GAP, France (VN) — Of course, this had to happen here. No where else, but here.
Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) was attacking the yellow jersey on Tuesday’s final descent after softening legs with a few punchy attacks up the Col de Manse. The ever-attacking Spaniard went down after overheating on a sharp right-hander, and the golden-fleeced Chris Froome (Sky) barely averted the crash, drifting off to the left of the road, unclipping with one foot, and hopping back on his bike. The yellow jersey was safe again, hurtling toward Gap for the finish of stage 16 at the Tour de France.
This was the famous descent where Joseba Beloki crashed heavy as a wave, and where Lance Armstrong famously rode through a hayfield. Armstrong went on to win the Tour, and Beloki was never the same. Beloki wouldn’t even come to Gap on Tuesday, because of such terrible memories.
It was a scene that could have occurred again 10 years later, though all that came of Contador’s high-speed get-off was a vaguely riled-up Froome, and a skinned-up “Pistolero.” In the crash, the race learned what is likely to come in the final days of this Tour: risk versus reward calculations at every opportunity. Sky is unbelievably good at suffocating a race but doesn’t handle flat out bike racing as well as it would like — see the team’s classics campaigns as an example.
Chris Froome will win this Tour with calculation. Alberto Contador can only win this Tour with frantic urgency, and luck. After the stage, Froome was sharply critical of the Saxo strategy, and of Contador.
“Alberto was really taking risks on the descent in front of me … and actually put me in danger. I had to go off the road to avoid him. It took me a few seconds just to re-correct,” Froome said, labeling the descent attack as “unnecessary.”
“I personally think [Contador’s] team is starting to get desperate now,” he said.
But is it desperate, or is it the tactic of a fighter who knows the only way he can win is with non-traditional attacking? In each head-to-head between the two up mountain ramps, Froome has ridden away from the third-placed Contador, a two-time winner of the Tour and one of the peloton’s most opportunistic riders (recall the way he stole the Vuelta a España last year from Katusha’s Joaquim Rodríguez).
“To go on calmly on the wheels in the peloton is never a big motivation for me,” Contador told reporters. “There was some loose asphalt there and I lost the wheel and slid out. The most important thing was to get up as fast as possible to not lose time.”
He didn’t lose any time on GC, and also put Froome’s top domestique, Richie Porte, under pressure on the final ascent. The aggression dispatched of fifth overall Laurens Ten Dam (Belkin). His attacks didn’t crack the yellow jersey, but they did send a clear message: this Tour isn’t over for Contador.
“It was a good day; there is one less Belkin [Ten Dam], the others were suffering. I hope the crash will not affect me in the time trial. I will sleep a little rougher tonight,” he told Spanish media. “Everyone had to be attentive in today’s stage. My legs are feeling better. I am going to keep fighting. I am not sure if I can do it [win Tour] or not, but I am going to give everything I have.”
Bauke Mollema (Belkin) currently stands between Contador and Froome, but there is a feeling that this race is between the Kenya-born British leader and the controversial Spaniard. Contador has taken the fight to the yellow jersey, sometimes to success, as demonstrated in the crosswinds last Friday, but has struggled on the race’s hardest climbs thus far.
“You have to keep fighting, whether it’s the start or the end of the race,” Contador said. “We’ll see what the result is in Paris.”
The Champs Élysées, seemingly, can’t come soon enough for Froome, whose dominance in this race has forced teams to attack him anywhere but uphill.
“It’s just one of those crazy things. One second you could be going for the finish about to win a race, and the next you’re lying in a ditch somewhere with a broken bone,” he said. “Nothing’s guaranteed in cycling. … I was purposefully laying off a little bit and trying to take it easy, but at the same time trying to keep touch with the Saxo Bank guys who were really pushing the limit.”
After the stage, Contador posted a photo of his right knee, bloodied and road rashed, to his Facebook page, promising, “Tomorrow more!”
Only five tomorrows remain between Chris Froome and the podium in Paris.