The dust kicked up as the peloton reached 1,400 meters above sea level on the Plateau des Glières. With about 90 kilometers to go in stage 10 of the Tour de France, the race was on across a stretch of dirt road through an Alpine meadow.
There was only one thing missing: defending champion Chris Froome (Sky).
When the Tour’s first foray into the mountains reached the rough road atop this hors categorie climb, Froome flatted. It took two wheel changes and a chase to rejoin the peloton, but the four-time champion was unperturbed. Tuesday went almost as smooth as he could hope for. Now, he’s bracing for an onslaught of attacks in the next two days through the Alps.
“It was a bit of a comedy of errors because I stopped with Jonathan [Castroviejo], to swap wheels, I was going to put his back wheel into my bike, and I was about to set off again and saw that his wheel was flat,” Froome said. “It was ‘wacky racers’ at that moment, and I got a wheel from neutral service to carry on.”
After Luke Rowe had led the Sky train onto the dirt, Sunweb surprisingly appeared at the front of the peloton. Something was wrong.
Froome was seen off the back, swapping wheels with time trial ace Castroviejo. Then, he had to find a different rear wheel, this time from neutral service. And in a matter of minutes, he was chasing behind the group, followed by sprinter Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), a rider you’d expect to lose touch with the peloton on a mountain stage.
Sky moved three riders to the front of the field to control the pace. The peloton came through a chaotic feed zone right as Froome regained contact, and he was again forced to chase. This time it was stage 9 winner John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) in the slipstream.
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Finally, Wout Poels dropped back to help his team leader bridge the last little gap to the peloton, and the fire drill was over.
Froome laughed off the incident after the stage. He said, in fact, that it was a smooth day on the Tour.
“I think we couldn’t have asked for much more really, It was pretty steady,” said Froome. “No one really showed all their cards today everyone played it a little bit conservatively maybe thinking about the two days to come.”
With two hors categorie climbs followed by a Cat. 2 and a summit finish up La Rosière — all in the span of 108.5 kilometers — stage 11 should be exciting. Froome says the short distance should provoke more attacks from his rivals.
“Definitely a shorter stage,” Froome said of stage 11. “It’s the first summit finish of this Tour de France. “We’ll definitely see a more explosive final than we saw today. Especially after today, I think there are going to be some tired legs out there so we could see some gaps opening up tomorrow.”
His Sky teammate Geraint Thomas agrees that Wednesday will be less tranquil than the day before. He knows the route well.
“I expect a more aggressive race,” Thomas said. “It’s the same stage we had in the Dauphiné. We start the first climb after 15k and it’s a hard climb and I’m sure there are going to be guys going. It’s only 110k I expect it to be full-on all the way.”
Now 2:22 behind Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) in the overall, Thomas may be destined to take the yellow jersey on stage 11. He is 59 seconds ahead of Froome on GC, which has led some to wonder whether there will be a competition to see who will lead Team Sky.
Team director David Brailsford brushed off questions of team leadership after Tuesday’s stage, saying his riders were mature enough to work toward a shared goal.
“You see teams where top guys are really close in ability and they have their own ambitions. From my point of view I’d like to think that we’ve learned from our experiences and mistakes to manage a situation like this,” said Brailsford. “Openness is the key. Everyone speaks together. You just have to be open.
“It’s a totally different dynamic than we’ve had in the past. Geraint and Chris, they’ve grown up together. They’ve known each other a long time. They’re 32 and 33 years old and they know the score. And it’s pretty easy to manage because of that.”
After two summit finishes in the Alps this week, one of the Brits seems destined to wear yellow — barring any unforeseen flat tires.
Fred Dreier contributed to this report from Le Grand-Bournand, France.