CARCASSONE, France (VN) — The 2016 Tour de France is a game of perception. In a race that there are a dozen GC favorites still within one minute of each other at the midway mark, no one really knows where anyone stands.
The opening 10 days of racing has been a game of hide-and-seek, survival, and luck. Three stages across the Pyrénées provided a preview of what lies ahead, but we still don’t know who is capable of winning the 2016 Tour.
Team Sky’s Chris Froome boldly took the yellow jersey in a daring downhill attack; is that because he’s afraid of Quintana, and is desperate to take time? Quintana didn’t attack on Sunday in the first major summit finale; was that because he couldn’t? These doubts and ambiguities should be settled very soon indeed.
Just 23 seconds separate the two top favorites, setting the stage for a rematch on the flanks of Mont Ventoux on Thursday ahead of a brutal string of climbs in the Alps.
Who holds the advantage so far? It all depends on who you ask.
“It is a really good place to be,” Froome said of having the yellow jersey. “Tactically, and for the morale of the team, it’s very good. It puts the shoe on the other foot. It’s up to other teams now to try to gain back time that they have lost already.”
Movistar, too, has reason to be optimistic. Some have questioned why Quintana never tried to attack Froome on Arcalis Sunday, but this time last year after rolling out of the Pyrénées, Quintana was already 3:09 behind Froome. Just 23 seconds is considered a victory inside the Movistar bus.
“We’ve never been so close to Froome at this point of the race,” said Movistar sport director Chente García. “The team is working well, and Nairo is very motivated for the rest of the Tour.”
So far, it’s been hard to tell who really has the best form. Arcalis provided some telling hints, with Richie Porte (BMC Racing), Dan Martin (Etixx – Quick-Step), and Adam Yates (Orica – BikeExchange) animating the race with intense attacks that kept both Froome and Quintana on their toes.
From what we’ve seen, Froome and Quintana are equal going uphill. The big difference has been Froome’s determination to take on the race. It’s clear he’s not going to just sit back and wait for Quintana to take it to him. His attack over the top of the Peyresourde on Saturday, which gave him the yellow jersey, caught everyone by surprise, and proved that Froome will race aggressively all the way to Paris.
“We’ve seen Chris attack, we’ve seen a couple of other skirmishes, but it’s been a compact race,” said Sky principal Dave Brailsford. “There’s only one team controlling the race, that’s us. … We’re going to continue to control the race until a couple of key showdowns.”
Wednesday’s stage 11 to Montpellier is another one for the sprinters, and then it’s straight into what will be a major turning point in the battle for yellow. Mont Ventoux and the following day’s time trial will go a long way toward deciding this Tour. If Froome can take big gains, then he will be able to follow his blueprint from 2013 and 2015, when he could ride defensively into the final week. If Quintana can stay close, within a minute or so, then the Tour will be for the taking in the closing week.
“The differences are seconds, not minutes. It’s going to be a tight race, and I’ve seen nothing so far to [counter] my opinion of that,” Brailsford said. “Having Ventoux and that time trial back-to-back is going to be pivotal in the final outcome.”
So far, this Tour has only had one major uphill finale. There have been no time trials, no team time trials, no splits or major crashes to disrupt the GC. And it’s not just Movistar and Sky who are optimistic.
The top 11 riders are within one minute (and one second) to the yellow jersey, almost unheard in modern cycling to have the Tour de France so tight so deep in the race.
Quintana is cooling his jets, waiting for the right moment to attack. On Sunday, after sensing that Froome was very strong, he decided to wait. On Ventoux, where he and Froome clashed in 2013, the story is likely to be very different.
“You have to take the race day by day, and look for an opportunity to attack,” Quintana said. “On other occasions, I had already lost more time, so there will be moments to take back these 23 seconds, and perhaps take more. Froome is strong, but I also feel very good.”
In the Tour, perception counts for a lot, at least until the road turns uphill. Very soon in this Tour, the GC will speak for itself.