ALPE D’HUEZ, France (VN) — It was billed as an opportunity to attack the yellow jersey, and noted as a danger to riders, its narrow asphalt painted down the mountain in straight, terrible lines.
Tour de France organizers had talked of shortening Thursday’s 18th stage of the Tour de France in the event of rain to avoid the goat path of a road, with no guardrails and a shoulder into air. Chris Froome (Sky) himself asked that the stage be neutralized in the event of inclement weather, and Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Tony Martin had been complaining of it since the Critérium du Dauphiné. In other words, the race would be on for Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and his attacking ways — ways Froome characterized as “desperate” just days ago, after Contador crashed in front of him on a descent into Gap.
In a Tour that Froome has all but choked out, the Col de Sarenne was seen as the intersection of opportunism and risk, perhaps the best possible chance for Contador to spook the unflappable Froome.
“Listen, riders have been going down dangerous descents one thousand times before. They must hit the brakes and be careful,” Saxo boss Bjarne Riis told reporters on Wednesday. “This is a bike race; it’s not some Sunday morning grandma trip. They have to learn how to race their bikes and stop complaining.”
Early on, it appeared the Sarenne would live up to its billing. The breakaway with eventual winner Christophe Riblon (Ag2r La Mondiale), Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), and Moreno Moser (Cannondale) went over first, and Riblon blew his line in a damp, tree-lined corner, riding his bike straight into a ditch, though he never went down. Van Garderen suffered a mechanical, though that didn’t seem a casualty of the Sarenne’s 20-plus corners.
The general classification riders were soon to follow, surprisingly all together, as no rider, not even the fiery Contador, attacked over the top. Contador and Saxo-Tinkoff sought opportunity once the group reached full speed, though. Everyone in the bike race, and everyone in the press room, knew the move was coming, with the nerves on high and Contador running out of options.
The Spaniard threaded the needle between the front group, and rolled past the yellow jersey, slinking by Froome on the left, then by his teammates David Lopez, Richie Porte, and Peter Kennaugh. Froome flinched, but thought better of the chase, and settled in behind his teammates while the Saxo duo of Contador and Roman Kreuziger labored a bend in the Sarenne ahead.
Riders used every bit of the patchwork pavement, rolling edge to apex to edge, standing and sprinting out of turns. At one point, Contador and Kreuziger were about 20 seconds up the road on Froome and his men, which included a host of other GC riders. The attack was long range, as the pair would still have to cover a long, flat run-in to the Alpe, and then turn the screws. No riders joined them and Saxo called off the move.
“I wouldn’t really call it an attack. It was more to be in front of the group on the descent, so we could descend more calmly, without taking risks,” said Contador. “Yes, we got a little time, but we knew we would have needed more people with us and no one came up, so the smartest thing was to stop and wait for the group, because Movistar was organized from behind.”
In the end they were brought back, as most moves in this race have been, and the Col de Sarenne played backup to the region’s queen, l’Alpe d’Huez, doing no true damage in the fight for the yellow shirt on Froome’s back.
“Yeah, it was interesting to see Kreuziger and Contador off the front on the descent of the Col de Sarenne. It’s still a long way to the finish. That move could possibly have cost them a lot of energy that they seemed not to have in the final,” said Froome, who took extended his lead on Contador, now up to more than five minutes.