The Tour de France peloton has seen many stars abandon over the past week, but its two American debutants are still going strong as the race rolls into the Pyrenees.
Chad Haga (Sunweb) and Ian Boswell (Katusha-Alpecin) have less than a week of racing left before the Tour concludes in Paris. Of course, they’ll have to make it over some brutal climbs to get there, and considering the roles they play within their respective teams, they’ll have some work to do along the way.
Haga is a trusted lieutenant of Tom Dumoulin, currently sitting third overall at the Tour. The Dutchman looks to be the one rider with a good chance of overhauling Sky’s power duo of racer leader Geraint Thomas and defending champ Chris Froome.
Boswell is racing the Tour mostly in support of Katusha GC leader Ilnur Zakarin. The Russian is in the hunt for a top 10 spot after a few rough days in the Alps.
The challenging stretch of Alpine days at this Tour proved rough for almost the entire peloton, as evidenced by the many pre-Tour GC hopefuls who saw their hopes crumble in the mountains.
“It’s just been so tough. The racing has been aggressive,” Haga said.
The challenges will continue in the coming days. Wednesday’s stage 17 will be a firecracker, packing three brutal ascents into 65 kilometers, while stage 19 will visit legendary Tour climbs like the Col du Tourmalet and the Col d’Aubisque.
For Haga, the impending mountain stages will be all about protecting Dumoulin and staying alert for signs of weakness between Thomas and Froome. The last few days at this Tour present several question marks. Will Thomas crack under the pressure of a third week of grand tour racing? Will Froome — or Dumoulin — begin to feel the fatigue of attempting the Giro-Tour double?
“So far [Thomas] hasn’t shown any [signs of weakness] but you think back to the Giro and the dominance that Yates showed up to the third week, the same could happen,” Haga said. “It could also happen to Tom. So we’ll have to take it day by day. There’s a reason everybody says it.”
Boswell will look to stay by his team leader’s side as well when the road goes up in the next few days, although he didn’t rule out hunting a stage win if the opportunity presented itself. The Tour has not quite gone Katusha’s way, with Marcel Kittel abandoning and Zakarin losing time in the Alps.
“It depends day to day. We have to see how Ilnur feels,” he said. “Especially not having won a stage with Marcel in the first week, to try to get something out of it would be great for us. The fatigue is starting to add up.”
Although Boswell said he was not at his best on the Tour’s last day in the Alps, he was back to looking strong on the first day in the Pyrenees. The 27-year-old spent some time at the front of the GC group on the final climb of stage 16, even pulling open a tiny gap to the Sky train at one point.
He’ll need all the form he can muster for the final two high-mountain stages that remain in the Tour, especially considering the way Sky has been riding so far.
“I don’t see any other team matching them in strength but maybe another team like LottoNL-Jumbo can play the card of having two guys in the top 10 and maybe animate the race a little bit,” Boswell said.
No matter how things play out, at least both riders will have a front row seat for the action, which is more than plenty of notable names can say after a crash-heavy first week and a second week of brutal climbs in the Alps.
If they can just make it a few more days, Haga and Boswell will both complete the transition from Tour debutants from Tour finishers.
Then again, that may be easier said than done. All eyes will be on the GC riders as the battle for yellow reaches its climax in the next few days, but everyone — domestiques included — will be suffering.
“It’s the third week,” Haga said. “That’s why grand tours are spectacular. Anybody can implode on any day.”
Andrew Hood contributed to this report from Bagnères-de-Luchon, France.