Nine stages down, a dozen to go in this year’s Grand Boucle, which pauses Monday in Pau before the peloton ventures into the world of hurt known as the Pyrenees. While the riders take a rest day, let us reflect on the ways that this Tour—like Damiano Caruso in Stage 6—has diverged from its expected trajectory:
• Carnage came in unexpected places. When Stage 4, with its seven cobbled sectors, was unveiled at the Tour presentation, one could almost hear evil laughter emanating from ASO headquarters. So what happened? Pretty much all the big names skated through unscathed.
That stood in contrast to the previous day’s stage, when a scary, high-speed crash on a flat, wide, straight road knocked six riders out of the race. On July 9, on the straight, wide uphill (and thus slightly slower) run-in to the finish, then-race leader Tony Martin crossed wheels with the rider in front of him and slammed down hard on the pavement, splintering his left clavicle, one fragment of which poked through the skin, his team doctor helpfully explained.
• The Fab Four is looking more like Chris Froome, who rode into the yellow jersey vacated by Martin, and a trio of talented but outclassed backup singers. Unlike the men hyped as his three main rivals—in this metaphor, Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana would be the Pips to his Gladys Knight—the angular, 30-year-old Team Sky leader has showed no weakness. He buffeted the crosswinds of Stage 2, handled the cobbles of Stage 4 and barged onto the Astana team bus for an unscheduled confab with Nibali in the moments following Stage 6. It appears that the polite, reserved, gentlemanly Brit has become comfortable showing the bunch his alpha side. Could Froome be the peloton’s next patron?
Every time the TV cameras flashed to the Sky squad during Sunday’s team time trial, it seemed, there was Froome taking a monster pull at the business end of the paceline. In the end, that tempo was too scalding for teammate Nicolas Roche, whose inability to hang with his mates in the final, uphill meters cost Team Sky the stage win. BMC got over the undulating 28-kilometer course less than a second faster than Sky. Easing the sting of that loss was the fact that Froome kept his yellow jersey: he leads BMC’s Tejay van Garderen by 12 seconds.
• Van Garderen, who didn’t quite make the cut of hot pre-race favorites, should have. Through nine stages, the 26-year-old Coloradoan has been tactically flawless: TVG was well positioned on July 5th when the peloton was split by crashes and foul weather rolling in off the North Sea. Less fortunate: Nibali and Quintana, who both hemorrhaged a minute and a half that day to the other leaders. Nibali, the Tour’s defending champ, lacked the legs to stay with the leaders on the brief, steep Mur de Bretagne that concluded Stage 8. The Italian lost 10 seconds to Froome that day and another 34 in the team time trial.
Asked before Stage 8 to gauge the threat posed by his rivals, Froome focused first on van Garderen, who finished a close second to him, just 10 seconds back, in last month’s Criterium du Dauphine—“Tejay is on great form, he’s ridden really well all week.” Of course it’s still early times: this rest day is the equivalent of a fourth-inning stretch. Seven mountain stages await. But van Garderen, who has twice finished fifth in this race, is in superb position to improve on that. For various reasons, only three Americans are contesting this Tour, down from as many as 10 in previous years. One of them could end up on the podium.
• MORE EDGE: The remarkably distraction-free Tour field this year
In a sobering aside, Bicycling’s Joe Lindsey points out that while Froome, Contador and Quintana will be well supported in the cols, flanked by a posse of proven mountain goats, van Garderen may find the going more lonely. BMC’s roster is stacked with “classics specialists and roleurs” who “mattered in the first act of this race”—Greg Van Avermaet, Michael Schar, and Daniel Oss. Says Lindsey, “That strategy has worked beautifully so far, but those riders are of less use in the Pyrenees and Alps,” where TVG will rely on Caruso, Samuel Sanchez and possibly Rohan Dennis, “but after that his support thins out and he likely won't have the crucial, late-stage help he needs to control the race.”
As the race enters the mountains, Contador and Quintana trail Froome by 1:03 and 1:59, respectively. While not insignificant, these margins can quickly be erased with one successful attack, one wobbly performance—a bonk, a crash, a bad decision under duress. True, Contador lost touch with Froome in the final 400 meters of the short but obscenely steep Mur de Huy in Stage 3. The Spaniard is 32, and coming off a victory in the three-week Giro d’Italia in May. He may simply not have it in him to win both grand tours in the same season. Only seven men have, in the history of the sport.
But it could simply be that he is biding his time, husbanding his strength for his home court, the Pyrenees. Quintana, the young Colombian who may be the world’s best pure climber, is an even more sublime x-factor. It is one of the quirks of this Tour that, following the first-day prologue, there are no more individual time trials. To take time back from Froome, his rivals must now attack him in the mountains. A very good Tour is about to get even better.