Yesterday I was about ready to quit watching this year’s Tour de France, as the cold, ruthless hand of Team Sky fell on the peloton in a fashion eerily similar to the way the hand of US Postal would fall on it, in the first serious mountain stage each year. Four-time Tour winner Chris Froome and his chief lieutenant, a Welshman named Geraint Thomas, took the field by the throat. Froome almost seemed willing to gift the stage to Thomas, who attacked from the leader’s group with 5km left to go after the two stage leaders. Froome did not counter until another overall contender, Roman Bardet, also tried to bridge the gap to the leaders. In the end, Thomas made the final strong move
and it appeared nobody else could counter, even the favorite, Froome. But Froome still finished third and put time into all his serious rivals except his own teammate.
But today showed that the unexpected is always lurking. Team Sky may still be dominant, yet now the question is whether Froome has it in him to win the Tour again. Today’s stage ended with a much, much steeper climb than yesterday, up the legendary L’Alpe d’Huez, with its twenty-one switchbacks over 13 km, average gradient of 8%, and 1700 meter (5570 foot) elevation. As the end approached, one rider (Steven Kruijswijk) remained ahead; the leaders were in a fairly large group, led by another Sky rider (Colombian climber Egan Bernal), then Froome and Thomas (the two Sky teammates), then most of the other contenders. After various feints and charges, as many as five or six were together across the road with just 4 km left. Then attacks began, and in the last fairly sharp corner Thomas was took the best line and had the most strength. Froome finished 4th, only three seconds back. But his lieutenant has now beaten him two days in a row on terrain suited to Froome. Thomas is the better time trialer, but there’s only one ITT in the Tour, on the next-to-last day.
Finally the booing. Near the end the crowd was booing some or all of the contending riders. Perhaps it was that they did not wait when contender Vincenzo Nibali fell with less than 4 km to go. But the fall was too close to the finish line to establish a “level playing field” for all to contend. The contenders had to contend, and they did. Or was the booing directed at Froome, who was allowed to race only at the last minute because of an unresolved doping finding. The Tour crowds didn’t show much love for Lance Armstrong in his last race up L’Alpe d’Huez either; he has booed and spat on because of suspected doping, which the crowd believed long before the eventual investigation, findings, and fall from grace.
Bradly Wiggins, former Team Sky Tour champion, said Sky would have a problem on its hands if Thomas won. And he knows, because he was the victim of Froome, his then-young teammate who outpaced him and ultimately replaced him as team leader.
Stay tuned! The Tour has more feats of derring-do and behind-the-scenes drama to offer in the next eleven days.
© Arnold Bradford, 2018.