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Commentary: Why Tour stage 13 was must-see TV

FOIX, France (VN) — When Tour de France organizer ASO unveiled the map for the 2017 route, we marveled at stage 13 from Saint-Girons to Foix. The stage was unusually short at just 101km. It featured three Cat. 1 climbs, including the painful ascent of the Mur de Péguère — yes, the steep climb was site of the tour’s unfortunate brush with thumbtacks in 2012. It also fell on Bastille Day.

We predicted the stage would create chaos for the GC men.

The route did not disappoint. Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), Mikel Landa (Sky), and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) attacked. LottoNL-Jumbo’s George Bennett cracked. Astana’s Fabio Aru, Sky’s Chris Froome, and the remaining GC favorites pummeled each other. And the one team with multiple cards to play — Team Sky — threw the deck against the wall.

Stage 13 is proof that ASO has found a winning formula with these short, punchy routes. But it’s not just the distance that made it must-see TV. Come, let us examine why Friday was worth the wait.

The fatigue factor

The Tour’s GC men came into stage 13 nursing tired legs after Thursday’s 212km slog across six categorized climbs, including that brutal 20-percent finishing pitch to Peyragudes. As was proven during last year’s Vuelta a España stage 15 to Formigal, when tired legs are forced to push huge watts on a short stage, anything can happen.

As was the case at Formigal, the race leader’s team was depleted. Overnight race leader Fabio Aru came into the day with zero climbing domestiques left due to the abandonment of Dario Cataldo and injuries to Jakob Fuglsang, both of whom went down in a crash on Wednesday. (Fuglsang abandoned Friday.) Aru himself knew his team was weak.

“I was expecting attacks from everyone,” Aru said. “So I focused on following those who were the closest to me on GC.”
Aru’s situation became dire in the lead-in to the Mur de Péguère. At one point he relied on Louis Meintjes’s UAE Team Emirates to keep the Landa/Contador move in check.

Of course, Aru was not the only rider with diminished reserves. Quick-Step’s Dan Martin, who came into the stage in fifth position, was nursing a sore back after a crash on the stage 9 Mont du Chat descent. Martin spent much of the final climb tapping out a brutal tempo on the front. He feared a start-and-stop battle among the GC favorites. The tempo neutralized attacks for much of the climb. When the group finally began to attack, they were simply too near the top to go clear.
The gaps were so small that Martin eventually caught back on.

“I can’t get out of the saddle, so I didn’t want those accelerations — I’d get dropped,” Martin said. “I basically did a time trial on that climb because I knew that if I’m suffering, everyone else is too.”

Would the stage have exploded had riders been 100 percent? It’s doubtful. Cataldo and Fuglsang could have revved the pace up the first two climbs to squash the early moves. The GC favorites would have likely battled up the final climb, however the time gaps would have been small. And a full-strength Martin would have saved his legs for an attack, rather than neutralizing the group with the blistering pace.

French pride

As is custom, every Frenchman wants to win on Bastille Day. I assume that stage winner Warren Barguil (Sunweb) will now receive a lifetime supply of snails and cigarettes.

It was no surprise to see Thomas Voeckler (Direct Energie) and Barguil sprint away from the peloton at kilometer zero and hold a tenuous gap for the first few kilometers. It was also not surprising to see Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie) then attack after the group reeled in his countrymen.

The early pressure from French riders undoubtedly stung the group. When Barguil went away again — this time with Quintana — he was hyper-motivated to make the break work. And it did, as the duo eventually joined with the first escapees, Contador and Landa.

Would a French rider with Barguil’s climbing prowess have attacked with such élan had the stage not fallen on their national holiday? We can only guess.

Aggression from Sky

It was impossible to predict whether cycling’s strongest team, Team Sky, would be on the offensive or defensive for stage 13. In an alternate scenario, Sky could have simply set its typical eye-bulging tempo across 101 kilometers to protect Froome’s lead.

Lucky for us, Sky was forced to be frisky.

I recommend reading Caley Fretz’s story on Team Sky’s tactics, which saw Landa in the day’s first big move and Michal Kwiatkowski in the second attack.

“We forced Aru to work to close that gap, and then Chris could come over the top,” Landa said after the stage. “We’re doing something big here, and we are both high in the GC. We’ve seen Astana, we can see that they’re weak, so it’s better to have two of us high on the GC.”

Since 2012, we cycling fans have watched Team Sky play a brand of Tour defense that, at best, is an impressive display of domination. At worst, it is paint-dry boring. So watching Froome and co. be forced to attack delivered a much-needed boost of entertainment.

That was, by far, the most important component in Friday’s battle. It is why we should not expect to see that level of excitement simply from short stages. There need to be some extra ingredients to create a recipe for excitement. Even the riders seemed to understand that the day had produced a good watch.

“I enjoy days like today where you can really get stuck in and give it a go,” said Orica-Scott’s GC rider Simon Yates. “It was a short stage, very aggressive and I’m sure it was exciting to watch.

It was.

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