Thursday July 16th, 2015

The attacks came simultaneously, on different parts of the same mountain. Only one of them stuck.

Up above, with Stage 12 on the line, Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez attacked his fellow attackers, ex-mountain biker Jakob Fuglsang and baby-faced Romain Bardet, eight kilometers from the summit of the Plateau de Beille. The pelting rain, and even a bit of hail, failed to extinguish the Spaniard nicknamed Purito—Little Cigar. Grimacing theatrically for the next eight kilometers, Rodriguez powered to his second stage win of this race.

Far below on the flanks of the Tour’s gnarliest climb—right around the time Purito made his decisive move—Alberto Contador took a figurative swing at race leader Chris Froome, who knew he would be attacked. The only questions were when, by whom, and in what order.

Batting lead-off was the proud, predatory Contador of Tinkoff-Saxo, who trailed the Team Sky leader by four minutes and four seconds, but who, in this dangerous moment, as he surged away from the yellow jersey—the gap was 15, 30, 40 feet!—looked like the El Pistolero of old … for about 10 seconds. That’s how long it took Froome’s lieutenant, Richie Porte, to reel in the Spaniard. A study in composure, Porte never so much as stood up in his saddle, merely upping his tempo a smidgeon, until the danger had passed.

Foul weather notwithstanding, there would have to be fireworks today. The previous two Pyrenean stages had been warm-ups, uncomfortable hors d'oeuvres for today’s four-mountain main course, finishing on the foreboding Plateau de Beille, the Morgul Pass of this year’s Tour, a relentless, 16-kilometer grind rendered more miserable still on this day by the atrocious conditions.

Edge
Tony Martin drops the hammer with finish in Stage 4 of the Tour de France

Contador, along with BMC’s Tejay van Garderen (2:52 behind Froome) and a pair of Movistar riders, Nairo Quintana (3:09) and Alejandro Valverde (3:59), appear to be the last remaining threats to Froome’s dominance. They’d spent the previous day nervously side-eyeing—but never attacking—one another. It was bracing to know, going into Thursday, that the daunting terrain would force them into the open.

Contador neutralized, it was now Vincenzo Nibali’s turn to throw the Hail Mary. Since winning this race a year ago, the Italian has come down in the world, hemorrhaging time to Froome and the other favorites—all the while feuding with his boss, Astana director Alexander Vinokourov, who has reportedly informed Nibali that he’ll need to find another team in 2015, despite the fact that the Sicilian still has a year left on his contract. Eager to prove that he’s still got game, despite losing time on an almost daily basis in this Tour, Nibali launched his attack shortly after Contador was reined in. It was as if NBCSN were a radio station, with DJs Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen playing a block of oldies.

The Italian’s brief turn on the front of that elite selection was ended by Valverde, whose attack, once marked, was quickly followed by another from his teammate Quintana, the elfin Colombian who was raised on a farm above 10,000 feet in the Andes. If Quintana was going to take back any fraction of the 3:09 by which he trailed Froome, this would be the day; the relentless Plateau de Beille would be the climb.

Edge
Tour de France leader Chris Froome has shown no signs of weakness

Those ambitions were smothered, this time by the Welsh hardman Geraint Thomas, who’d taken over for Porte as Froome’s pacemaker-in-chief, and who calmly, inexorably walked Quintana down. Yes, Froome is the strongest rider in this Tour. But his advantage is magnified by the services of Thomas and Porte, whose talents dictate that they must someday—soon—be team leaders of their own. Indeed, Porte is leaving Sky after this season, most likely to join BMC, where he’ll coexist uneasily with the team’s current alpha.

That would be van Garderen, whose podium chances look brighter with each passing day in this Tour. While he was the only one of Froome’s main threats not to take a dig at the lead today, TVG was able to respond to all those attacks. He followed wheels, Levi-Leipheimer-like, and lost no time. Quintana’s acceleration was aimed as much at van Garderen as at Froome: the Movistar rider lurks just 17 seconds behind TVG, and would far prefer the second rung of the podium to the third.

So effective was Sky at keeping order in that lead group that the day’s only moment of confusion and semi-chaos came when Froome, flying by the seat of his chamois, decided to launch an attack of his own. He succeeded in dropping … his teammates. Quintana, Contador, van Garderen and Valverde all latched on. They finished within a second of one another. No blood was drawn, but for how long?

Come Sunday, following two transitional stages across France’s Massif Central, the riders enter the Alps.

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