Tour de France 2017: Chris Froome is vulnerable, but his challengers need to step up to dethrone him
With the toughest Alpine climbs coming in the last week, here's our analysis on what lays in store for the riders, particularly Chris Froome.
The Tour de France resumed action on Tuesday, with the Peloton completing Stage 16 at breakneck speed. This was partly due to Team Sunweb, who blew up the sprinters’ classification, and Team Sky heating things up in the cross winds, hoping to split the Peloton. The biggest shock on the day was Marcel Kittel’s implosion, who finished more than 16 minutes behind stage-winner Michael Matthews. The Australian not only won the stage, but also closed the gap to the German to 29 points. The battle for the green jersey is now well and truly on.
While this does make things interesting, the most tantalising battle is going on in the General Classification (GC) where the top four are bunched together within 30 seconds of each other, making this one of the most competitive Tours in recent memory. The otherwise unflappable Christopher Froome is not having it easy this time round. In his previous three Tour wins, Froome has been comfortably ahead of his nearest competitor by the second rest day. He had a lead of 4:14 in 2013, 3:10 in 2014 and 1:37 in 2016. Compared to these margins, a lead of 18 seconds (over Fabio Aru) seems wafer-thin.
Therefore there are no points for guessing that the pressure is intense at the top. Adding to the excitement, are Stages 17 and 18, which include two days of relentless climbing. The Tour organisers have deliberately saved the toughest Alpine climbs for the last week and the stats will send a shudder down any cyclist’s spine. Let us analyse what lays in store for the riders and how can it twist the GC race.
Stage 17 (Distance: 183 kilometres)
First the important stats of the stage. Wednesday will see riders tackling the following mountains:
Col de la Croix de Fer (2,067 m), a Hors Category climb, 24 kilometres at 5.2% gradient
Col du Télégraphe (1,566 m), a Category 1 climb, 11.9 kilometres at 7.1% gradient
Col du Galibier (2,642 m), a Hors Category climb, 17.7 kilometres at 6.9% gradient
These figures are enough to challenge the best riders and the pretenders would certainly be found out. Expect underperforming pros like Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador to attack early on, in search for some stage glory. Sky might counter by sending Mikel Landa to cover the attack and keep the pace under control (more on that later). It is near impossible to imagine a lone rider surviving such climbs without team support and this is where Froome has a big advantage over the second placed Fabio Aru.
Aru’s shortcomings were embarrassingly exposed during the finish of Stage 14 and it’s unlikely that his Astana teammates will be able to pace him through the three climbs, with enough left in the tank to attack Froome. Aru might be tempted to make up for lost time on a descent, but that can be a double-edged sword, carrying the risk of a race-ending crash, as Richie Porte found out on Stage 9.
Romain Bardet’s AG2R seem stronger than Astana, but even they were not able to crack Froome when they tried last Sunday. Froome himself has billed fourth-placed Rigoberto Uran as his biggest threat. The Colombian has been comfortable in the mountains, has a stage victory to his name (Stage 9) and is the best time trialist in the top four after Froome. His Cannondale team also has strong riders, so Uran can certainly be the dark horse in the final days.
However, Landa remains the unpredictable factor in Sky’s calculations. If Sky free the Spaniard to track down an attacker, things could get interesting and Landa might go for glory. Conversely, if Sky hold him back, they let the attacker free. Of course, if Froome cracks, Landa is well placed to leapfrog the Brit in the GC. This probably is the biggest conundrum facing Sky’s team management.
Curiously, Lance Armstrong had this piece of advice for Froome, “If I’m Chris Froome, I don’t trust him (Landa) as far as I throw him. I’m not saying he’s a bad guy, good guy, but I am saying what I said the other day: he’s leaving the team. So, when that happens you have different interests.”
Armstrong might be ‘Mr Unwanted’ in cycling circles now, but his advice does carry some weight of experience.
Firstpost prediction: Froome will not lose big time to his rivals. But Aru might crack and drop below Bardet and Uran.
Stage 18 (Distance: 179.5 kilometres)
Compared to the previous day, the riders have just two mountains to tackle, but no less forgiving:
Col de Vars (2,109 m), a Category 1 climb, 9.3 kilometres at 7.5% gradient
Col d'Izoard (2,360m), a Hors Category climb, 14.1 kilometres at 7.3% gradient
With the tired legs of the previous day, this is not going to be an easy ride either. The tactics on Thursday though, will depend on the events of the previous day. If Froome has survived the attacks on Stage 17 — or increased his lead —, his challengers might be a bit deflated to try again. Instead, it will be a few specialist climbers who will form a breakaway early on in the day and battle for stage victory on the slopes of the Izoard.
However, if Froome loses time on Stage 17, then it makes Thursday’s stage very interesting. Team Sky would then be forced to attack, but who will be their leader, Froome or Landa? Either way, they will go all guns blazing and good luck to the team of the yellow jersey, who will have a massive task defending their leader. Also, bear in mind that Froome has not tasted a victory this whole season — which in itself is unprecedented — while all his top four rivals have a stage victory to their name. So if Froome gets a chance, he will want to set that record straight by winning the stage outright.
Another factor playing on all team directors’ minds will be the individual time trial of Stage 20. Froome is the fastest against the clock among the leaders, which means anyone aiming to win in Paris will have to have a healthy buffer at the end of Thursday.
Firstpost prediction: A long solo attack — probably by a Frenchman — who will grit his teeth among the frenetic crowds lining the final climb and take the stage honours, impervious to the GC madness behind him.
Even in 1989, which saw the smallest winning margin ever — Greg LeMond beating Laurent Fignon by a mere 8 seconds — the top two riders were separated by 53 seconds at the second rest day. This year’s race, with fiercer competition, is heading to be one for the ages. Froome is vulnerable, but ultimately it is up to the challengers to show if they have the will and ability to dethrone him. So it's apt to say, whoever dares, wins!