What an exciting week of racing we have had in the second week of the Tour this year! The race, which was evenly poised at the end of week one, has completely changed in a matter of three days. Stages 10, 11 and 12 created the intended havoc, upsetting many race favourites, causing withdrawals and at the end of it all, it is once again Team Sky which emerges all powerful with their riders occupying the top two places in the overall standings.
There is a slight twist in the tale though. The relative position of the Sky riders is not what everyone expected and is instead, the other way round. So we have the defending champion and the hot favourite Chris Froome sitting in second place, 1' 39" behind his less celebrated teammate Geraint Thomas. The present maillot jaune has also won two crucial mountain stages, declaring his intent and form in this year's race. When Thomas chose to attack for race wins, leaving his decorated team captain behind, it certainly rose questions among many fans and experts as to the situation in Team Sky.
Though Froome, Thomas and the entire team seem to be toeing the party line, that Froome is the captain and the team is working to make him win his fifth Tour, however, that is tough to justify under the present conditions. Based on what we have seen so far, Thomas seems to be in the form of his life, outriding all riders on the toughest mountain stages this year. On the other side, Froome has struggled on more than one occasion. More pertinently, Thomas has not held back to support Froome during these dodgy moments, but has instead pursued his own case at the head of the race.
Let's not forget though that this is Team Sky, who have always changed the narrative as and when they have wished in the past six years. Their wily team principal, Dave Brailsford, always has a few cards up his sleeve, including those that his team is also not aware of. From his perspective, the situation is a blessing, as he has two riders in winning position (and history proves that Dave does not much care which name is on the trophy till such time it is from his team). So, I would not be surprised if it is a deliberate tactic of Sky, shielding Froome from too much attention and attacks by making him sit in second position, albeit with a difference that is just enough to be surmounted on any stage. With Froome in second position, he does not have to defend the yellow jersey and he moves out of the cross-hairs of other teams, which gives him the freedom to attack on a stage and time of his choosing. And we know well enough that a difference of 90 odd seconds is within his capability to overturn on a mountain stage or the individual time trial.
With the situation in Team Sky as it is, the challengers behind them have sadly failed to deliver - yet again. A lot was expected from the star-studded lineup of Team Movistar, but both their top riders - Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa - sit nearly four minutes adrift of Thomas, with no realistic chances of even making it to the podium. The Frenchman Romain Bardet is slightly better, sitting 3' 21" behind the leader in fifth position. To his credit, he has tried to attack more than any other rider this year but sadly has not been able to make any attack stick enough to challenge the duo from Sky.
Vincenzo Nibali was sitting in fourth place and seemed to have the energy to compete for the honours but he crashed out on stage 12 when his handlebars got entangled with the camera strap of a spectator on the slopes of the Alpe d'Huez. The Italian broke his vertebrae and must be seething on such horrible luck. Many other potential names fell back long before the Alps. This included Richie Porte, Tejay Van Garderen and Rigoberto Uran, who were expected to challenge for podium places, but instead fizzled out prematurely.
That leaves us with only one challenger - Tom Dumoulin. The Dutchman has been the most consistent rider behind Thomas and Froome. He has had his share of rough luck during the initial week, but has overcome that to cement his place on the podium. During the three mountain stages, he was always with the leading group, even challenging Sky on more than one occasion. However, like Bardet, his attacks also could not break the dominance of Sky, and Dumoulin's relatively weak Team Skyweb is partly the reason for that. Therefore, but for a disaster for Sky, or some incredible heroics from Dumoulin, I don't see him overcoming the 1' 50" deficit he presently has to the leader. His immediate target in the next week would be to gain 11 seconds over Froome and move into second place, while also keeping an eye out for Primoz Roglic, who sits immediately behind the Dutchman.
Elsewhere, the race for the green jersey was killed by the mountain stages, with most of the top sprinters finishing outside the time limit or having had to withdraw. Among the survivors, there is no one of calibre to challenge Peter Sagan. The Slovak rider has a 282 point lead in the sprint classification, which cannot be practically surmounted over the final six stages. All that remains is for Sagan to stay safe and reach the finish in Paris and he will claim his sixth green jersey, equalling the record of Erik Zabel.
The polka dot jersey remains up for grabs though, with the top three separated only by 22 points. With three mountain stages coming up this week, there is sufficient climbing ahead and points up for grabs in the "King of the Mountains" classification. Interestingly, the current top two are both French riders and will get vociferous support from locals in the remaining stages. It is highly likely then, that the French will have something to celebrate at the podium in Paris.
Looking ahead, we have three mountains stages, one flat stage and an individual time trial before the ceremonial flat stage to Paris on 29 July. The most tantalising among them is Friday's stage 19. This 200 km brute has six categorised climbs and is designed to be a test of the endurance of even the best riders. The tired legs with 18 days' hard cycling in them, have to trudge over the legendary Col du Tourmalet and the Col d'Aubisque. It presents the last realistic opportunity for any rider still within punching distance of the top (or the podium), to try and upset the standings. Especially with a downhill finish, any significant attack on the mountain will be tough to close down during the final kilometres and there is always the risk of a race-ending crash for the chasers. I feel this is the only stage Sky would be wary of in the final week, where their carefully planned race can fall apart. But that is only if some other rider still has enough energy left in him to mount a challenge over these slopes.
The Individual Time Trial (ITT) on stage 20 might not have major race implications as I feel the race would have already been decided on the slopes of the Tourmalet and Aubisque on the previous day. However, it plays to the strengths of Froome and Dumoulin, and if they are still separated by just a few seconds, then it would be an interesting day to watch. ITTs can be the decisive factor in finalising the podium and if the margins are minor, it might still be the case this year.
To summarise, the next few days have enough road to be covered and tactical battles to be fought. While the race seems to be Thomas (or Sky's) to lose, however, it isn't over till they reach the finish line in Paris. Will we see similar fireworks in the third week as in the second? Only time will tell. I, for one, am very confident that there remain a few more twists in this race. Coming ahead, five intense days of racing and one glorious and captivating finish in Paris, so keep following Le Tour and watch this space for more analysis of the race as it reaches for the finish line.
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Updated Date: Jul 23, 2018 18:39:09 IST