July 14 (Bastille Day)
In the Tour de France, it’s not every day that the race leader loses 22 seconds, and the race lead, in the last 300 meters (328 yards, or 984 feet) of a 214.5 km (133.3 mile) stage. But that’s what happened to Chris Froome, 3-time TdF winner, yesterday.
The stage featured six categorized climbs, including two 1st Catégorie and one Hors Catégorie, but the true killer was in the last 500 meters or so, a short Cat. 2 with a 20% grade. That’s one foot of rise for every five feet of distance. Climbs like that, taken at race speed with everybody trying to finish first, are not for the faint of heart, or of leg.
Froome and his strong Team Sky mates took the lead in the opening time trial when Welshman Geraint Thomas won, and Froome himself grabbed the leader’s yellow jersey on Stage 5. At that time he said he saw no reason why his team could not hold the lead all the way to Paris. Such a feat would have been the first in 89 years, since 1928, when Nicolas Frantz, the Luxembourg National Champion, did so for Alcyon.
Froome’s closest rivals at this point in the race were Fabio Aru, Romain Bardet, and Rigoberto Uràn, who trailed after Stage 11 by 18, 51, and 55 seconds respectively. Beyond 30 seconds or so, against a formidable climber like Froome, any gap is significant, and riders finding themselves more than a minute and a half adrift are in deep trouble if they’re seeking overall victory.
So when the race entered the Pyrenees yesterday, rolling out of Pau toward Peyragudes, with the six climbs looming ahead, all cards were on the table. No more holding back. This was the first big mountain stage, the one that was the consistent launch point for Lance Armstrong back in his United States Postal Service heyday. His strong, tireless team would ride at a pace that would keep others from attacking, led by support riders whose efforts would keep Lance’s legs fresh for the charge up the last climb of that first day in the high mountains.
That’s how it was going yesterday, with Froome behind a couple of leadout men. By the next-to-last climb, the legendary Col de Peyresourde, A group of about riders, including all the remaining contenders, was in the lead. Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana got dropped before the last climb. The rest followed the wheels of the Sky group of three, with Froome in third position. TV announcers suggested that nobody was attacking because the pace set by Sky was so high. Truth is, the potential attackers were saving it for when it would do the most good, inside that last steep kilometer with a climb that looked like a wall.
Fabio Aru (l) begins his move on Chris Froome (r). Romain Bardet, eventual winner, is just behind. Getty Images
All of a sudden, with about 500 meters to go, they went. By 300 meters the stronger men created separation from Froome. Uràn and then Aru looked good for the win, but Bardet at last shot ahead, taking it cleanly 2 seconds ahead of them. Meanwhile, Froome looked as if his gears had jammed. He was zig-zagging across the road, riding at an angle to lessen the steepness, looking just like me riding up Hunter Station Road on a bad day. He came in alone, in 7th place, 22 seconds behind, not even the first man from his own team across the line. Mikel Landa had gone on his own, because there’s no way to help a team leader whose legs just couldn’t take the angle of the slope.
Chris Froome, now trailing Aru by 6 seconds thanks to the time bonuses, may well win this Tour, but yesterday he was the central figure in an abrupt, unprecedented loss of time and race lead. Good cycling, great theater. Vive le Tour.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016.