Taking Stock: Halfway through the Tour, Sky is in the driver’s seat
MACON, France (VN) – “You put two and two together, and it’s not going to be easy for Cadel.”
Those are the words of Sky sport director Sean Yates, stating the obvious moments after Bradley Wiggins knocked it out of the park in Monday’s decisive time trial.
Wiggins surpassed expectations in the race of truth, tightening his grip on the maillot jaune to secure perhaps an insurmountable lead of 1:53 to Cadel Evans (BMC Racing).
With 10 days of racing still to go, Yates knows better than to say the Tour’s already a wrap, but he’s also smart enough to know that Sky could not be in a better position.
“When you look at the course, and at Cadel taking that time back, the possibilities are relatively limited,” Yates told VeloNews. “In this day and age, especially when you have a strong team, it’s not on the climbs that you make the difference.”
The Tour’s main protagonists took stock on Tuesday’s rest day and punched the reset button on goals, ambitions and tactics going into the second half of the Tour.
Still ahead are the Tour’s hardest climbs across the Alps and Pyrénées and one long time trial, but many think the Tour is all but over.
Only Evans, second at 1:53 back, is within two minutes of Wiggins. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Denis Menchov (Katusha), fourth at 2:23 and fifth at 3:02, respectively, will now be fighting to get on the podium. Everyone else will be looking to take something out of the race to salvage a Tour thus far dominated by Sky.
BMC tried to put up a brave face despite the disappointment of ceding time to Wiggins that everyone admits will be extremely difficult to extract.
Evans and Wiggins are largely equal on the climbs, and with a flatter, 53.5km time trial still to come on the Tour’s penultimate stage, BMC knows there’s only one tactic.
“We have to go on the attack, that’s obvious,” said BMC sport director John Lelangue. “Cadel didn’t have his best time trial, but there is still terrain left to be aggressive. All is not lost.”
There’s some quiet optimism that Evans can still unnerve Wiggins, both on the grinding climbs still to come and on the harrowing descents. Evans will have to try something in the coming stages in the Alps if he holds any hope of becoming the first repeat Tour winner since Lance Armstrong in 2005.
Wednesday’s 10th stage heads over the Col du Grand Colombier for the first time in Tour history and Thursday’s 11th stage over the HC climbs at the Madeleine and Croix de Fer ends atop the La Toussuire finish climb.
Evans managed to ambush Wiggins at the Dauphiné on more technical descents, including that of the Grand Colombier, but those within Sky say that mistake will not happen again. Wiggins did not want to risk a crash in June on roads he was not completely familiar with.
With everything at stake in July, Sky will play the numbers game to snuff out any aggression from Evans.
For Yates, a former pro, who took the lead sports director slot at Sky in 2010, the final half of the Tour is all about control and measuring the efforts.
“There are still many days left in the Tour de France. There are still ‘X’ amount of stages to be won, either by a sprinter, by a breakaway or by a climber,” Yates said. “We have a team to control the situation.”
While Evans was licking his wounds, Nibali and the Liquigas squad left Monday’s time trial quietly optimistic.
Like everyone else, Nibali lost time to Wiggins and teammate Chris Froome, but gave up very little to Evans (24 seconds) and gained on all of his other GC rivals.
The 2010 Vuelta a España champion says there are still plenty of chances to attack in the coming days in the Alps and Pyrénées.
“It’s too early to throw in the towel,” Nibali said. “We will have to try to invent some action in the mountains. Evans will have to attack, too. There’s still some terrain to do it.”
Nibali will probably like the narrower, steep roads in the Pryénées to try to make a serious move. The race moves there in the middle of the final week.
Stage 16 ends with a descent off the Col de Peyresourde that favors Nibali’s downhill prowess, while stage 17 features a challenging final 50km, packed with three climbs and two technical descents to put Wiggins and Froome under pressure. The Peyragudes summit finish is new to the Tour and follows the race’s second ascent of the Peyresourde.
In fact, Nibali and Evans could become natural allies on the road. Both have strong teams and both have shared interests of unsettling Sky’s stranglehold on the GC.
Evans needs to get rid of Wiggins and Nibali needs to push past Froome if he hopes to earn his first-ever Tour podium.
Nibali can count on the help of Ivan Basso and Sylvester Szmyd, while Evans can lean on Steve Cummings, Amael Moinard and a resurgent Tejay van Garderen, who punched back into the top 10 with a great TT on Monday. But both team leaders were isolated under Sky’s pressure on the race’s first summit finish, at La Planche des Belles Filles.
With only two summit finishes remaining between Wednesday’s push into the Alps and Paris, Nibali knows he has to make the most of favorable terrain.
“At the Tour, you have to search for the right moment,” Nibali said. “It’s not like Lombardia or Liège, when you can blindly attack with no thought of the consequences. Here, you have to be more calculating.”
So far, Sky has proven quite adept at handling what’s been an explosive race.
Wiggins and Froome both avoided disastrous crashes in the first week that took out the likes of Giro d’Italia champion Ryder Hesjdal (Garmin-Sharp) and Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), though Froome did lose 1:25 when he punctured with 15km to go in stage 1 in Liège.
Sky’s dominance blew up the race unexpectedly Saturday on the road to Belles Filles and controlled a frenetic run across the Jura Mountains on Saturday that saw the peloton to come completely unglued.
The longer, grinding climbs looming in the Alps suit Wiggins and Froome even better, meaning that Evans, Nibali or anyone hoping to tip the Sky boat will have to pull something out of the hat. Sky, however, will not be taking it sitting down. Team principal David Brailsford said the best defense could be going back on the offensive.
“This is a long way from being a formality,” Brailsford said. “We cannot just sit back and wait for them to come at us. We are not afraid to stick our nose in the wind and we’ve shown we’ve been willing to do that all season.”
Froome, at least publicly, is committed to helping Wiggins win the yellow jersey. How that dynamic plays out over the coming days remains to be seen.
If someone like Nibali or van Garderen attacks, will Sky keep Froome with Wiggins, or send him up the road? The latter would provoke a move from Evans, so Sky will have to try to play a balancing act to keep Wiggins in yellow and his rivals at bay. That means they might have to sacrifice Froome’s podium spot.
“Our tactic is to try to win the Tour de France – full stop. You do not have to be Einstein to figure that out,” Yates said. “In all due respect, we are doing a good job. We are looking after Bradley, and we are doing it in the most economical way, with the long-term goal of winning in Paris.”
The opening 10 days of racing proved one thing: Wiggins is the strongest in the race and Sky is ready to back him in his historic bid to become the U.K.’s first Tour winner.
One question mark that remains, however, is Wiggins’ ability to carry the pressure of the yellow jersey for nearly two more weeks.
Wiggins has proven he can go the distance in a grand tour, finishing fourth in the 2009 Tour and earning his first grand tour podium with third last year at the Vuelta. But it’s a massive leap from following the wheels to defending yellow for more than two weeks at the Tour de France.
His major victories this season have come in week-long stage races, but during each of those wins, Sky worked hard to protect Wiggins through a variety of scenarios. Yates says the team is up to the task of carrying Wiggins victorious to Paris.
“You can never discount a bad day, can you?” Yates said. “Time will tell. This is what Bradley’s been training for. The plan all season long has been for Bradley to be at his strongest during the Tour. We have the team to protect him.”
In fact, that inevitable “bad day” could be the only hope that the likes of Evans and Nibali have to knock him off his game. A crash, a bonk, an illness or a loss of concentration have derailed greater men in the Tour’s past.
Wiggins says he’s trying to stay focused on the process of racing without letting himself get swept up with the euphoria that’s building across the English Channel. With half the Tour to go, Wiggins knows he’s still a very long way from Paris.
“I am not trying to get too carried away with the emotions,” Wiggins said. “I didn’t sleep that night after taking the jersey. I let that slightly get to me, but that’s why I do sport, that’s why I love it. I need to stay focused and check off the boxes one day at a time.”
Nothing’s won in cycling until crossing the finish line and Wiggins wants to keep reminding himself of that every day as he pedals closer to an historic win still nearly two weeks away in Paris.
If he can roll out of the Pyrénées with the yellow jersey still on his back, then the British can put the champagne on ice.