Tour de France
The race for yellow is still quite close after...

‘A new Tour begins:’ Tight race for yellow enters mountains

Despite a team time trial, a punchy uphill finale, and a cobbled stage to Roubaix, the race for yellow is still close.

ANNECY, France (VN) — The Tour de France finally turns into the mountains Tuesday with the GC surprisingly tight after nine days of racing.

Many expected the overall standings to be much more blown apart in the wake of Sunday’s cobblestone stage. With the exception of a few key losses, headlined by the departure of Richie Porte (BMC Racing) on Sunday, the top favorites are still relatively tightly packed.

With three stages across the Alps poised to reveal who has the legs to win this Tour, the GC favorites took a collective breath Monday to reset their engines.

“Now a new Tour begins,” said Movistar’s Nairo Quintana. “We have managed the first part of the race pretty well. We have our options intact. Now we move into more favorable terrain.”

Nairo Quintana

With a few notable exceptions, nearly every GC favorite suffered some sort of setback in the opening nine days of racing.

Chris Froome (Sky) lost time on day 1 and has since clawed back some ground on the team time trial, now eighth at 1:42 back. Froome is tied on time with Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and Mikel Landa (Movistar).

Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) also lost time and saw a time penalty on the Mur de Bretagne, is 15th at 2:03 back.

It’s been a Tour of one step forward and one step back for many of the pre-race favorites. Dan Martin (UAE-Emirates) won at Mur de Bretagne but then crashed heavily Saturday, only to survive Sunday’s cobblestone bash with the favorites’ group.

“That was incredibly hard and I have a new level of respect for the guys that ride Paris-Roubaix,” Martin said. “It was an amazing experience, and in a strange way, I loved every minute of it.”

Many were expecting big losses Sunday among some of the frail climbers and GC contenders. Almost ironically, most of the troubles came on the approaches and exits from the pavé sectors, and the majority of the GC favorites managed to save the day.

Sunday’s cobblestone stage delivered a few notable setbacks. Rigoberto Urán (EF-Drapac) saw his near-perfect start evaporate on the pavé, and he fell from sixth to 22nd at 2:53 back.

Rigoberto Uran

With nearly every GC favorite having a setback in one form or another, the overall standings are still fairly tightly knotted up.

From Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), fifth at 1:30 back, to Martin, 24th at 3:22, the differences are less than two minutes.

“We saved the day,” Valverde said with a relief Sunday. “We are in good position in the GC. We are all close to Froome, who is the rider of reference. It’s been a good start for us.”

That sentiment echoed across the peloton Monday as riders took stock.

With the GC favorites ready to pedal in the Alps for three decisive stages, many were relieved to get to Annecy with their podium goals still within reach.

There are a few riders who are even in better position. Valverde is tantalizingly ahead of not only his Movistar teammates but many of the GC favorites.

Even better is Bob Jungels (Quick-Step), who quietly has ridden himself into pole position with a solid first nine days. The big Luxembourger is even better in fourth at 50 seconds back. The mountains will be a big test, but he’s given himself a head start going into the first major climbs.

And then there’s Geraint Thomas (Sky), who is poised to take over the yellow jersey if he can stay with the favorites Tuesday. Overnight leader Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) will likely struggle on the hard climbs if the GC teams crank up the pressure, so Thomas would be first in line to exploit his perfect start to the 2018 Tour.

With Froome hovering, Team Sky knows it has the advantage.

“G’s [Thomas] right up there and it’s for other teams to attack us now,” Froome said. “We’re even stronger with the experience of being in this position, how to ride under pressure and the team around us is such a capable group of guys, and I think we’re really going to be coming into our element now in the mountains.”

More than anything, the relative close-knit GC standings mean that no one can ride defensively. Everyone knows they need to attack to take control of the race.

With nine days of racing in everyone’s legs, some riders will be tired while anyone who is still fresh must be ready to pounce.

“The Alps are, in theory, harder this year, but the Pyrénées, we’ll start to feel the fatigue in our legs in the final week,” Landa said. “You have to be attentive in every stage, and try to take advantage of any opening when they present themselves.”

The GC might be relatively tight considering there has been a team time trial, a cobbles stage as well as the Mur de Bretagne and the threat of echelons. That very likely will not be the story following Alpe d’Huez in three days’ time.