PAU, France (VN) — And then there were three. Just three slivers of time for Cadel Evans and Vincenzo Nibali to turn the tide of this Tour de France.
There are two days in the Pyrénées on Wednesday and Thursday, and one final time trial the day before the peloton rides into Paris. That’s all that’s left. Three moments in a three-week race.
To ascend the general classification, the third-placed Nibali and fourth-placed Evans must act fast, because if past performances predict future outputs, then neither can afford to count on the time trial.
The overall leader, Sky’s Bradley Wiggins, is steeled.
“It goes uphill, like all of them, really. It’s very difficult,” he said of Wednesday’s Tourmalet stage. “It’s just another day in the Tour, you know? Try not to carried away in emotion and other people’s dreams.”
If others are to dream of wearing yellow, then the numbers mean they must attack in the Pyrénées.
Evans, a better time trialist than Nibali, lost 10 seconds to Wiggins in the prologue, over 6.4km. In the first time trial, a 41.5km effort, he lost 1:43 to the Briton. Broken down, that’s 2.48 seconds per kilometer over a course that was, on paper at least, more suited to Evans than it was to his rival.
The second time trial, Saturday’s affair from Bonneval to Chartes, is slightly rolling but sees long, straight sections that should suit Wiggins.
If the first time trial sticks to the result of the first — an assumption in itself, of course — one can hypothesize that Wiggins would take 2:02 from the defending champion in the second TT, meaning if Evans is to go clear, he must go now.
Certainly, Wiggins is ready, even though he said he never examines the routes in great detail until a day or so before the stage.
“We could sit here all day and talk about scenarios. This, that and the other,” he said. “As I’ve said before, don’t try and anticipate anything, and then you’re not surprised, really.”
The fact that this race has been distilled into only a few key stages, or rather only moments of a few stages, is a testament to the collective strength of team Sky, the race route itself and the inability of Sky’s rivals to attack due to the high pace that Chris Froome, Richie Porte and Michael Rogers have tapped out on the climbs. It’s been oppressive.
Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Evans (BMC Racing) find themselves not only trailing Wiggins but also teammate Froome, who’s proven to be an exceptional climber. Nibali is 2:23 out of yellow and Evans is 3:19.
But it is not over. Wednesday’s stage, from Pau to Bagnères-de-Luchon, sees four rated climbs, including the hallowed Tourmalet (19km at 7.4 percent average) and the Col d’Aubisque (16.4km at 7.1 percent).
The Tourmalet has been included in the Tour de France more than any other col. Upon its summit rests a memorial to Jacques Goddet, the director of the Tour de France from 1936 to 1987, and a large statue of Octave Lapize, the first rider to crest the col, gasping for air.
The bunch will also ascend the Col de Peyresourde before dropping off the back, with a 13.5km descent and a 2.5km run to the finish.
Evans said there was not a “great deal” his BMC team could do to crack the Sky train as long as Sky had numbers up high on climbs. But a spark remains in the champ. He said he hated the idea of finishing fourth, and that he felt his form coming around in the third week of the Tour while others may be fading.
“I really feel a lot of riders are getting tired now. In the Pyrénées, I don’t know if it will be in the first or the second day, if racing gets hard and aggressive there’ll be a lot of people having trouble,” Evans said.
Stage 17, from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Peyragudes, serves up four more rated climbs, including the Port de Bales (11.8km at 7.7 percent) and the Col de Mente (9.3km at 9.1 percent). This stage also sees an uphill finish, up the lengthy Peyragudes (15.4km at 5.1 percent).
Evans sees the next two days as his last shot. Everyone knows if the move comes, it must be now. Sky has ridden a nearly perfect race for the last two weeks, outnumbering the other contenders on the climbs. Evans knows that has to change.
“So far they have done it, but now we are getting later in the race and the later in the race the more fatigued they are going to become … so the more likely they are not going to be able to get there in numbers. But if we get there with four or five of them and I am on my own, it will be hard to make a three-minute move.”
Nibali and Evans are not afforded the “luxury” of attacking only on uphill finish days — of which there is only one remaining — and there is a feeling that Wiggins is vulnerable on descents, though the Briton himself isn’t quite sure where such a thought stems from. It will surprise no one if Nibali puts in downhill attacks and Evans tries to mark the move.
Any way this is sliced, the task for Evans and Nibali is massive. Sky has suffocated this bike race with ruthless efficiency. The team gave a press conference on the rest day and presented a resolved front. Their leader appeared calm before the storm in the Pyrénées.
“I don’t really fear anything. I think it’s just a case of going out and just doing the performance. And that’s all you can do every day of your life, really,” he said.
“You can’t fear anything, really. What is there to fear? Ultimately, it’s just a bike race. So, go out there. Do what we’ve been doing every other day this year, and whatever happens, happens.”
Evans has measured the task at hand. He knows what he’s up against. And yet.
“I am an optimistic realist,” he said. “I believe to be in with a chance — even if it’s one in a hundred — you have to be there and believe in it.”