GENEVA, Switzerland (VN) — Just call it Sky Throttle.
Chris Froome (Sky) is waiting and waiting for the attacks in the Tour de France, but so far they haven’t come.
Why? Because Sky is throttling the field into submission.
“Sky are looking untouchable,” said best young rider Adam Yates (Orica – BikeExchange), who finished in the front group. “As soon as there’s an attack, they gain a few seconds, then start going backwards.”
Sunday’s prelude to the Alps over the gruesome Colombier revealed that Sky and the yellow jersey are up to the looming challenge from Froome’s GC rivals as the Tour turns into its final week. Sky beat down any would-be aggression, and Froome even took a few digs, just to measure up his opponents.
The verdict? Froome is firmly in control — leading Bauke Mollema (Trek – Segafredo) by 1:47 — with a week to ride to Paris.
“I am quite surprised [that no one attacked],” Froome said after defending yellow for the eighth day. “Today was really a stage where I expected Movistar, in particular with two strong guys in the breakaway. I thought they would be doing more in the final climb. I just got the feeling that everyone was on the limit. No one really had the legs to make a big difference.”
That’s the story so far of this Tour de France. Sky is setting such a high pace — Sunday’s tempo was set by Wout Poels and Sergio Henao — that no one has anything left in the tank to make a run at Froome.
Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde bravely gave it a nudge, just to see if they could put a chink into Froome’s armor, but it soon became apparent it’s going to take a cannon shot to break through Sky’s defenses.
“Sky had everything covered,” said an exasperated Valverde. “I attacked with Aru, opening up some space to see if Nairo could cross, but the rhythm that Froome’s teammates are setting is as high as anyone can go. We have to try, but right now, it’s very difficult. Let’s see what happens next week.”
Movistar keeps promising to attack, but so far, they haven’t. Or, more likely, can’t.
The team lost helper Jesús Herrada Sunday to fever, leaving Movistar one man short in the decisive final week. Nairo Quintana, fourth at 2:59, didn’t budge during the stage, but he was glued on Froome’s wheel in the key moments. That’s not going to win him the Tour, but the Colombian seemed relieved to be out of the wind that’s hammered the bunch over the four previous stages, and finally move into the Alps.
“The truth is Sky is very strong,” Quintana said. “We tried once attacking with Alejandro, but we could quickly see just how strong as a unit they are. We tried again on the descent, but with the rhythm they were setting all day, and the heat and their intensity, it was impossible.”
Perhaps fearing the ferocity of the Tour’s final week, many of Froome’s challengers seem afraid to go too deep too soon, for fear of paying the price. BMC Racing’s Tejay van Garderen couldn’t keep pace Sunday, slipping from sixth to eighth, now 4:47 back.
With such strong support, Froome can ride into the Alps knowing that it’s going to take a huge effort for anyone to try to attack him. In addition to Poels and Henao, the team can count on Mikel Landa, Mikel Nieve, and Geraint Thomas once the road hits the closing mountain stages.
“I am in such a privileged position to have such a strong team around me, possibly the strongest team that Team Sky has ever put in the Tour,” Froome said. “And guys who would be leaders in other teams in their own right.”
Froome is too polite to rub it in, and too much of a gentleman to gloat, but he said what everyone else is thinking. To get to Froome won’t be easy.
“Of course, it must be quite demoralizing,” said Froome, with a mix of glee and wonder. “For other people to have to think of attacking knowing that this caliber of riders are going to be chasing and riding behind at a tempo that will neutralize their attacks.”
As one sport director said, if anyone attacks in the final week, it will probably be Froome himself.