Why didn’t they attack?
ANNECY, France (VN) — On the Col de Joux Plane, the final opportunity to gain GC time in the 2016 Tour de France, Bauke Mollema and Dan Martin were the only riders in the overall top 10 to risk losing so that they might gain. Neither was rewarded for it. So it was no great surprise that the men around them didn’t follow suit.
“We expected people to attack today in the final,” said Sky’s Mikel Nieve, one of Chris Froome’s key mountain domestiques, after Saturday’s stage. But the attacks never came.
We did too, Mikel. So what happened?
Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde summed it up most succinctly. “Sky was setting a high tempo, and it was too dangerous to attack on the descent,” he said. “At the end of a long Tour, everyone is tired. No one wanted to take risks.”
Saturday’s brutal stage from Megève to Morzine was controlled. It was oddly processional, though undoubtedly quite painful. Froome rode in his usual high-paced Sky bubble, unperturbed by any real efforts to dislodge him. The half dozen riders within two minutes of each other, and just off the podium, seemed to make no effort to improve their fate.
Still, we expected more. The top 10 at this Tour de France is the closest in history, with just 7’11” between race leader Froome and Tinkoff’s Roman Kreuziger in 10th. The gap between 2nd and 10th is 5’55″. Yet there were few fireworks on the final hors categorie climb of the race, and none on its tricky, wet descent. The risks, it seems, did not outweigh the potential rewards.
“The Joux Plane is not an easy climb and at the pace [Sky] set it was quite hard to do anything from it,” said BMC’s Richie Porte. “Geraint Thomas set a place that was basically impossible to attack off.
“It is just a nice day to get done. Every descent we did today was just dangerous and slippery so I don’t think anyone wanted to risk anything, and I think Team Sky had it under control anyhow.”
If Sky had been weak, if the 19 previous stages had begun to wear on Froome’s key domestiques, the Joux Plane might have looked different. But Sky was not weak. “Nobody [attacked] because we were much better than we expected today,” Nieve said. “We are very happy, and we did a great job today controlling the race.”
The hard riding effectively neutralized the last climb of the Tour. Mollema and Martin both gave it a go, but neither gained any significant separation. The Sky train sucked up Martin within minutes, and Mollema blew a gasket then was spit out the back of the lead group. He lost another five minutes and slipped out of the top 10 overall (he’s now 11th). That’s what you get for attacking when Sky is on good form, it seems.
With the ascent mostly attack-free, Froome’s last obstacle was the tricky, fast, very wet descent. Just 24 hours after he hit the tarmac (along with Porte, Mollema, and many others), there was surely some stress as the yellow jersey crested the top of the climb.
Geraint Thomas then hit the front and controlled the pace. “We told Froome to sit behind me, so he had three guys behind him in case anything happened, and I just went down nice and steady,” he said. “Couldn’t have been better.”
There were no downhill attacks, as there were yesterday. There were also no crashes. The contenders, it seemed, were not willing to risk attacking when the rewards were likely to be slight and a crash would certainly mean a drop down the standings.
“It’s not easy after three weeks, everyone’s tired, with a big descent, wet, you can’t risk it all,” said Orica – BikeExchange’s Adam Yates. “I just stuck in the group and maintained the white jersey and fourth place. It was pretty dangerous. You risk it, but you might not even make the time up. I had the legs to stay there, I’m fourth and the white jersey, I’m pretty happy with that.”
“Happy with that” seemed to be the story of the day — most inside the top ten was happy with what they had. If an opportunity arose, of course they would have taken advantage. But a strong Sky and a wet descent made the risk/reward calculation an easy one. Just stay with the group, stay upright, stay happy to Paris.