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Tour de France

Froome vs. Quintana: The duel we’ve been waiting for

The mountains are upon us. The Tour de France's rivals are on equal terms. May the strongest man win.

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The duel is set. Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana enter the Pyrénées on equal footing, without a second between them. May the strongest man win.

It’s what we all hoped for. For the first time, the dangers of the first week have failed to unseat one of the two: The minor crosswinds found in Normandy couldn’t shake tiny Quintana, and the first week’s crashes failed to take down lanky Froome. Lady luck has smiled, and the Pyrénées will judge them now.

“The hardest days are still to come for the GC,” Froome said. “I prefer to take time on my rivals in the mountains and not from crashes or from injuries.”

We prefer the same, of course. And for the first time, Froome and cycling fans are getting what they want.

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The cycling world has been afforded a rare opportunity this July. We wondered what could have been, had Quintana not lost over a minute in the Dutch crosswinds last year. We wondered, too, what could have been in 2014, had Froome not crashed in the rain, and then crashed again, then pulled out as the Roubaix stones loomed. We wondered how these two would ride when the first meters of the first real climb set them eye-to-eye. By Sunday, we may know.

Perhaps duel is the wrong word, though. The Pyrenean tests, three of the over the next three days, are bigger than Froome vs. Quintana. Twelve overall contenders sit within five seconds. Only BMC’s Richie Porte and Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador are behind, and though yellow may feel out of reach, both still hang by a finger off the podium. Stepping into its seventh stage, the Tour is as open as any from the modern age.

Why? Well, it was an oddly mellow first week. The first two stages felt chaotic but had little impact (barring Contador). There were no truly significant uphill finishes and no time trials to shuffle the deck. A classics rider, Greg Van Avermaet, holds yellow.

There were few crashes, too. For the first time in the Tour’s long history, every one of its 198 riders will start stage 7 (assuming nobody falls off the top bunk tonight). A major crash hit the field in stage 1, but the rest have been small and isolated. When Contador went down, he took only Brent Bookwalter (BMC) and Luke Rowe (Sky) with him. The finishes have been hectic but largely incident-free.

The Norman crosswinds failed to materialize. The temperatures have been mellow. We had one of the slowest processions in recent memory in stage 3, as the peloton cruised behind a lone attacker.

“Let’s say that it’s one of the better Tours, one of the easiest I’ve seen,” said Etixx – Quick-Step director Brian Holm. “Last year, was one of the hardest I’ve seen.”

One can only assume the peloton is saving it all for the next two weeks, which are unrelenting. And for the next three days, which will determine who can win this Tour de France.

Friday’s stage from L’Isle-Jourdain to Lac de Payolle will be the first chance to assess. It culminates with a long climb up Col d’Aspin, a category 1, and then a short, fast descent. Significant gaps over the top are likely to remain significant at the finish line. There will no longer be 12 contenders on equal time, that much is certain.

Friday likely isn’t difficult enough to force major change. In combination with Saturday (four categorized climbs, starting with the Tourmalet) and Sunday (the first uphill finish, at Andorre Arcalis) will be an opportunity to put lesser riders in their place, and, for those two left behind by the first week, to move up to their rightful position.

“Tomorrow, the stress will ramp up, and perhaps something will happen. With the two days that follows, we will see who is strong enough to win the Tour,” said Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde. “The race will be decided in the final week. Nairo and I are both feeling strong, and the team is performing well. Alberto has lost a bit of time, but he’s still alive. Everyone knows he’s a fighter.”

The mountains are upon us. The rivals are on equal terms. May the strongest man win.

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