Froome to watch, the rest to attack
The gaps in the Tour are small but nothing has yet been seen on the scale of the four monstrous climbs that await on Wednesday and Thursday, all over 2,000m in altitude and, in the case of the Croix de Fer and Galibier, of a length we haven’t seen in the race so far. Chris Froome and his team have only to watch the rest, while grabbing what time they can close to the finish, because on paper the Briton is the strongest time triallist so can bank on gaining time on Saturday in Marseille. Thus, it falls to Romain Bardet, Fabio Aru, and Rigoberto Urán – the strongest climbers in the race so far – to attack; Dan Martin and Simon Yates have not looked quite at the level of the top four to date when the hammer goes down. Froome has the strongest team in the race, and he should have Mikel Landa to cover moves, so he is in the box seat. However …
The unexpected and Landa lurking in the wings
Froome has had a remarkable number of minor “episodes” so far – minor exits from the road on Sunday and at Peyragudes, mechanicals at Chambéry and on Sunday, and his collapse at Peyragudes. Something unexpected could give his rivals an opening – as long as they are willing and able to take the initiative. The other unknown concerns Landa, lying sixth overall and looking disturbingly strong. If at some point on Wednesday or Thursday he gets into a potentially race-winning position – most likely by marking a move by a rider outside Froome’s immediate orbit as he did with Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador on Bastille Day – that is when the race could get very interesting. The question then is whether Sky rein him in or let him rip. And how Froome might react.
The mathematics say it all: 10 teams have won stages, with Quickstep the biggest winners thanks to Marcel Kittel. Realistically, there are two stages that might fall to a breakaway without specialist climbers – Tuesday’s stage into Romans-sur-Isère and Friday’s to Salon de Provence – although neither is nailed on. On those two stages there will be intense competition to get in the winning move, so the chances are the recent trend for large groups of escapees up front will be repeated. Movistar, BMC, Dimension Data, Lotto-Soudal, Bahrain-Merida, UAE and Lotto-Jumbo all have yet to win even if Lotto-Jumbo will hope that Primoz Roglic might deliver in Marseille. Even Lotto-Soudal know that with Kittel on his current form their sprinter André Greipel can’t bank on winning, so they will probably be in the breaks as well.
The green jersey and polka-dot battles
In the fight to be best climber, Warren “Wawa” Barguil has a stranglehold, and knows that he has only to score highly in one of the two remaining major mountain stages – Wednesday and Thursday – to secure the polka-dot jersey. The intriguing battle is for green, where his team-mate Michael Matthews is challenging Kittel by exploiting his relative climbing strength to go for intermediate sprints and if possible the stage win on hillier stages. Tuesday looks propitious, with a hilly start, and here Matthews will look to get in a break, if possible with team-mates around him. Wednesday has a handy second cat climb immediately before the sprint. Thursday is less promising but Friday has enough climbs early on for Kittel to be under pressure again if Sunweb still have the legs. The German is favourite, because he has a good lead and the points system favours stage winners, but Matthews has good reason not to give up.
A massive crowd for what could be a cliff-hanger
Better known these days for soccer and rugby, Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome will host the start and finish of the final time trial, reverting to its original purpose as a home for bike racing, with a 67,000 strong crowd expected to break the Tour’s attendance record for a single venue. Stadium finishes are rarely seen nowadays in cycling so this is relatively new. What will be on offer is the big question, because Wednesday and Thursday’s climbs are uncharted waters. The chances are that at least a couple of the top six will crack somewhere amongst those four climbs; nothing to date suggests that any of the top four will open a decisive gap. It could, and should, all still be to play for on Saturday.
An intriguing La Course
There are two ways of looking at the revamped La Course women’s event, with a 67.5km race finishing on the Izoard on Thursday, and a sort of time trial with a difference in Marseille on Saturday, where all those who finish within five minutes of Thursday’s winner will start according to the time gaps they registered on the Izoard, with the first across the line winning – effectively a handicap event, where the competitors can work together if they catch each other. The glass half empty view is that this is lip service to equality because the Izoard stage is relatively brief, while only a select few compete in Marseille.
The other way of looking at it is that moving to two days racing is a useful precedent and that the fact the organisers have a completely new event on their hands means they can experiment rather than merely aping the men’s race. Baby steps and all that. In any case, it was time for a change from racing up and down the Champs Élysées and this could be intriguing to watch. The big names are Marianne Vos, Katarzyna Niewadoma, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio and Lizzie Deignan. Olympic champion Anna Van der Breggen is not on the provisional start list.