There’s a strong feeling in the entourage at this 99th Tour de France that the race is done, that Team Sky has ridden such a harsh tempo on every challenging stage that not even defending champion Cadel Evans can break the British team’s grip on the race. The GC was set by the end of Week One, after Chris Froome won the stage finishing atop La Planche des Belles Filles, and Brad Wiggins and Froome placed 1-2 in the Besançon time trial. And only pure optimists believe that Evans, Vincenzo Nibali or Jurgen Van den Broeck has the wherewithal to change the overall picture in the two major Pyrenean stages on Wednesday and Thursday.
One of those optimists is Evans himself. BMC Racing’s Australian hero told the Sydney Morning Herald in Pau, where the rest day was held Tuesday, “I believe to be in with a chance—even if it’s one in a hundred.” And he said this about his form: “I am coming on later this year than in last year’s Tour. … I really feel a lot of riders are getting tired now. In the Pyrenees, I don’t know if it will be in the first or second day. If [the] racing gets hard and aggressive there’ll be a lot of people having trouble.”
Evans could be right, and that Wednesday’s grueling six-hour stage to Luchon will wear people down even further than they already are, and this will lead to big time gaps on Thursday, when the shorter stage 17 features two giant climbs followed by this Tour’s third and final summit finish. The Sky riders most likely to falter are the ones who’ve been doing the most working in defending Wiggins’s yellow jersey for the past week: Australians Richie Porte and Mick Rogers, and Norway’s Eddy Boasson Hagen. Whether Wiggins or Froome has a bad day remains to be seen. But it shouldn’t be ruled out.
Some of the sport’s greatest champions have faltered on the erratically graded climbs of the Pyrénées, including a special hero of Wiggins, Spain’s five-time Tour champ Miguel Induráin, who Tuesday sent a signed personal kerchief to the British race leader as a sign of respect and good luck. Induráin’s personal Calvary came in 1996, when he blew up spectacularly on the marathon 262-kilometer stage across the backbone of the Pyrénées into his hometown of Pamplona—where he arrived 8:30 behind the leaders.
Induráin was also prominent five years earlier in defeating another champion, Greg LeMond. Prior to the most difficult Pyrenean stage, which crossed the Aubisque, Tourmalet and Aspin before an uphill finish near the Peyresourde (the four climbs on this Wednesday’s stage 16), LeMond was leading Induráin by 2:09. [That’s not much different from Wiggins’s current GC lead.]
In 1991, LeMond was holding his own on the hors-cat climbs when in the Tourmalet’s final kilometer, which has a 10-percent grade, the American faltered badly. Sensing the kill, Induráin pushed on over the summit, even though the stage finish was still more than 60 kilometers away. He raced down the descent to catch breakaway rider Claudio Chiappucci, with whom he rode the rest of the day to finish minutes ahead of the other leaders, including LeMond, who arrived in ninth place, 7:18 back. Induráin took the yellow jersey and kept it till the end of the race.
These Pyrenean climbs also figured heavily in the epic Tours of 1985 and ’86, when LeMond was in an internal battle for the yellow jersey with his own La Vie Claire teammate Bernard Hinault. Entering the Pyrénées at the ’85 Tour, Hinault was in yellow by 3:38 over LeMond, with Irishman Stephen Roche in third, at 6:14. When Roche attacked on the Tourmalet, Hinault couldn’t follow, partly because he was suffering from a fall he’d had a couple of days earlier.
LeMond did follow Roche—just as Froome might follow a move made by Nibali or Evans in the upcoming stages. With the yellow jersey under threat, LeMond was told to wait for Hinault, which he did. Reluctantly. But when Hinault again faltered on the climb to the finish, LeMond did mark the attacks and ended up gaining back 1:13 on his teammate. LeMond went on to win the final time trial (the first-ever Tour stage win by an American), and he ended the race in second, only 1:42 behind Hinault.
The following year, when Hinault vowed to help LeMond win the Tour, the Frenchman surprised all by going on the attack in the first Pyrenean stage and claiming the yellow jersey by 5:25 over second-place LeMond. This was Hinault’s last Tour and besides wanting “to have fun,” the French superstar said he wanted to test LeMond’s fortitude. He did so on the second day in the Pyrénées by making a solo attack over the top of the Tourmalet and pushing his virtual GC lead to more than eight minutes over the Aspin. But he was only human, and Hinault faded on the Peyresourde before being caught and passed on the climb to the finish above Luchon. LeMond won the stage and moved back to within 40 seconds of his teammate on overall time—before going on to win he Tour in the Alps.
There are plenty of other examples of race leaders having a hard time in these mountains, but that doesn’t mean that Wiggins will falter. He and his team have raced superbly to date, and Wiggins himself has appeared to be keeping something in reserve for any unexpected challenges—whether that’s sudden weakness shown by his teammates or tactically astute moves by his rivals. As Nibali said on the rest day: “The slightest sign of weakness from anyone…could create important time gaps.” And, just as Evans indicated, the Italian added, “You have to believe.”