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Analysis: Repairing the Sky machine

In securing his Tour de France lead last Saturday, Sky’s Chris Froome received textbook team support, the kind that makes the romantics grumble and the technicians smile. Since he pulled on the yellow jersey after Sky’s dominant ride to Ax 3 Domaines, though, he’s protected and increased his advantage largely on his own. After being dangerously exposed twice this week, and with the showdown in the Alps looming, can Sky’s notoriously efficient grand tour machine rebound from several days of rough idling to carry Froome into Paris?

After Sky’s performance on the first day in the Pyrénées, Froome looked to have broken the back of the 2013 Tour de France. He led the race; his teammate and roommate, Richie Porte, was second. The closest non-teammate was Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), 1:08 adrift, and the gaps to the other men considered legitimate GC threats — those whose time trial skill could be reasonably expected to approach Froome’s — were even greater. Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) was 1:45 behind; BMC Racing duo Cadel Evans and Tejay van Garderen were an all but fatal 4:13 and 12:15 adrift, respectively. Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), fourth last year, was already out of the race.

Only a day later, rare cracks appeared in Sky’s foundation. Peter Kennaugh, a key player in Saturday’s dogged pursuit of Nairo Quintana (Movistar), plunged over the edge of a descent and injured his arm. Porte collapsed under the weight of a jour sans, hemorrhaging 18 minutes and surrendering the belt-and-suspenders security of a double GC threat. Vasil Kiryienka, a key Sky acquisition from Movistar and early set-up man in the mountains, finished outside the time cut and put the squad a man down.

Meanwhile, Kiryienka’s former team produced its most cohesive team performance yet, with Valverde, Quintana, and Rui Costa working together to isolate and attack Froome on the final Cat. 1 ascent, La Hourquette d’Ancizan. Froome doggedly withstood the challenge, finishing in the middle of the group of GC favorites, 20 seconds behind stage winner Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp).

If a team leading the Tour de France could pick a time to fall flat on a key stage, Sunday would have been a good choice. Monday was a rest day, giving time to refocus, and action resumed with a flat sprint stage on Tuesday. Sky would be expected to ride, but would receive plenty of help from the sprinters’ teams when it came to crunch time.

Even after the day off, though, Sky didn’t seem to bounce back from the effort they’d made to put Froome in yellow. In Tuesday’s finale, approaching the well-known left turn at Port Mer that would instantly shift a daylong block headwind to a crosswind, Froome was again left shorthanded, with only Ian Stannard for shelter. At 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, Stannard is good company to have on a flat, windy stage, but he’s no substitute for a full team. It was another clear shortfall: no modern team aiming to win the Tour de France would intentionally send its yellow jersey into that final with so little support.

Froome was left vulnerable to a crosswind attack from his GC competition, the kind of opportunity that Lance Armstrong took advantage of to rattle then-teammate Alberto Contador in the 2009 Tour, and one that Bjarne Riis’ CSC team used to blow open the 2005 Paris-Nice for Jörg Jaksche. Eight years later, it was Riis’ team, now led by Contador, that had its eye on the weathervane.

“We saw Saxo Bank come and get onto the front as soon as there was a hint of crosswind in the final,” Froome said after the stage. “Ok, for them, they are obviously looking after their own riders, but if the opportunity came up I would expect them to go on the offensive, too.”

The peloton did split, but the vigilant Froome wasn’t caught out, and like the stumble in the Pyrénées, no real damage was done.

On Wednesday, Froome again went it alone, though this time by requirement, finishing second to world champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) in the individual time trial to Mont Saint Michel. In doing so, he extended his GC lead to a yawning 3:25 over Valverde. The surprising but unproven Bauke Mollema (Belkin) sits third at 3:37, while Saxo pairing Contador and Roman Kreuziger sit fourth and fifth, at nearly four minutes back.

Now, it will now be up to Sky to truly shoulder the weight of the race. Will the team with dossard no. 1 rise to the occasion? Beyond its impressive track record of the last two years, conditions at the Tour look promising for a Sky recovery. Froome’s time trial is likely to have boosted morale after the rough patch, and right-hand man Porte signaled his resurrection with a strong fourth place in the time trial, 1:21 behind Martin. Both Kennaugh and Geraint Thomas, who fractured his pelvis on stage 1, will be another day recovered from their injuries, and most of the team, save Froome and Porte, should have kept their powder relatively dry in the time trial.

Perhaps more importantly, the stages ahead should make for relatively light work for Sky before the next major GC shakeout at Mont Ventoux on Sunday. Today, Sky faces a long (218km), but relatively flat ride into Tours, but they’ll once again yield the front to the sprinters’ teams in the waning kilometers. A slightly tougher day to Saint Amand Montrond will follow; despite a late climb, the stage will still be a target for sprinters’ teams. Their willingness to work will be enhanced by this year’s four-way battle between Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano), André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma), and Peter Sagan (Cannondale), which has placed a premium on the multiple wins sprinters crave. Saturday’s transitional run into Lyon should lend itself to a well-vetted breakaway, with the rouleurs eager to seize one of relatively few opportunities.

If Sky can control the race efficiently for the remainder of this week, it should arrive to the final-week Alpine rendezvous ready to safeguard Froome’s lead. However, after its rough patch this week, Sky will not roll into that crucial final week with the air of invincibility it enjoyed last year. Teams like Movistar and Saxo are no doubt reeling from the blow dealt by Froome in the time trial, but they were reeling after his Ax 3 Domaines display as well. They were still emboldened by the smell of blood in the water on stages 9 and 10. If Sky is strong enough at the outset of week three, the other GC men may be content to fight for the podium and stages. But if Sky leaves Froome alone, he’ll quickly be under attack again, no matter what his margin. With Froome taking time both uphill and into the wind, what do they have to lose?

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