The combined might of Garmin-Sharp, Saxo-Tinkoff and Movistar put Sky on the back foot during Sunday’s ninth Tour de France stage from Saint-Girons to Bagnères-de-Bigorre. It was a day of complete contrast to Saturday’s trek over the Col de Pailhères and up to Ax 3 Domaines, although on closer examination, perhaps the chinks in Sky’s armour were there for people to see.
It was a surprise to see Chris Froome with just Peter Kennaugh and Richie Porte for support as they began the final climb, although the way both Froome and Porte demolished the opposition in the final five kilometres largely overshadowed the fact that the climbing domestiques, Kanstantsin Siutsou, Vasil Kiryienka and David Lopez were dropped earlier than might have been expected.
On Saturday night, the Tour was over. As Sky’s principal Dave Brailsford put it: “You were all off to watch the tennis, weren’t you?”
On Sunday morning it jump-started back into life as Garmin-Sharp’s David Millar and Jack Bauer launched a series of blistering accelerations before the Col de Portet-d’Aspet to set up one of the most memorable stages in recent years. From that point on it was carnage, survival of the fittest, every man for himself or, as Richie Porte put it “an absolute war”.
One by one, Sky’s riders were dropped, including Porte, second on general classification, the man expected to be Froome’s right-hand man and a good bet for the podium himself. Kiryienka, possibly paying the price for his work early on Saturday’s stage, possibly suffering from dehydration, and definitely feeling the effects of a long attempt to bring Porte back up to the lead group, blew spectacularly and finished outside the time limit.
Still the aggression went on. Kennaugh, so impressive on Saturday, as he chased down another sparkling debutant Nairo Quintana of Movistar, also tried to get Porte back to the front. They got within 40 seconds and at one point was accidentally bumped off the road by Garmin-Sharp’s Ryder Hesjedal and sent flying down a steep bank into the bushes. It was, he said with remarkable calm, “just bike racing”.
Although Froome looked calm throughout, he was completely isolated in a way a leader of a grand tour has rarely been in recent memory. As he said, it was a day for the head as much as the legs. “I knew it was going to be a really long day, and I had to dig in, try to limit my losses if there were going to be any, but I had to think on my feet, think fast. Where do I spend energy? What do I follow and what do I let go?”
The question was, though, why did Froome’s rivals not twist the knife once they had it lodged deep between the shoulder blades?
Movistar had three riders – Quintana, the most explosive, and brilliantly so, but least experienced, Alejandro Valverde, solid for the top ten but probably not a likely winner, and Rui Costa, well-placed overall and the most likely man to sacrifice for the greater good. But Movistar more or less stepped in and did Sky’s job for them. Instead of following a string of riders in black jerseys over the mountains, Froome sat in between a bunch in dark blue.
Saxo-Tinkoff had Roman Kreuziger and Alberto Contador, the latter possibly feeling his way back into the race after a torrid time at Ax 3 Domaines. Katusha had Joaquim Rodriguez and Daniel Moreno and Belkin had both Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam, although perhaps they could not believe their luck they were there.
As they reached the last climb, La Hourquette d’Ancizan, it could have been expected that Froome’s rivals would take turns to attack Froome and test his head as well as his legs. Although we’ve now heard from Froome that he’s less concerned about the Belkin riders than those from Saxo-Tinkoff and Movistar, no one was to know how he would respond if put under repeated pressure by riders from a small handful of different teams.
Those teams had cards to play too. Katusha’s Moreno, perhaps Ten Dam of Belkin and Kreuziger of Saxo-Tinkoff could perhaps all have tested the water. As it turned out, only Quintana made a move, as he did repeatedly, forcing Froome to respond. It was then we saw how strong the Sky man was. He closed down the gaps convincingly enough.
But the fact remains that the leader of the Tour is separated from his team so rarely that it felt like a missed opportunity. Yes, there are still two weeks to go, but there are no guarantees that Sky will implode again the way they did on Sunday.
Froome’s strength was on the climb, so if the right combination of riders could have got away towards the top of the Ancizan, forcing Froome to chase on the 30-kilometre descent to the finish, perhaps they could have exposed him more. After all, chasing hard on flat or downhill roads is hard when there’s only one man to do the work, especially when there’s a head wind.
We will find out on Mont Ventoux and in the Alps whether a golden opportunity escaped Saxo Bank and Movistar, and to a lesser extent Belkin and Katusha.
But on a day when such cunning and aggression left Froome exposed and vulnerable, it was odd that no one sought to land a counter-blow.
As Brailsford said: “To use a boxing analogy, he took the big right hook on the chin and he didn’t flinch.”
That is true, but perhaps his rivals forgot that if they are to win the Tour they need to pepper Froome with body shots too.
Tour de France 2013: Cycling Weekly’s coverage index