TOULOUSE, France (VN) — The attacks were inevitable, but even more predictable was the reaction.
High on the Plateau de Beille, the hardest climb in the Pyrénées, the favorites bravely tried their luck one after another. They had no choice. First, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), then defending Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). Movistar’s Nairo Quintana tried two times, and even the ever-discreet Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) had a go.
Those attacks were like throwing pebbles against a wall. And the wall is named Chris Froome (Sky), who rolls out of the Pyrénées with a firm, ever-tightening grip on the yellow jersey.
“We are real happy to come out of the Pyrénées in this situation. It’s been a real team effort,” Froome said in typical understated fashion. “There is still a lot of racing to come, and I am happy with how my legs are at the moment.”
Team Sky has proven itself up to the task of protecting Froome, and that collective strength is taking the wind out of the sails of his rivals. Every time someone not in a Sky jersey moved, someone in a Sky jersey was all over them.
“There was a lot of headwind, and it was complicated to open up a gap, especially against a team as strong as Sky, who has riders to set a very high tempo,” said Contador, who remains sixth overall at 4:04 back. “Froome tried on two occasions to go, but he could not drop us, and I believe that’s good for the race. Let’s see if the sensations can improve, and we can keep fighting going into the third week.”
When Contador and Quintana attacked, it was Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas who smothered the aggression. That kind of support is giving Froome an extra pair of legs that his rivals do not have, with the possible exception of Quintana, who has Valverde hovering in the top-five. Those two, however, are on the back foot, and it’s Froome and Sky who are dictating the pace of the Tour.
“We tried,” Quintana said. “We attacked, but our rival [Froome] defended himself well. He controlled my attacks, and those of Alejandro [Valverde], Alberto [Contador], and Nibali. We will try to beat him until the last day. I hope to keep at this level, because I still believe we can do it.”
Quintana has been singled out as Froome’s most dangerous rival, but Sky kept the Colombian climber on a tight leash up the brutal climb. Even Quintana was expressing his frustration at the finish line after failing to even put a chink in Froome’s impregnable yellow armor.
A strong headwind helped stymie aggression from Froome’s rivals, and perhaps from even Froome himself. He never looked seriously challenged, and there is probably a sinking feeling among his rivals that Froome could have ridden away if he wanted to.
Everyone is trying to keep up a brave face. Froome’s gap to second-place Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) is less than three minutes, and even Contador remains within range if he has a great day.
“[Alberto] is a real fighter,” said Tinkoff-Saxo’s Michael Rogers. “When he feels good, he attacks, and when he doesn’t, he suffers, and tries to hang on as long as possible. The yellow jersey looks tough, but the podium is still possible.”
Three days of racing across the Pyrénées proved that Froome is up to the job of winning his second yellow jersey inside three years. His stage victory Tuesday, backed up with stoic defenses Wednesday and Thursday, is fermenting the growing sense that only disaster will keep Froome off the top spot in Paris on July 26.
Sky is hoping that Froome’s dominance in the Pyrénées will soon force his rivals to stop dreaming about the yellow jersey, and start racing for the podium. That looks likely. Even Contador admitted Thursday that his attacks were not targeted necessarily at Froome, but at other riders still in the GC group with 8km to go.
Everyone keeps saying Froome is bound to have a bad day. Grand tour logic says that everyone has a bad day. Froome admitted that he was struggling late in the 2013 Tour in the Alps. Quintana is holding out for a miracle in the Alps, and vows to go down swinging on l’Alpe d’Huez.
“There is still a long way to go,” Quintana said. “It’s true we’ve lost a lot of time, but I have the form, and as long as that’s the case, we’ll keep fighting.”
Froome, however, is clearly in the driver’s seat. So far in this Tour, no one’s been able to take time on Froome when it counted. The lone exceptions were during this Tour’s two time trials; Froome lost some seconds to a few key rivals in Utrecht, and one second to BMC Racing in the team time trial in Plumelec on Sunday. Since then, it’s been Froome applying the pressure.
There are no more time trials in this Tour, which might normally seem like a bad thing for Froome, but with the way he’s climbing, his rivals might be wishing there were. The Pyrénées were all about Froome and Sky. Could the Alps have a different narrative?