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The Tour Is Not Just A Two-Horse Race

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If you believed everything written in European newspapers — particularly the highly influential L’Équipe of Paris — you would think that this 101st Tour de France is a two-horse race between Chris Froome and Alberto Contador.

Even when Vincenzo Nibali won Sunday’s extremely difficult stage into Sheffield and took over the yellow jersey, L’Équipe’s chief sportswriters Philippe Bouvet and Philippe Brunel were skeptical that the result held any deeper significance.

John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada

After focusing on the uphill attacks by “les deux cracks,” Contador and Froome, Bouvet wrote: “the third man, Vincenzo Nibali, proved that attacks can still pay off … Nibali hasn’t change status, but if his gains were derisory, he has opened up the field of possibilities.”

And Brunel said: “We don’t really know what took place in the crowded neighborhoods of Sheffield … on the wide boulevard that never seemed to end for Vincenzo Nibali. The future will tell us. It will tell us if it was an episodic event, without consequence, or a first tremor on Team Sky’s territory.”

What those eminent journalists didn’t mention or seem to appreciate was what happened out on the road. They did recognize the late aggressive moves by French team leaders, Europcar’s Pierre Rolland and AG2R La Mondiale’s Jean-Christophe Péraud and Romain Bardet, but they ignored the important rides done by the leading U.S. contenders, Andrew Talansky of Garmin-Sharp and Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing.

So much so that for a photo taken just before the summit of stage 2’s final and steepest climb, Jenkin Road, the French editors wrote the caption: “After a first attack by Alberto Contador, Chris Froome (ahead of Greg van Avermaet, Vincenzo Nibali and … Contador) makes his own offensive move. In vain.”

One problem with that caption is that the rider pictured on Froome’s wheel is not Van Avermaet but his team leader Van Garderen — who has a quietly determined look on his face, whereas the following Nibali and Contador are clearly climbing at their limit, their mouths open and the Spaniard gritting his teeth.

That was impressive riding by Van Garderen — the first man to respond to Froome’s sharp acceleration — close to the end of a 200-kilometer stage that everyone agreed was one of the most grueling days so early in a Tour de France. One element in the stage’s toughness was the unexpected injection of speed by Talansky’s Garmin team on the sixth of the day’s nine categorized climbs, a hill called Midhopestones, 35 kilometers from the finish.

That’s where Garmin’s Dutch ace Tom Slagter turned himself inside out, riding at such a pace (with Talanksy on his wheel) that after the steep climb, a short, sharp descent and subsequent false flats, the peloton was split to pieces with fewer than 20 riders able to stay with the two Garmin boys. It was an effort worthy of a better reward, but no other teams wanted to join in the acceleration and there was a general regrouping before the last three climbs. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Garmin had one or two men to help Slagter, or if they’d waited to test out their shock tactic on Jawbone Hill, the steeper climb out of Oughtibridge, inside 25 kilometers to go.

As it was, by the stage finish in Sheffield, only 20 riders were in the front group that finished two seconds behind Nibali — Talansky and van Garderen both finishing top 10. Unfortunately for Talansky, when the judges did the count back (the sum of each day’s stage placings), he was put in 21st on general classification (last of the leaders) because he flatted on the run-in to Harrogate on stage 1 and crossed the line in 194th place. He finished more than four minutes behind stage winner Marcel Kittel, but because his puncture happened in the “safe zone” — which the UCI extended from the final kilometer to the last 3 kilometers in 2005 — he was given the same time as the peloton.

On the flipside, Talansky’s low GC position is a potentially huge problem for him on Wednesday’s stage 5 across the cobblestones of northern France. Because the order of team cars following the peloton is based on GC positions, the Garmin-Sharp car will be only 15th in line. In contrast, Nibali’s Astana car is No. 1, van Garderen’s BMC is No. 4, Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo is No. 5, Alejandro Valverde’s Movistar is No. 6 and Froome’s Sky wagon is No. 7. The only pre-race favorites worse off than Talansky are Mathias Frank’s IAM Cycling team in No. 16, Thibaut Pinot’s FDJ.FR No. 17 and Rolland’s Europcar No. 22.

There’s certain to be mayhem on this relatively short 155-kilometer stage 5 from Ypres (in Belgium) to Arenberg because rain is forecast (a 90 percent chance!), which will add considerably to the challenges of a Tour peloton let loose on nine sections of Paris-Roubaix pavé. So when Nibali, Van Garderen, Contador or Froome has a mechanical or is involved in a crash, their team cars will be well placed to help out. Not so with Talansky.

However, one way around the car position conundrum is for Garmin to put one of their other riders into an early breakaway, so that one of the team’s two vehicles can follow the break — and be available for Talansky should he get to the front with classics specialist teammates Sebastian Langeveld and Johan Van Summeren. Also, having a strong teammate with the team leader will be invaluable — both to give up his bike or a wheel should the leader have trouble, or to protect and pace his leader through the maelstrom of the cobbles.

Because the rain on Wednesday afternoon is due to be accompanied by 30-kilometer-per-hour tailwinds from the northwest, attacks by the likes of Bauke Mollema’s Belkin team or Valverde’s Movistar men will be “easier” to carry out, and they could start as soon (or sooner) than the first of the nine cobbled sections at Gruson 68.5 kilometers from the finish. The most critical sectors are the final five: the narrow, straight section of pavé after Orchies (30 kilometers to go); the long, winding cobbled sector between Sars-et-Rosières and Tilloy-les-Marchiennes (24.5 kilometers out); a shorter stretch at Brillon (20.5 kilometers to go). The longest, 3.7-kilometer sector leading to Hornaing (11.5 kilometers to go); and the final one, from Hélesmes to Wallers, which ends just 5 kilometers from the line.

By Wednesday night, after a day of drama in the Hell of the North, we’ll get to see whether men such as Nibali, Talansky, Valverde and Van Garderen have become true contenders, or whether this Tour really is a Froome-Contador two-horse race.

 You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson