FOIX, France (VN) — Team Sky keeps talking about playing cards. Cards to play, good cards, and bad cards. Cards that could win them the Tour de France and other team’s cards that could make them lose. “We played the right cards today,” said director Nicolas Portal on Friday, which in turn “gives us cards to play,” said Chris Froome.
They quite like their hand, I think.
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They should. Friday’s 101-kilometer stage from Saint-Girons to Foix, pegged as an opportunity to maybe, possibly, improbably disrupt the dominant Sky train proved instead that Sky has more — ahem — cards than any of its rivals. It is not afraid to use them. Sky has so many cards that it now has two legitimate threats for the overall. Mikel Landa is in fifth, 1:09 back from Astana’s Fabio Aru. He may be the best climber in the race. If he goes up the road, the rest are forced to chase. Froome is in second, six seconds back, and is the best time trialist among the contenders. “Great cards,” Froome said. The best cards.
Aru’s Astana team does not have the best cards. With Jakob Fuglsang’s unfortunate exit with a broken arm on Friday, Astana has one card, and it’s already on the table.
Sky knows this. Landa near the top of the GC is “a great card for us to play, especially when Astana don’t have the numbers to control the race,” Froome said. Astana will use a lot of energy across the Massif Central. Its riders will be tired when the race enters the Alps. Aru will be isolated early and often. He will need to watch Froome and Landa, on top of Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Rigoberto Uràn (Cannondale-Drapac) and Dan Martin (Quick-Step). And he needs to gain time before that Marseille TT.
There is a potential flaw in Sky’s hand. A hidden joker, to stretch this analogy to its absolute breaking point. Froome’s words express confidence and support for Landa’s but that sentiment was not visible in his post-race movements on Friday. There were no handshakes or congratulations or even, from what we saw, a head tilt of appreciation between the two at their team bus on Friday. They set up on trainers on opposite sides of paddock and spun away in isolation.
Much has been made of Landa’s quick ascent to the top of the GC, particularly in light of Froome’s falter on the wall of Peyragudes. This was the same climb, after all, where Froome waited up for Bradley Wiggins in 2012. “Is Landa Frooming Froome?” VeloNews editor Andrew Hood asked, for good reason.
The team says no. “I’ve got a lot of faith in Mikel, and I think he showed that today he’s a real threat now for the overall title in Paris,” said Froome, who also wants to win in Paris. A reporter asked whether he’s happy with Landa’s rise. “Very happy, very happy,” Froome said, quite genuinely. “For us, with Mikel Landa moving up like that, that’s perfect position for us. I think especially going into some of these stages coming up, big mountain stages, could be a card for us to play again.”
Landa was coy. “Froome is fine with what’s happening, and we’ll study the situation tonight,” he said.
Portal, the Sky director, did not shoot down the idea of Landa as a sort of co-leader. Why would he? Sky has to play up this extra card or it’s not a card at all.
“[Landa] can become a contender to win it,” Portal said. “You can see he’s super strong. We are still focused on Froomey but that’s opened the cards for us really well. I think we played the right cards today, and yeah, fingers crossed.”
For now, Landa isn’t really a threat to Froome, though he is a threat for the podium. He will lose time to Froome in the Marseille TT. But if he’s sent up the road again, playing the foil as he was on Friday, his status as GC backup could be abruptly upgraded.
What would Froome do about that? Well, this is the Tour. He’ll have to play the hand he’s been dealt.