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No more waiting in the tightest-ever Tour

LE PUY-EN-VELAY, France (VN) — No waiting around, not anymore. On Sunday, the Tour de France did not wait for the mechanical-prone maillot jaune.

They didn’t wait when Chris Froome stood on the side of the road and Michal Kwiatkowski swapped his rear wheel. Instead, Romain Bardet’s Ag2r men piled on up front, pulling away up stage 15’s second category-1 climb. There were no ‘go slow’ hand gestures, no sitting up, just a continuation of what Dan Martin (Quick-Step) described as “one of the hardest parts of the Tour de France thus far.”

The wait-or-race debate, that gentlemanly unwritten rule that the race pauses for a leader’s mechanical, seems to be behind us. At the very least it’s been clarified somewhat.

The mechanical on Sunday could have been dire. Froome’s Tour could have been over. Losing contact with the main GC group heading into the long and fast run to the finish would have been catastrophic. “If I didn’t get back, I wouldn’t expect to be in yellow anymore this evening,” Froome said. “I had to get back by the top of that climb or it was game-over for me.”

Despite the high stakes, there was no polemic after the stage. Sky had “no issues whatsoever” with Ag2r’s tactics, said Sky general manager Dave Brailsford. This might seem odd, given the extent to which we hemmed and hawed and yammered on about Fabio Aru’s under-elbow attack on Mont du Chat, an attack that ended up going nowhere. But there were a couple crucial differences on Sunday.

This particular unwritten rule generally comes with an addendum to nullify in case of all-out racing. When the race is on, there’s no more waiting. (This is why there’s an argument to be made that Aru should never have slowed down.)

That was the case on Sunday. “They were already going, weren’t they,” Brailsford said of Ag2r. Froome’s mechanical occurred near the bottom of Sunday’s second category 1, the Col de Peyra Taillade. Ag2r had already been pulling hard. “Everybody was already in the red at the bottom of the climb,” Martin said.

Bardet’s team didn’t take advantage of Froome’s mechanical because they were on the gas before it happened. That’s not taking advantage, that’s just taking what’s yours. This stands in contrast to Aru’s Chat attack, which came after the race leader had indicated he had an issue. If Aru had been on the front already, perhaps BMC’s Richie Porte would not have waved for the group to slow. Aru insisted his move was premeditated, but it certainly didn’t look like it.

Ag2r’s effort was different. They simply maintained their pace. “They had a plan,” Brailsford said. “That was premeditated, it wasn’t a reaction, it was something they were going to do anyway. I think it was just part of it, crack on with it.”

We’re later in the race, too. As the chances to make a difference dwindle, the appetite to take advantage of bad luck increases. Froome’s rivals had the luxury of waiting on Mont du Chat, hopeful that they could make a difference in a more noble way later on. But the noble options are running out. The race is in a different place now than it was a week ago. Four riders sit within 30 seconds of the lead in a Tour that increasingly appears will be decided not on the major cols but in the small moments in between.

“The race is on,” Froome said after losing the yellow jersey on Fabio Aru last week. In a Tour like this, two weeks in, the race is never not ‘on.’ It was ‘on’ in as Ag2r La Mondiale charged ahead on Sunday. It will be ‘on’ for the entire Galibier stage and the Izoard stage, from start to finish. Seconds separate the podium; the Tour will be ‘on’ until Paris.

Waiting, as a result, is off.

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