It’s a week into the 2017 edition of the Tour de France with a third of the race done and dusted. In the past week we have seen an Individual Time Trial (ITT), couple of tough mountains stages and lots of sprints. So as the tour pauses for a day on Monday, for the official rest day, Firstpost analyses the happenings of the first nine stages.
The biggest winner from the first week is definitely Marcel Kittel. The German sprinter has won three of the nine stages in impressive fashion. A big part in his victories has been team Quick-step Floors’ perfect lead out train, that has brought him to the cusp of sprint finishes with impeccable timing.
Kittel has also had lady luck on his side, with the absence of two main sprinters - Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan - and the photo finish of stage seven that could easily have finished/awarded either way (the difference after cycling 213km was a mere 0.0003 seconds, or 6mm). His main rival, Arnaud Demare also finished out of the time limit on stage eight and is out of the race. Despite the whittled competition and other sprinters not being in the best of form, Kittel’s lead at the top is not insurmountable, and it would be interesting to see his battle with compatriot Andre Greipel in the coming stages.
This past week has also seen the emergence of two new names. First it was the Italian Fabio Aru with his gut-wrenching ride up La Planche des Belles Filles, leaving all top contenders in his wake. Aru may not be new to the Tour, but till last year had played second fiddle to compatriot Vincenzo Nibali. One year is a long time in cycling, and Aru is now wearing the Italian national champion's jersey and leading team Astana. Both these roles have belonged to Nibali in the past, and Aru seems to have taken over the mantle of the top Italian rider. After Fabio’s victory on stage five, Chris Froome himself regretted not tracking the Italian and has marked him out as a potential rival. As far as compliments go, it is as rich as it comes.
The second young rider that rode to prominence is the Frenchman Lilian Calmejane, whose courageous solo victory on stage 8 also earned him the polka-dot jersey (on that day). Overcoming cramps and riding with his tongue out, he’s set to take over the mantle from his team-mate and longtime French hero, Thomas Voeckler.
Their heroics though, were not of much avail as regards to the mountain classification, which turned on its head after the massive mountain stage of Sunday. The specialist climbers have come to the fore in the rankings, but with no one having a commanding lead yet. There are three French riders in the top ten rankings and that will mean the remaining mountain stages will be packed with locals screaming “Allez”. With this edition of the Tour not having too many major climbs, I can foresee polka dot jersey aspirants attacking each climb, which may set the cat among the General Classification (GC) contenders as well.
Coming to the core of the race - the GC fight. Well, not much seems to have happened here, with Froome absolutely comfortable in yellow. The way team Sky have been riding, shielding the yellow jersey and setting a relentless pace, things look rosy for Froome to increase his win tally. Sky have held the yellow jersey throughout the nine days, and if they can manage to keep it with them till the end of the tour, they would be emulating a feat achieved only twice in the past 60 years. Sky are also leading the Team GC rankings, and but for an accident, it looks tough to see where the challenge will come from.
The competition to team Sky and Froome has been the most disappointing part of the past week. The lack of fight from established pros and leading contenders Quintana and Contador, has made the race a procession for the British rider and his team. Quintana must have expected to lose time in the ITT, but his performance in the mountains has been far below expectations. Not once has the Colombian attempted to test Froome. Maybe the loss of his main lieutenant - Alejandro Valverde, on the first day has knocked the wind out of his sails and he seems to be focussing on a podium finish rather than outright victory.
Contador has fared even worse than Quintana and is presently out of the top ten. Surprisingly, despite having a relatively strong team, neither he nor his team have looked to up the tempo at any time. Dan martin and Richie Porte were two riders who had shown the stomach for a fight in the first week. They were the experienced riders performing toe to toe with Froome, sadly both had a nasty fall in stage nine while going down-hill. Porte had to withdraw due to injuries and Martin lost almost 90 seconds, practically ruling him out of contention for the yellow jersey. Presently the dominance of team Sky seems so complete that it makes it near impossible to trouble their team leader. The first crack though may have appeared with Froome’s main man Geraint Thomas (who was running second in the classification) also crashing out of the Tour on Sunday.
The race for GC is part cycling and part a game of chess. Tactics and team strategies play a big role in achieving overall victory and maybe some teams have a plan for the tougher days that lie ahead. Maybe they are keeping the powder dry to explode the tour and maybe team Sky might falter on a hard stage in the last week when the riders are tired. Too many 'maybes' in the previous sentence itself hint how difficult that is going to be. As of now there is only Aru who seems within reach to mount a challenge. Considering the time trial of stage 20, where Froome is expected to outpace the Italian, Aru has to crack the yellow jersey (and his team) before that. But with just four mountain stages in the remaining two weeks, that will be a tough ask.
With any sport, surprises and upsets are never far away and that unscripted drama is what keeps millions of fans hopeful and glued to any event. Knowing the unpredictable history of the tour, I would say the race is still finely balanced. Despite Sky’s dominance, the race is wide open in most classifications and Froome’s time cushion of 18 seconds is not yet safe enough for him to be complacent. There still are one individual time trial, two hill, four mountain and five sprint stages to be raced this year, and that means there is lots of racing and action in store for us. Stay glued people, this is the Tour de France, and surprises are never more than a day away.
Updated Date: Jul 10, 2017 18:08 PM