What a stunning week of racing we have had in week two of this year’s Tour de France. After the controversies and crashes of week one, the six stages this week provided real entertainment, some hard racing and edge-of-the-seat finishes. With the yellow jersey itself changing shoulders twice within a span of six days, no rider had the luxury to cruise, and that meant an action-packed week for fans. So as the Tour heads for the finish line, let us analyse the happenings and see what lies ahead.
Despite the intense action, the battle for the green jersey hardly saw any major upheaval. Marcel Kittel continued his dominance in the sprinters’ classification, adding two more stage victories — in Stage 10 and 11 — and taking his race tally to five wins. His closest competitor, Michael Matthews, has himself earned some glory by winning Saturday’s stage 14, while also closing the gap to 79 points. With just three flat stages left this year, it will be a tough ask to stop Kittel winning the green jersey. At this juncture, only a disastrous dip in Kittel’s form or a crash can prevent that from happening. It would be interesting though to see which sprinter wins the final stage in Paris to earn the bragging rights.
The polka dot jersey battle hasn’t changed much either, with Frenchman Warren Barguil sitting comfortably on top as he was last Sunday. Although that might be bit of a misnomer, because “comfort” is not a luxury enjoyed by the leader of the best climber classification. Barguil has been pushed during each climb and has had to battle for every point with his nearest rivals, Roglic Primoz and Thomas de Gendt. There is a decent bit of climbing with two mountain stages to come as the race hits the Alps, so Barguil cannot be as reassured of keeping his jersey as Kittel. But with a Bastille Day victory already in his resume, the Frenchman will want to finish with the climber’s jersey as well to make this a Tour to remember.
The real victory though lies in the General Classification (GC) and this is where it could really be a Tour to remember for the host nation. Just a day before Barguil’s heroics, compatriot Romain Bardet won a tough mountain stage with a gutsy finish, out pacing Fabio Aru and Rigoberto Uran, while also leaving Chris Froome in the dust. Bardet currently sits just 23 seconds off the leader and would be salivating at the prospect of finishing one better than last year.
The GC battle was also where the main action lay all week long, with the lead changing hands more than once. Froome has faced attacks in each of the three Tours he has won, but no one has ever tested him far enough to make him crack. Which is exactly what happened on Stage 12. While most were expecting the established pros like Nairo Quintana and Richie Porte to provide the challenge, however, it is the younger riders in the Peloton who have let the proverbial cat among the pigeons.
Aru and Bardet both have a point to prove and are in a race to establish themselves as the new name in the sport. Aru seems to be the keener of the two, as he was impatient enough to attack when Froome was facing mechanical trouble and was chastised for it. Bardet has the weight of a nation on his shoulders and also the motivation. Both these riders have troubled Froome and will continue to push and attack him relentlessly, hoping to break the Brit.
As an undesired result of these attacks and Froome’s discomfort, his Sky teammate Mikel Landa has come too close in the rankings to the team’s leader. On Stage 13 where Froome lost his jersey, Landa chose to go with the leading pack, rather than help pace Froome. This led to some heated exchanges with his Directeur Sportif (team director) after the stage finish which was captured on camera. Landa is out of contract after the season and if Froome cracks again, the Spaniard may look to move ahead of the Brit in the GC and lay claim for leadership of Team Sky.
But the major takeaway from last week is that while road cycling may seem individualistic, it is a team sport where each cog in the wheel matters. In addition to the teammates on the road, the staff in the team car who control the tactics, decide the eventual fate of their main man. Italian Fabio Aru realised these facts in a pretty harsh manner on Stage 14 when he let slip his hard-won lead due to a tactical blunder. Maybe his relative inexperience as compared to the wily Froome also had a role to play, but either way it was pretty naive to be riding at the back of a big group towards the end of the stage. As always happens, the pack split and by the finish Aru had lost 24 seconds and also his yellow jersey.
While unquestionably it was a blunder by Aru, one is surprised how could his Directeur Sportif and experienced teammates not have guided him at the end? It’s a rookie mistake not expected from a multi-million dollar team when the stakes are so high. Conversely, Team Sky were quick to realise Astana’s folly and immediately radioed Froome to increase his pace and ensure he stays with the leading bunch. Froome was also assisted by his teammate Michal Kwiatkowski, who paced him in the final kilometers. In the end, some quick thinking and teamwork resulted Sky regaining the race lead and also possibly quelling all “infighting”, establishing Froome as the undisputed leader.
Froome was relatively well-placed last Sunday, 18 seconds ahead of Aru and a minute ahead of the 4th placed rider. A week later, while he still leads Aru by the same margin, however, the top 4 are now within 30 seconds of each other, making the result too close to call. A moment’s error or indecision or plain bad luck can skew the rankings completely. This makes Wednesday’s Stage 17 the one to look out for, as the riders summit the massive Col du Galibier. At 2,642 metres, it's commonly referred to as the “roof of the tour” and we will definitely see fireworks in the peloton on this climb. With an individual time trial also to come, don't take your eyes off any of the final six stages. Whatever be the result on Sunday, rest assured, the road to Paris (through the Alps) will be full of many twists and turns.
On a sombre note, as the peloton made its way up the legendary climb of Peyragudes on Thursday, around five hundred kilometers away, a pack of enthusiast riders were making their way up another legendary climb, the Mont Ventoux. The latter group, which included 2012 Tour winner and double Olympic champion Sir Bradley Wiggins, were riding their way up to the Tom Simpson memorial to commemorate the 50th death anniversary of the British cycling legend. 50 years to the date, on 13 July 1967, Simpson had died on that very spot from “heat exhaustion” during the 13th stage of the Tour de France. It is a little disappointing that the Tour organisers did not commemorate Tom Simpson by including the climb in this year’s route, but this group of riders clearly showed that he is not forgotten. According to cycling lore, Simpson’s last words, as he fell, were “Put me back on my bike,” and while it may or may not be true, his spirit of cycling lives on...
Published Date: Jul 18, 2017 11:25 am | Updated Date: Jul 18, 2017 11:25 am