for third. The net result: The Astana rider actually moved further behind Froome on the general classification. If the point of a bike race is to minimize your time gap to first or increase your lead once you have it, this tactic was a failure. If they were looking to get two riders in the top five and increase the gap to Aru in second overall, this tactic was a success.
Giving up time to Chris Froome is a bad idea if you are attempting to win the Tour de France. Going into Stage 9, Fabio Aru was in third overall, with Geraint Thomas two seconds ahead in second, Dan Martin 11 seconds behind in fourth, and nine riders within a minute of the Sardinian.
Following Stage 9, Aru has moved up to into second overall thanks to Geraint Thomas and Porte crashing out and others being dropped, and there are currently only two riders within a minute. It is clear that Astana is in a better position following Stage 9, but toppling a titan like is Froome is going to take risks. Letting Bardet gain a handful of seconds, plus the winning 10-second time bonus and possibly giving time to the chasing group of Quintana and Martin, carries certainly carries some risk to a potential podium finish. But if any of these challengers are serious about beating Froome, they need to take on that risk to put Froome in a vulnerable position.
One team that let Sky know they aren’t willing to work with them to solidify their overall standing was Ag2r La Mondiale. Their stage 9 tactics were a perfect template for a team using limited resources in an attempt to dent the team Sky juggernaut. They smartly stacked the break early to get Bardet allies and potential stage winners up the road, as well as setting pressure on Sky. Back in the yellow jersey group, they used their local knowledge to attack on the descent of the Col de la Biche. The increase in pace caused a minor split in the field, leaving Froome momentarily caught out. While the split was short lived, the French squad certainly took note of this weakness in the Sky. If the break had gotten a touch more time and Jan Bakelants had gotten over the Mont du Chat ahead of the main field, Bardet would have had a teammate waiting to work with him on the final stretch to the finish and could have taken significant time. Since Ag2r cannot expect to go head to head with the brute force of Sky, expect Bardet’s team to continue to use the route as a moving chess board in an effort to take small, but significant chunks of time before the final time trial.
Is another Froome victory inevitable?
Having won the last three Tours he’s finished, it’s fair to ask if Froome and Team Sky are beatable in France in July. The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that it’s complicated.
In his three previous Tour wins, Froome took a significant chunk of his winning margin in the first 10 stages. In 2013, Froome took 40% of his winning margin to Quintana on the first mountaintop finish of Ax 3 Domaines, on Stage 8. In 2015, at La Pierre-Saint-Martin, Froome took 88% of his eventual winning margin to Quintana on Stage 10. Both of these stages featured nearly flat terrain performed at a relatively slow pace into a mountaintop finish.
Last year deviated slightly from this template. Froome won the first mountain stage into Luchon, a shocking downhill victory, netting 23 seconds. This gap was only roughly 9% of his winning margin and the first big time gaps had to wait until individual time trial on Stage 13.
Froome not only failed to take time on the first mountaintop finish of 2017, he lost time to Dan Martin and Fabio Aru. It is very likely that Froome will be going into the third week with a far slimmer lead than in his previous three victories.
The loss of Thomas is both a blessing and a curse. It leaves Froome down an extremely valuable domestique, but Thomas was the only rider in the race that might be capable of matching Froome in both the mountains and the time trial. With Thomas gone, Froome is in the unique position of being the strongest climber and time trialist in the race. He is so dominant in both disciplines that he would still be a threat to win the Tour with any collection of teammates. The ace in the hole that Thomas provided will be missed, but bypassing the stress and drama of the 2012 Sky inner-team rivalry will certainly be a relief.
While Froome is the dominant rider of the 2017 Tour, his eventual victory is anything but a formality. This year’s Tour features 34% fewer time trial kilometers, and even with Porte gone, there are still formidable challengers remaining. Uran is a dark horse who appears to be on the form of his life and won Stage 9 while stuck in a single gear for the final 23km, while Bardet is a huge talent who rides with a daring and swashbuckling style. Bardet was willing to put his race, and life, on the line with a jaw-dropping descent into Chambery on Stage 9.
With the lack of big time gaps on the first set of mountain stages and the lack of long TTs to fall back on, the door to victory has been left wide open for any rider willing to roll the dice.
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.