SAINT-GERVAIS, France (VN) — Perhaps the Tour heard us when we called it sleepy, controlled, even boring. Perhaps it heard, and Friday was its answer.
A short, sharp stage to Le Bettex bloodied three of the Tour’s contenders, lifted one Frenchman to the top of the world and dropped another to its bottom, and shook the GC by its neck until a new podium fell out. Just two days before Paris, the Tour de France sent a reminder — in most furious terms — that it bows to no man, no team, and no plan. A reminder, too, that good legs will only get you so far.
[related title=”More Tour de France news” align=”right” tag=”Tour-de-France”]
At the fore: a lithe young Frenchman with an attack that proved both brave and tactically astute. Romain Bardet earned his podium spot — he’s now second overall — with an escape through the mountain storm that turned road paint into ice and sent oil seeping to the surface. He stayed upright and pulled out an advantage even as his rivals tumbled behind him.
“To win you have to take risks,” he said after the stage. “I have already ridden Le Bettex twice. I had my bearings, I knew when I had to accelerate.
“I was a little bitter about this Tour to hear negative comments, that there were no attacks, that it was a soporific Tour,” he added. “But we were all on the limit.”
There is no doubt that the middle of this Tour lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. It was controlled, held together by a Sky team head and shoulders above every competitor. Friday was the end of that.
There were moments when the race seemed prepared to unravel completely.
Chris Froome found himself sliding across the road less than 20km from the finish, leveled by a painted white line. He was forced to make the final climb on teammate Geraint Thomas’s bike, a setup similar in size but with a saddle slightly lower than his own. And as the attacks began in the final kilometers, he appeared less sprightly than usual. Small gaps opened and threatened, if only for a moment, to turn into big ones.
Froome limited any potential losses, dropping 36 seconds to Bardet and just 10 to Quintana. He stood on the podium in Saint-Gervais with an icepack strapped to his right knee and the yellow jersey still firmly on his shoulders.
Others faired far worse.
Pierre Rolland, animator of the early break and on a mission to redeem his and Cannondale – Drapac’s Tour, slid on his back, on wounds not yet healed after his front wheel disappeared from beneath him in stage 8. It pushed him out of the race lead but not the race, rather incredibly.
Rolland’s crash, the first of the rain-caused tumbles, turned out to be the canary in the coal mine.
“I saw Pierre crash … well I saw him lying in a ditch,” said LottoNL – Jumbo’s George Bennett. “Later I saw myself lying upside down with my bike over me. I saw everyone coming past me just covered in cuts and bruises.
“You get this fine dust, and a little oil wells up, then a little rain. Then just hold on for dear life,” he added.
Richie Porte, his elbow bloody from a crash near Rolland’s, was forced to chase (with teammates Damiano Caruso and Greg Van Avermaet, who deserve a shared “Domestiques of the Day” award) as the final climb approached. The effort de-fanged Porte, and he couldn’t take additional time on the men just ahead of him. He had only two more days to knock them off; now he’s down to one.
“I crashed in one of the descents, quite a lot of guys did,” he said. “I think I was the first guy down. It’s just a bit of skin [off the elbow], it’s just one of those things.”
Just one of those things — one of those things that could push his Tour podium plans back 12 months.
Bauke Mollema, second overnight, attacked a roundabout and found it fought back. He slipped and fell and rose and chased, stuck in behind teammate Peter Stetina until the base of the final climb. He came within meters, literally sniffing distance, of the Froome’s group. But his second-week form is fading, and the effort across the valley cost him. He dropped eight places by day’s end, down 7:42.
“I still can’t believe this happened,” Mollema tweeted after the race. “So close to Paris… my own mistake in that descent. No words to describe my disappointment.”
“I was pulling for him as hard as I could across the valley, but it’s one guy against four Astanas,” Stetina said. “We got close. But I think when you start a climb” — he put his thumb under his chin, the universal sign for redlined — “then there’s no way.”
Porte, Froome, Rolland, and Mollema all hit the ground, not to mention another handful of domestiques. “I think everybody kind of came down,” Porte said. Combine rain and oily roads that were covered in paint from the previous day’s time trial (which went up instead of down) and even great bike handlers get caught out.
Like a lighthouse through the storm, Froome’s yellow remained safe throughout, despite the brief scares. “I was glad I had that buffer,” he admitted after the stage. But the seconds lost and gained by the men behind him on GC lifted or destroyed entire Tours. Mollema dropped eight places. Porte missed one of his two remaining chances to step on a podium in Paris. And how can Rolland possibly save Cannondale’s Tour, and his own, with the pain of another crash laid on top of his first?
These moments define the Tour de France; they did so over and over again on Friday.
And tomorrow? More of the same. A downhill finish off the Joux Plane, highs in the low 50s, rain forecast all afternoon.
We dare call the Tour boring? It has answered.