CHAMONIX, France (VN) — The Tour de France has been converted into a race of attrition.
Fans and rivals alike are growing exasperated at Team Sky’s dominance in the climbing stages. With up to five teammates drilling everyone into the ground, yellow jersey holder Chris Froome has controlled the steepest mountains of this Tour with imperial domination.
Up until now in what’s been a climb-heavy Tour, almost no one has dared to attack Froome. And with the yellow jersey all but sewn up, Froome can race conservatively through the final two mountain stages to Paris to claim his third Tour win in four years.
So what’s going on? We spoke with Tinkoff sport director Sean Yates to get an insider’s view. A former pro and sport director who helped Bradley Wiggins win the 2012 Tour, few know the inner workings at Sky better than Yates.
Simply put, Yates says Sky’s dominance is a numbers game. With cycling’s biggest budget, Sky can buy riders who would be leaders on other teams, put them on the front of the peloton, and have them climb at their threshold power to protect Froome. And with Froome establishing himself as the strongest Tour rider of his generation, Yates said it’s virtually impossible for anyone to take on Froome directly on the climbs.
Here is Yates explaining why Froome’s grip on the yellow jersey could last another three or four years:
VeloNews: Can you explain Sky’s tactics on the climbs?
Sean Yates: On the main climbs or the points where it’s crucial, Sky sits at the front and rides a very high tempo. They’re all riding at threshold, and when you’ve got very good guys riding at threshold, about 450w, or in VAM, they’re climbing 1600 or 1700, so to attack, you’ve got to go 1900 for a short period of time, which means you go over your threshold, which means you pay for it.
VN: So everyone is essentially going as fast as they can; what happens when you ‘pay for it?’
SY: You can only go over your threshold for 30 seconds or 1 minute, and then you have a big dip in power. So consequently, by the time when you attack, and the time you recover from that attack, you’re going slower. And when you have such a strong team, setting such a high tempo, it’s virtually impossible to attack.
VN: Similar to what happened when a rider like Dan Martin tried to jump early on Finhaut-Emosson and later lost time?
SY: That was a perfect example. Martin, he attacks, he goes into red, and he blows up. Valverde didn’t attack, but he tried to make the race hard, and went over his threshold for two minutes, or whatever it was, and obviously he couldn’t keep it up, and he drops back. That’s the story. There is nothing you can do about it, really.
VN: So when can a rider attack in these mountain stages?
SY: Realistically, you can save your attack for the last kilometer, or the last 500m. If you feel you have something left in the tank, you can take a few seconds, like Adam Yates has been doing. You’re going to gain a few seconds, not minutes.
VN: Is that what’s happening with Nairo Quintana? He just doesn’t have the strength to go over the top of Sky to challenge Froome?
SY: Look what happened on Mont Ventoux; Quintana did a small attack, Froome went with him, and then Froome attacked, and Quintana just blew. It’s purely dictated by your threshold power and how fast you can go.
VN: So Froome is simply stronger than everyone else, with the strongest team?
SY: Sky and Froome are just in great form, and Froome can go a bit faster than everyone else. [Wout] Poels can set a super-high tempo. If Froome is 5 percent more comfortable than Quintana, that means he’s got a bit more in the tank if Quintana or someone else attacks. It’s a question of your physical condition, and that is what the race is being dictated by so far.
VN: So if everyone is on their limit, that’s why it’s become a race of attrition?
SY: You have to pace yourself correctly. If you really try to have a go, then you risk blowing. If you feel at a certain point that you’re at your limit, you have to back off a little to avoid blowing up. It’s better to lose a bit of time because you don’t want to blow entirely. That’s when you lose a lot of time.
VN: You said earlier that in modern cycling, the winning gaps are made in time trials, so it’s almost impossible to make big gains in the mountains?
SY: The winning gaps today are made in time trials, in splits, and a little bit here, a little bit there. It all adds up, and you saw Froome doing that this year, attacking on the descent, in the crosswinds. If you’re up against a very strong team like Sky, to make a big difference in a stage it’s virtually impossible to do that in the mountains.
VN: So for Froome to lose the Tour, he almost has to crash out?
SY: Froome would have to crack to lose this Tour. Because he’s stronger, he’s a little more comfortable than his rivals, so in theory, he should have that accumulation of reserves over the course of three weeks still in the tank. He does spend energy being at the front, to be out of the wind or being at the front in the finals to avoid splits, so he’s spending energy there. His team does a great job protecting him.
VN: So what does a rival need to bring to the Tour to challenge Froome? A team as strong as Sky, with a leader as strong as Froome?
SY: The team doesn’t necessarily have to be the strongest if your leader is slightly stronger. If you lose a minute in the time trial, you pretty much lost the Tour already. And if you lose 10 seconds on a mountaintop finish, to regain that, you’re a marked man. It’s pretty simple to defend yellow if you’re strong. Then it’s up to you to make that difference, and to try to make that difference, you are using a lot of energy. And you always pay for it when you use energy in a bike race.
VN: And now that the race is on the for podium, it’s even easier for Froome?
SY: Yes, that also helps Froome. No one is going to attack him now, because if they do, they’ll crack and then lose their chances for the podium.
VN: What’s the key to Froome’s success in this Tour?
SY: It’s a question of being consistent, and Froome is always consistent. And he is not being reckless. He could have attacked [Wednesday], but he doesn’t need to. He’s riding smart, using what you got in the best possible way and not wasting energy. He wants to keep those reserves in the bank, if not for this Tour, for Rio, for the next races, even for next year. He’s smart, the team’s smart, the sport directors are smart, [Nicolas] Portal is smart.
VN: How many Tours could Froome win? Could he have won in 2012?
SY: He could have, I wouldn’t say should have, but he certainly has a lot more to give. Every time he wins the Tour, it gets easier. He can base his entire year around July. There is no other pressure to perform throughout the year, so that means he’s not wasting energy at other races. That accumulates over a long season, trying to do the classics, win in March, in June, but if you win the Tour, your season is made. Once you’ve been there, you always know you can get back there. I forecast that he will perform at this level for a few more years. He’s 31, so another three, maybe four more years.
VN: Are the other riders catching up, or is it a lost cause?
SY: A lot of people are catching up. The differences in the mountains aren’t that much. The climbing speeds are going up. There is not such a big gap between first and 10th in the mountains. You never know who is going to come along, but the way cycling is at the moment, Sky has got a massive budget and they can buy who they want. Therefore, on a purely physical level, if a rider doesn’t cut it, Sky can get rid of them and sign someone else.
VN: Is Sky’s bigger budget unfair to the other teams?
SY: It is unfair. That’s why some people think a salary cap is good idea. Sky is going to do what they need to do to win the Tour, so unless the governing body or somebody else does something, Sky is going to keep winning, and the Tour is going to become boring.
VN: Even you think it’s boring?
SY: It is boring compared to other races, like the Giro or Vuelta, where there is a lot less at stake. Teams don’t bring their A-team [to Giro or Vuelta], because the A-teams need to be at the Tour. That’s what really matters, is the Tour. So Sky brings the A-team to the Tour. What can you do?