Bradley Wiggins successfully defended his yellow jersey in the final mountain stage of the race, while Alejandro Valverde took his biggest win since returning from a doping ban
Words by Edward Pickering in Bagnères-de-Luchon
Thursday July 19, 2012
Team Sky didn’t even need to crush the life out of Bradley Wiggins’ rivals on the final mountain stage of the race – Liquigas, oddly, did that for them, pacing the yellow jersey group up the Port de Balès and early part of the Col de Peyresourde. It did them no good – Vincenzo Nibali was distanced on the climb to Peyragudes, above the Peyresourde, and their efforts came to nothing.
But the work done by Liquigas did reduce Sky to two men: Wiggins and Chris Froome. And on Peyragudes, the British pair, the two strongest riders in the race, duly drew clear of what was left of the lead group.
In that situation, drawing decisively clear of all the other possible rivals for yellow, and half a minute behind a faltering Alejandro Valverde, there were two options: cement the overall standings, or go for the stage win.
But instead, away from the protective shelter of Sky’s climbing domestiques, the two Brits feinted and parried. Froome rode away from Wiggins, turned, beckoned the yellow jersey on, and visibly slowed. All the way up to Peyragudes, Froome seemed to be marginally gaining on Wiggins.
Valverde held on to win the stage by 20 seconds. Waiting for Wiggins cost Froome, who was clearly feeling perky, a possible run at the stage win. As for the overall, Sky’s hold on the yellow jersey continued tightening into a deathgrip.
Wiggins later said that he’d lost focus on the last climb, having survived the worst of the Tour’s mountains with his lead intact, which explained his inability to follow Froome.
What is clear, however, is that Sky’s focus on the yellow jersey obscures all else. If Froome had gone after Valverde with the strength his riding implied he was capable of, he’d have been in contention for the stage. But even with Wiggins drawing clear of third-placed Nibali, Froome elected, or was ordered, to stay with the yellow jersey.
The British team has come to the Tour de France to win the general classification as the culmination of a plan that goes back months and years. Mark Cavendish’s stage-winning ambitions have already been sacrificed on the altar of Sky’s yellow jersey project. The world champion has so far taken only one victory, improvised off the back of other teams’ leadouts, although there are still two possible sprint stages to come. Now a possible second stage win for Chris Froome has been deemed too much of a risk.
A measure of how peripheral stage wins are to Sky, unless they are within the context of the yellow jersey battle, is that eight of the last nine road stages have been won from breaks. Sky haven’t been riding on the front since the Vosges to chase stages, they’re just wearing down their rivals. It’s not that they don’t care about stage wins, just that there is one goal, and everything else is secondary.
If everybody had Sky’s ability to avoid temptations, even harmless ones, we’d probably achieve a lot more than we do. Their single-minded focus is remarkable. But it’s difficult to love.
With only four stages left, and 14 teams still without a stage win, there was keen competition to get into the early break. Other riders also had an agenda – Thomas Voeckler and Fredrik Kessiakoff, the two riders left in contention in the King of the Mountains classification, were eyeing up the mountains points on offer.
These two agendas overlapped at the summit of the Col de Menté, when Voeckler and Kessiakoff’s sprint for the points drew clear a handful of riders, including Valverde. Vincenzo Nibali temporarily joined the party, but voluntarily slowed up when it became clear he wouldn’t be allowed to stay up the road by his rivals.
Eventually, 18 riders coalesced into the lead group. Importantly, Voeckler, Kessiakoff and Valverde were joined by Valverde’s Movistar team-mate Rui Costa. The constant climbing and descending eroded the group to 10, then the Port de Balès shattered the integrity of the group. First Gorka Izaguirre and Jorge Azanza of Euskaltel, along with Ag2r’s Blel Kadri, went clear, then Costa, who won the Super Besse stage last year, went on the attack. Valverde bridged to his team-mate, then set off on his own.
At the same time, Liquigas started chasing.
If their plan was to try and wrest the Tour from Wiggins and Sky, they were going the wrong way about it. It was a one-dimensional tactic, and one which has served Sky extremely well, but the British team are defending a two-minute lead in the GC. All Liquigas were doing was saving Sky the effort of riding in exactly the same way.
And if their plan was to chase down Valverde and win the stage with Nibali, they’d overestimated the strength of their leader.
By the early slopes of the Peyresourde, Liquigas looked exposed. There were 13 kilometres to go, but Nibali only had one rider left on the front: Ivan Basso. The Italian’s relentlessly grinding pace dropped several rivals, but all he succeeded in doing was setting Jurgen Van den Broeck up to attack with eight kilometres left.
Only seven riders could follow the Belgian: Chris Horner, Wiggins, Froome, Nibali, Pierre Rolland, Thibaut Pinot and Tejay Van Garderen. A single file of wasted riders hit the climb to Peyragudes, with Wiggins moving to the front. Was he setting up Froome to attack?
One by one, Sky’s rivals dropped off the back under Wiggins and Froome’s pressure. Van Garderen fell away, then Nibali and Rolland. Van den Broeck couldn’t follow, nor Pinot.
Just two riders left at the front: Wiggins and Froome. And the stage win offered to them, but turned down.
Sky have all but won the Tour de France, and they have done it imperiously. Nothing else matters.