PAU, France (VN) — Two stages, nine climbs, with the yellow jersey hanging in the balance.
The Pyrénées could serve as judge and jury in the 2017 Tour de France. A strong showing by Team Sky, and Chris Froome could be on cruise control to his fourth yellow jersey.
A big surge from one of his GC rivals, however, could pump some much-needed oxygen into the yellow jersey fight.
“We are going to work hard to make sure none of the GC guys get up the road early,” Froome said. “I am hoping it won’t be as crazy as the stage we did Sunday. I know a lot of people are going to be trying to use tomorrow’s stage to get back in the game.”
Thursday’s 214km, six-climb stage 12 from Pau to Peyragudes is the Tour’s second of three summit finales. The rugged terrain is ideal for long-distance breakaways for stage-hunters, and mid-range sorties from GC contenders.
So far, no one seems willing to risk attacking early for fear they will get popped later in the stage. Many are criticizing the GC rivals for being too conservative. That only plays into Froome’s hands.
All French eyes will be on Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), third overall at 51 seconds back. The pure climber cannot let an opportunity pass, but he crashed twice without injuries in Wednesday’s windy transition stage.
“I hope to see another great battle,” Bardet said. “It’s a marathon stage of 200km. It’s the kind of stage I like.”
Froome enters the back-to-back Pyrénéan stages with a clear advantage. Friday’s short and potentially explosive 101km stage 13 could play spoiler. Team Sky is looking as strong as ever despite the early exit of Geraint Thomas. Its list of direct rivals is greatly depleted.
And among the pre-race favorites still in the race, Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) is hobbled and barely hanging on in 12th at 5:15 after crashing twice Sunday and twice more Wednesday. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) is eighth at 2:13 back. He isn’t showing his typical spark in the mountains. It’s unknown if either will be a factor this week.
Thursday’s profile certainly provides room to move. The Cat. 1 Col de Menté at 139.5km should see the first sparks fly. The day’s lone hors categorie climb comes at the long, steep Port de Balés after 184km. That would be an ideal launchpad for anyone trying to disrupt Sky. But will anyone dare?
“If I have the legs, I will attack,” said Quintana, who’s struggled so far in this Tour. “I am not far from the podium, and I cannot lose hope. Tomorrow we’ll see who is good.”
Astana is ideally poised to take on Sky. Aru is a direct Froome threat at 18 seconds. Teammate Jakob Fuglsang is hovering in fifth, 1:37 back. If Astana dares to open things up, especially by sending Fuglsang up the road early, it could knock Froome off-balance. However, the Dane may be at a disadvantage, riding with two minor fractures in his wrist after stage 11.
“The most important thing for us is to keep an eye on Fabio Aru. He is only 18 seconds back,” Froome said. “I want to keep my advantage up until the time trial.”
If Froome rides out of the Pyrénées with his advantage in minutes, the race will be on for the podium.