As Chris Froome’s rivals exhaled, mentally checking off the last climb of the day, Sky’s captain pulled in one more breath and turned it into half a dozen pedal strokes that have electrified this Tour de France.
“A sneak attack,” BMC’s Tejay van Garderen called it, a hint of disbelief in his voice. “You give him an inch and he’ll take a mile.”
“Chapeau to him,” said Richie Porte.
Froome attacked over the top of the Peyresourde, the final climb in a heavy day that Froome described as one of his toughest Tour stages ever. It was an unconventional move for a rider who usually earns his time on mountaintop finishes. The attack won him 13 seconds and the yellow jersey.
The defending Tour de France champion took time in the one place nobody expected him to. He did so on instinct. He did so, it seems, for the fun of it. “I really did feel like taking the race on and enjoying it,” he said. “I felt like a kid again out there, just trying to race my bike as fast as I could.”
It also put his challengers on notice. Expect the unexpected, Froome said with his legs.
“I’ve got to admit, I didn’t really expect it either,” he said. “It was really was one of those last-minute things.”
An unplanned Sky attack? It feels so wrong, yet so right.
It’s a safe assumption that most Sky actions are deliberate. They are notorious for mapping out the entire Tour and tailoring Froome’s training to specific sections, and for knowing precisely how much power he will need to put out on any given grade to stay with the leaders (or drop them). But Froome says his attack on Saturday was spontaneous. He had made a small move minutes before but found himself quickly caught. “So I thought, ‘let me give this one more go going over the top of the climb,’” he said.
“It was a spur of the moment reaction when I went over the top,” he said. “I knew everyone was on the limit, so I wanted to give it one more squeeze – the mountain tops will be a lot more decisive.”
“I’m really glad I did take that risk,” he added. “I didn’t take a massive gap, but I’m in yellow this evening.”
Of course, it’s not as if nothing was planned. The team that leaves nothing to chance did so again. Froome had a 54-tooth big ring on his Pinarello, installed just in case he was dropped in the final meters of the Peyresourde and had to chase back on, he said. Turns out it was quite useful for the opposite maneuver, too.
Froome used that big chainring to hit just over 90kph (56mph) on the descent into Bagneres-de-Luchon. He sat on his top tube and pedaled — a maneuver dubbed the Pedaling Supertuck by Tim Johnson — and pulled away from Alejandro Valverde, who led the group behind and is known as one of the best descenders in the peloton.
Froome didn’t know the road, he said. He didn’t know where the corners were or how tight they would be. But he pulled away anyway.
He did so in a Tour de France in which two more major mountain stages will end in difficult descents. He was asked — repeatedly, as if the reporters didn’t believe him — whether he had trained specifically for descending. It sounds like a reasonable thing for a team like Sky to do, after all, to head out and find some marginal gains on the way down just as they do for the way up.
Froome said no. “It’s something you do when you’re training, you do race each other on descents, and I guess today, that paid off,” he said. BMC’s Richie Porte, who finished in the GC group Saturday, could only agree. “People question his descending abilities, but how can you question that [now]?” he said.
The utter brashness of the move presents a problem for the box we’ve put Froome and Sky into. Sky’s methodical Tours landed them in the Type A box, the pre-planned-everything box. The boring box. It’s an effective box and a panache-free box.
That box might not yet be broken, but Saturday’s finish cracked it.
A downhill attack to take the yellow jersey forces us to set aside, if only for today, the lamentations of Froome’s oft-awkward pedaling style, his flailing elbows, his penchant for stem staring. Yes, even set aside the robotic riding of his incredibly strong team. Set these things aside because if you’re a fan of bike racing, it doesn’t get much better than Froome’s attack on the Peyresourde.