For a brief moment, it looked as though Team Sky was in difficulty.
On La Rosiere, the final of four categorized climbs on the relatively short Stage 11, Tom Dumoulin and Alejandro Valverde were 40 seconds up the road, and were closing in on the remnants of the day’s breakaway. Team Sky was lined up at the front of the GC group, driving the chase.
Valverde (Movistar) started Stage 11 sitting third overall, 48 seconds behind Geraint Thomas, and 11 seconds ahead of Chris Froome; for a time, he’d ridden into the virtual GC lead on the road. Dumoulin (Sunweb), runner up to Froome at the Giro d’Italia by just 46 seconds, started the day 1:20 behind Geraint Thomas and 21 seconds behind Froome.
Behind, at the front of the main group of GC contenders, Wout Poels and Jonathan Castroviejo drove the chase for Team Sky up La Rosiere, followed by Michal Kwiatkowski, Egan Bernal, Froome, and Thomas.
It was an image that’s become all too familiar for many cycling fans — the team with the biggest budget and deepest roster in pro cycling was, once again, setting a blistering tempo up a mountain climb at the Tour de France. Riders who might be GC leaders on another team were instead working in the service of another. The rest of the field’s GC contenders were at their limit, unable to attack, struggling just to hang on.
Valverde and Dumoulin had played their race tactics brilliantly, each putting a teammate in the day’s breakaway, with Marc Soler first dropping back for Valverde, who attacked 3.6km from the summit of the Col du Pre, and then Soren Kragh Andersen waiting back for Dumoulin, who rode away on the descent of the Cormet de Roselend.
The four rode together briefly before Soler and Andersen lost contact on the lower slopes of the final climb, pitting two Grand Tour champions against the collective strength of Team Sky.
Even after Valverde dropped back to the Team Sky group with 10km remaining — the Spaniard didn’t have the legs to ride with Dumoulin — the GC battle was in the balance. Dumoulin would not be moving into yellow, but he was poised to take time on Thomas and jump ahead of Froome on the overall standings.
First Poels, then Castroviejo, set a hard tempo and peeled off. Next it was Kwiatkowski’s turn, which put Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), Dani Martinez (EF-Drapac), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), and Mikel Landa (Movistar) out the back.
Bernal, who crashed twice on Sunday’s stage to Roubaix, was unable to contribute to the effort and swung off without taking a turn. Meanwhile, Dumoulin’s gap remained more or less the same, as the Sunweb rider received a bit of help from 2017 KOM winner Warren Barguil (Fortuneo-Samsic), a former teammate who had been dropped from the breakaway by Mikel Nieve (Mitchelton-Scott).
With 5.5km left, Sky’s six riders had become two, Thomas and Froome. They were out of teammates, with a rival up the road. But in the instant Kwiatkowski swung off, Thomas attacked in pursuit of both the stage win and yellow jersey, all while allowing Froome a free ride to the finish.
“It wasn’t really the plan — I attacked on instinct,” Thomas said. “I knew Froome could follow wheels and I could sit on Dumoulin’s.”
Twice Bardet took up the chase, with Froome following. And while it seemed as though Froome was content to mark his GC rivals, when Dan Martin (UAE-Team Emirates) attacked, the defending champion could not be contained. It was a perfect counter to Thomas’ move, a free ride away from the others on Martin’s wheel.
Thomas and Froome benefited from a tactical stalemate in the GC chase group as Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), and Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) — all seemingly at their limit — looked to one another to take up the chase, with little cooperation.
Up ahead, Thomas caught Dumoulin and would not pull through, forcing the Dutch rider to continue setting the pace.
Dumoulin dragged Thomas to the final kilometer, where the Welshman jumped clear and caught Nieve 400 metres from the line, taking the stage win and the 10-second time bonus, 20 seconds ahead of Dumoulin, who took six seconds of time bonus. Meanwhile Froome, who had dropped Martin and caught Dumoulin, finished third, on the same time as Dumoulin, taking four seconds of time bonus.
“We were low on numbers, so it was more instinct [to attack] so we didn’t get caught having to ride,” Thomas said, referring to the moment when Kwiatkowski swung off and Bernal had been dropped. “I saw a little gap. I committed to going across to Dumoulin and I was able to sit on, as Froome was coming across. I could see Frosty [Nieve] and he’s a good mate, it’s a shame, but you know, I had to go for the win. I knew there was a good chance [of going into yellow] but I didn’t know how everyone else was going to ride.”
As it stands, Thomas leads Froome by 1:25 and Dumoulin by 1:44, and will spend Stage 12, finishing atop l’Alpe d’Huez, in the maillot jaune.
“The attack was improvised; we went on intuition,” Dumoulin said. “Soren was in the break and he is a madman in the downhills. I told him to go at the front and go fast, but not take any risks and suddenly we had a gap. He did such an amazing job. The whole team were brilliant today. Today I had a good day. Maybe tomorrow I pay for it, but I’m happy with today.”
Sky’s dominance crushed several dreams on the day, starting with Nieve, who just missed the stage win, followed by several crestfallen GC hopefuls — Fuglsang, Valverde, Yates, Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors), and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) — and ending with Mark Cavendish and Mark Renshaw (Dimension Data), and Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin) missing the time cut.
Once again, concerns around Team Sky’s financial ability to hire many of the best riders in the sport, and whether pro cycling needs a salary cap, will be raised.
Sky’s deep pockets may not be the primary reason Froome has been booed throughout this Tour, but it certainly plays a role. The British squad has won five of the past six Tours, with two different riders — both of whom did not show Grand Tour potential early in their careers — while Froome has won pro cycling’s last three Grand Tours and is sitting in a good position to take a fourth consecutive victory. So far in 2018, the all-star team has won the overall at Colombia Oro y Paz (Bernal), Volta ao Algarve (Kwiatkowski), Tirreno-Adriatico (Kwiatkowski), Amgen Tour of California (Bernal), the Giro d’Italia (Froome), and the Criterium du Dauphiné (Thomas).
The question as to which rider is Team Sky’s GC leader is not exactly resolved, however. Thomas took time and moved into yellow. Froome took time on all but Dumoulin, and moved into second. Team Sky is in control — but who is their leader, the maillot jaune, or the defending champion?
“The leader of the team remains Chris Froome,” Thomas said. “He has won six Grand Tours, whereas performing for three weeks is an unknown for me. Whatever happens from now on, it’ll be a successful Tour de France for me. I’d like to keep the yellow jersey for a few more days. I’d also like to make the final podium but the priority remains to win the race and Chris is our best card for that.”
Meanwhile, after all the discussion about Movistar’s three-pronged GC attack, after 11 stages, LottoNL-Jumbo has Roglic and Kruijswijk in fifth and sixth overall, while Landa sits seventh, Quintana ninth, and Valverde 11th.
“We lost time on Thomas, Froome and Dumoulin, but we didn’t lose time on some of the others,” Kruijswijk said. “And on some we actually gained time. In that respect, we’re doing good. In the end, I was a bit struggling to hang on, which cost some energy, but all in all it was a great day for us. I think I showed today that my shape is good and with Primoz in a good shape as well, we can hopefully continue this way in the coming stages.”
The mood was a bit more somber inside the Movistar team bus, where Landa now sits 2:56 behind Thomas. As one journalist put it, Movistar’s trident is “now a spear.”
“The day was simply too hard for me,” Landa said. “My back started hurting at the first climb, and up La Rosière, I just couldn’t follow the pace. We had to try some moves, and surely Valverde’s attack hurt some people in the bunch. This final climb wasn’t the best for Nairo or myself, either — it was better suited to ‘power climbers’ like Geraint Thomas. A huge Alpe d’Huez climb will be awaiting for us tomorrow, a brutal stage really… we’ll have to keep trying and make a hard race for the others.”
As for Froome, he said Thomas taking the maillot jaune puts Team Sky in “an amazing position,” adding that he sees Dumoulin as the team’s main GC rival.
“I think the main guy who stands out right now as a threat to us is Tom Dumoulin,” Froome said. “He rode a very impressive stage today. I guess it depends how everyone is going to back up tomorrow, as tomorrow is a really big stage.”
Perhaps, however it’s possible the only rider than can beat Froome is also on Team Sky — and wearing yellow.
CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers is writing a daily column during the 2018 Tour de France, focused on analysis, commentary, and opinion.