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Tour de France

Froome quest: Astana, Ag2r, Cannondale emerge as GC threats

Andrew Hood takes a look at the Tour de France's GC picture after nine stages of racing.

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BERGERAC, France (VN) — The yellow jersey fight was upended Sunday, but for all the wrong reasons.

Brutal racing conditions permanently altered the dynamics of the 2017 Tour de France. Several big names are either out of the race or saw their yellow jersey aspirations take a permanent blow. Richie Porte, out. Alberto Contador, surrender. Nairo Quintana, struggling. Dan Martin, a tad too far back.

Instead of having nearly a dozen riders within one minute of Chris Froome (Sky), now there are only three.

If anyone is going to stop Froome from winning his fourth yellow jersey, it largely falls to four men on three teams.

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Sky’s clear and present danger is the Astana duo of Fabio Aru and Jakob Fuglsang. Aru remains just 18 seconds behind Froome, and Fuglsang surged into the frame Sunday to catapult from 15th to fifth, now 1:37 back.

Aru made more headlines Sunday for his alleged attack on Froome when the Tour leader called back for a bike change, but the 26-year-old Italian is emerging as Sky’s biggest threat of this Tour.

Aru’s victory at Belles Filles in stage 5 confirmed his attacking nature, and on Sunday, he revealed panache to save the day on a chaotic stage to regain contact with the Froome group to salvage his GC standing. Counting against Aru will be the penultimate time trial stage in Marseille. To have real hope of winning yellow, Aru will likely lose 90 seconds, if not more.

Fuglsang’s resurgence gives Astana a tactical advantage, but many were exasperated Sunday when the pair did not attack the out-numbered Froome on the flat run into Chambéry. Everyone was likely cross-eyed at that moment, but it was an opportunity missed for Astana.

Following his victory at the Critérium du Dauphiné, the Dane is on the form of his life. And unlike his younger teammate, Fuglsang can time trial fairly well.

The big question is whether Aru and Fuglsang have the legs to go the distance to truly challenge Froome.

“Together we have a plan with Fabio to attack and put pressure on our rivals,” Fuglsang said. “That’s why I attacked on Mont du Chat, and we will look for more opportunities in the day ahead.”

Cannondale-Drapac is the GC surprise so far of this Tour. The team enjoyed a banner opening week, putting riders onto several breakaways and scoring podium trips with the polka-dot jersey and most aggressive rider prizes. Rigoberto Urán’s photo-finish victory electrified the Slipstream organization. Now third at 55 seconds back, the big question is do they follow the wheels for GC or stick to their attacking mode?

“Urán’s good, everyone can see that,” said Cannondale-Drapac sport director Charly Wegelius. “That reduces the other chances we can take [to win stages], because you’re not going to get any space to get into the breakaways. … The Tour is a long race, and many things can happen.”

The most dynamic challenge could come from Bardet and his Ag2r-La Mondiale squad. The French team played exquisite tactics Sunday and almost delivered Bardet the stage victory and the yellow jersey. A determined chase with 5km to go neutralized the threat, but Bardet comes away from Sunday energized about the looming battles.

“I am in a virtual podium position. But there are still tons of big battles awaiting us in the Pyrénées and in the Alps,” Bardet said. “I have no doubt that I was at the same level as the best riders [Sunday]. I have focused my season on the Tour de France, and I know that everything is still to play for, and I know that I have the heart to be at the front and confirm my Tour performance from last year.”

Is Froome vulnerable? His 18-second margin to Aru is certainly tighter than anyone could have expected following two mountain stages and a time trial.

So far, Froome seems to be managing the Tour to perfection. The team has barely done any work until this weekend and on Sunday, Froome was setting the tone. The day’s mayhem only bolstered his position.

While “Fortress Froome” looks as impregnable as ever, the loss of Geraint Thomas to a crash Sunday is a blow. His absence takes away one of Sky’s top helpers and eliminates their own tactical threat.

“Coming to the finish, I was grateful to keep yellow and pick up those bonus seconds,” Froome said. “It was a day full of incident. [Losing Thomas] is a massive blow to the team.”

To take down Froome, his rivals will need to attack to try to isolate him, and then turn the screws. The mutual interests of Astana and Ag2r-La Mondiale could see some collusion on the road.

Though he won’t be happy with his slender lead, Froome just needs to stay close. Porte was his only rival who could potentially match him in the Marseille time trial. The others will need a big head-start to have any real hope.

After everything’s that happened in one week, it’s hard to know what to expect with 11 stages to go. Riders such as Quintana and Martin could ride back into podium contention, something Sky could use to put pressure on his immediate challengers. A few more big surprises are in the cards.