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Spanish powerhouse Movistar team will have to...

Spanish armada versus captain Froome

Can top GC riders from Spain collaborate for mutual gain at the expense of Froome's GC lead? It will play out in the mountains.

PAU, France (VN) — The dynamics of nine days of racing leave the Spanish armada with only one option. If the likes of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Nairo Quintana — flying under the Spanish flag of Movistar — or Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) hope to win the 2015 Tour de France, they have to attack.

Their objective? Take down the formidable Chris Froome and his impressive Team Sky galleon. It won’t be easy. Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), also well ahead of the climbers at just 12 seconds off the maillot jaune, further complicates things heading into the second phase of the Tour.

There is a sense that Froome is firmly in control, but the real Tour hasn’t even started yet. And the Spanish climbers always go well in the Pyrenean roads close to home. Tuesday’s uphill finale straddling the Spanish-French border, as the first mountaintop finish, coming after nine demanding days of racing, will reveal a lot about whether or not the Spanish armada sinks or swims in this Tour.

“Our team time trial was terrible, but this Tour isn’t over,” said Rodríguez, now 18th at 3:52 back. “We’re entering the mountain phase of this Tour, and I will try to stay with the best. Nothing is decided yet.”

That defiance echoes across all the major favorites. Many are expecting an epic showdown between Quintana, at just under two minutes back, and Froome. Movistar remains quietly confident its young climber can meet expectations.

“The big favorites have all shown they’re up for the fight, and now it’s time to take on the mountains. The Pyrénées will serve up some surprises, and we will have to wait until Plateau de Beille [stage 12] to really know who are the true candidates for victory,” said Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué. “We’re happy with how things have gone so far, except for the time losses in stage 2, but we are optimistic about what lies ahead.”

It’s easy to speak of the Spanish armada as one, but rarely do their interests coincide. Most of the time, it’s quite the opposite, with the Spanish mountain goats inevitably looking out for their own interests. But the way the Tour is stacking up, the Spanish climbers will need to find alliances on the road that benefit everyone, at the expense of Froome.

Movistar is in an interesting position, with both Alejandro Valverde and Quintana poised in the top-10. They can start to one-two punch at Froome, and if Contador and Rodríguez pile on, it could be very complicated for Froome to cover all the moves.

Quintana, back to the Tour after winning the Giro d’Italia last year, presents the most dangerous rival for Froome. Many see the explosive Colombian climber as the only one who can truly challenge Froome in the mountains, but will he have enough gas to erase a nearly two-minute gap? Quintana is going to try.

“Alejandro is strong, and so am I, and I believe we can play things in our favor, and try to recover time,” Quintana said. “It’s a shame we lost time in the first week, but the team is strong, and we will soon see who is truly capable of winning the Tour. Now we enter the mountains, and we have to try to take back time, and not lose it, whenever we can.”

Having van Garderen ahead of the Spanish climbers will help Froome, because they will need to worry about leap-frogging ahead of the American before taking on Froome.

A key figure will be Contador, who is taking on the Tour after winning the Giro d’Italia in May. He admitted he’s not feeling the same “spark” as his principal rivals, who did not race the Giro.

“Anything can still happen in this Tour,” Contador said. “We will attack, and in this Tour, that is so hard in the second half, that will favor me. We will see how everyone is in the mountains. Some will [have] good days and bad days. Consistency is key, and that encourages me.”

The shocking news Monday that teammate Ivan Basso was diagnosed with testicular cancer will only fuel Contador’s legendary determination. He’s already promised he will race for yellow in honor of his teammates, and that’s just the kind of thing that can provoke Contador to do extraordinary things.

Of course, the best defense is offense, and it’s very likely that Froome will try to bury everyone in the Pyrénées, and turn the remainder of the Tour into a race for the podium. If Froome can take even more time on the Spanish armada, they will start to take shots at each other, and Froome can race defensively going into the Alps.

Three straight mountaintop finishes in the Pyrénées will certainly put everyone in their place.