There was a willingness to try, and maybe that’s all we can ask for?
Fifty-four long kilometers remained when Alejandro Valverde hit out. Part of the Roseland and all of the final climb to La Rosiere ahead. “Thinks he’s Froome, eh?” someone joked in the press room. But it was all planned: feeds at the top and Marc Soler coming back from the break and Nairo Quintana waiting in the wings. Valverde was the bait. He dangled out there like a worm on a hook.
Sky didn’t bite. They were never going to bite.
“It didn’t go how we hoped,” Quintana said at the top of the mountain.
That much is certainly true. Sky hit the base of La Rosiere with five riders and hadn’t even churned through two of them by the time Valverde was swept up. Bait, dispatched. Quintana sat on, as he’s been wont to do the last couple Tours. Landa fell back, suffering from a crash on Sunday’s stones. And quite suddenly, the Movistar trident became more like a spear.
Tom Dumoulin tried too. “Instinct,” he said, explaining the move. He followed Søren Kragh Andersen, “a madman on the downhills,” Dumoulin said, over the top of the Roseland. By the bottom, they had 34 seconds. A few kilometers up La Rosiere and he’d caught Valverde, then dispatched him. He would be passed by Thomas and caught by Froome, but there was that willingness to try.
Breaking down Sky’s collective power, or isolating its leaders, doesn’t seem like something that’s going to work this Tour. The team is too good; too deep. The idea that opponents can knock Froome or Thomas down with a one-two punch is too much wishful thinking on their part. But Dan Martin made an important point, hunched over his bars just past the finish on Wednesday: “Everybody has a bad day some time,” he said. “I’ve always said that this Tour is going to be about who has the least bad bad day.”
Everybody has a bad day. Sky and Froome have had them in the past — on Formigal at the Vuelta and that day on Alpe d’Huez in 2015. Bad days physically sometimes, or bad days tactically. The common perception is that they’ve probably had other bad days, too, but we never knew. We didn’t know because nobody prodded, tested. Nobody hit out just to see. Froome always looks like he’s suffering. That makes it hard to tell when he really is.
They prodded on the road to La Rosiere. Valverde prodded; it didn’t work. Tom Dumoulin prodded; it did. Martin prodded. Romain Bardet, too. They threw what they had, even if it didn’t seem to be enough, just in case it was enough.
“They’re not unbeatable,” Martin said of Sky. There will be a moment, or moments, when they can be beaten. In a race this long, that’s a guarantee. But those moments won’t be obvious. They might not even be visible, unless there’s a willingness to poke and prod and try to find them.