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WILCOCKSON: Four days of attrition

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July 19, 2016 – On this second rest day of the 103rd Tour de France (#TDF2016), the media has been speculating that the race is already over, that Chris Froome has no more challengers and that his Sky teammates are riding so strongly that no rivals can mount a true attack against their race leader. These are words that we’re used to hearing in the final week of the Tour, particularly when a former winner is in the yellow jersey.

Written by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada

We heard it in 1989, when Laurent Fignon out-climbed Greg LeMond in the Alps and went into the final stage with a 50-second lead. Most journalists pre-wrote their final reports on “Fignon’s victory” only to make hasty rewrites when the American defeated Fignon by 58 seconds in the 25-kilometer time trial into the Champs-Élysées. And it was said before the key alpine stages in 1998 that defending champion Jan Ullrich, with a 1:11 lead over second-place Bobby Julich and 3:01 over fourth-place Marco Pantani, was a shoo-in to win. Yet six days later Ullrich ended the Tour as the runner-up, 3:21 behind Pantani.

Looking at the current standings in the 2016 Tour, Froome has a 1:47 lead on second-place Bauke Mollema of Trek-Segafredo and 2:59 on fourth-place Nairo Quintana—almost identical to Pantani’s deficit on Ullrich in 1998. That gap is smaller than the one held by Froome on both of his previous Tour victories. In 2013, on the second rest day, he was 4:14 ahead of Mollema and 5:47 up on Quintana—Mollema dropped to sixth by Paris, 11:42 back, but Quintana moved up to second, losing the Tour by 4:20. And at the same point last year, Quintana was already in second, 3:10 behind Froome, and reclaimed almost two minutes in the last two mountain stages to end the Tour as runner-up at 1:12.

What is different about this year’s Tour is that Froome and his team have already had to defend the yellow jersey for nine days, including several tough stages—through a hailstorm in Andorra, against fierce crosswinds in the Languedoc and with heat-wave temperatures on the rapid, relentless climbs of the Jura. And though Quintana made a few abortive attempts to break clear of Froome on the climbs to the Arcalis and Ventoux summit finishes, the upcoming four stages in the Alps offer many more opportunities—not only for the Colombian climber and his Movistar teammate Alejandro Valverde, but also for the other contenders in top 10: the surprising Adam Yates of Orica-BikeExchange, French hope Romain Bardet of AG2R La Mondiale, the dangerous Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing, a still-determined Dan Martin of Etixx-Quick Step and dark horse Fabio Aru of Astana.

Only two and a half minutes separates Aru in 10th from Yates in third—which means that all of these riders have reasons to attack, maybe not to win the Tour but to get on the podium. The four stages all have different characteristics, but each one offers better chances of success for those willing to put the pressure on Sky. Wednesday’s stage 17 is the longest of the remaining stages, and features the toughest mountaintop finish of this Tour: a 13-kilometer, 40-minute haul up the 8-percent Col de la Forclaz, followed by a five-minute downhill (just time to catch your breath), before the grueling 10.4-kilometer ascent to the Finhaut-Emosson dam that reaches its steepest 12.3-percent pitch over the last 500 meters.

Thursday is an individual time trial, only 17 kilometers in length, but other than 4 kilometers at the start and a 2-kilometer drop to the finish it’s all uphill—custom made for Porte or Quintana to grab back some seconds from Froome. Then on Thursday comes a very un-Tour-like stage that in just 146 kilometers tackles three steep passes (including the first-time Montée de Bisanne that has long stretches of double-digit grades) before the ultra-difficult climb to the finish at Le Bettex: 10 kilometers long, starting out at 13 percent and ending with grades approaching 10 percent. This is the sort of relatively short, punchy stage when the accumulated fatigue from the previous 18 stages could well catch up with the Sky domestiques, leaving Froome exposed to potential attacks.

The last of this quartet of challenging stages is the more conventional four-climb day to Morzine; but the closing Col de Joux-Plane (over which Quintana first came to international prominence with a stage win at the 2012 Critérium du Dauphiné) is not preceded by the short Cat. 3 Col de Châtillon, but by the far tougher Cat. 1 Col de la Ramaz—14 kilometers of climbing at 7 percent, followed by a 16-kilometer descent. If these latter two days are tough enough on paper, they’ll be even more challenging if the forecast 90-percent chance of thunderstorms comes true.

Whatever the weather, though, these four days in the Alps will be far from being a cruise for Froome and his mates. We just have to wait to see who is up to challenging them.

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You can follow John at @johnwilcockson.

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