GAP, France (VN) — Chris Froome (Sky) looks to have a stranglehold on the yellow jersey as the Tour de France pedals into the final four decisive climbing stages across the Alps.
With more than a three-minute advantage over Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and more than four minutes on Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), it seems only a disaster could prevent Froome from winning his second yellow jersey in three years.
Movistar and Tinkoff, however, vow to go down fighting. Contador defiantly says only victory matters to him, and Quintana says he’ll deliver the race-breaking attacks he’s promised since his breakout Tour in 2013.
Can they do it? And more importantly, how? Here’s what Froome’s rivals need to do to have a realistic chance of taking away the yellow jersey from him:
So far, Sky has been like the Berlin Wall around Froome; no one can go over the top to effectively attack him. There are some cracks, however, that could expose Froome. Sky lost British national champion and mid-range climber Peter Kennaugh to sickness, and Richie Porte struggled across some transition days with a cough. It remains to be seen how Geraint Thomas, Froome’s go-to man in the Pyrénées, recovers from his horrific crash on the descent of the Col de Manse on Monday. If Thomas and Porte are there to smother early attacks, Froome will remain inside his protective cocoon. If Movistar and Tinkoff can force the pace and isolate Froome late in each stage, they might have a chance to spring a trap. Movistar will only be able to play its one-two punch tactic if it can isolate the yellow jersey.
Find alliances on the road
Contador and Quintana must be willing to sacrifice a stage victory to fellow attackers in exchange for gaining time on Froome. If someone like Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) or Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) attacks, they would only collaborate with a GC challenger if they’re assured of getting something out of the bargain. Pre-arranged alliances are rare, but they can quickly materialize on the road. The deal is quickly understood; we work, I gain time, you get the stage, everyone comes up aces. Quintana or Contador would be wise to work with any stage-hunters who play their cards.
Don’t wait, keep chipping away
Time is running out, and every day Froome rides unchallenged is another opportunity missed for his rivals. If Quintana wants to win this Tour, he cannot wait until l’Alpe d’Huez. So far, the differences have been negligible between the top climbers. Froome’s attack at St. Pierre-Saint-Martin that provoked such a visceral reaction among the skeptics only saw Quintana lose 64 seconds. It’s unrealistic for any of Froome’s rivals to expect to erase all their losses in one dramatic shot. Quintana is best positioned to seriously challenge Froome. If he can gain 35 seconds here and a minute there, then anything could be possible up the 21 switchbacks of the l’Alpe d’Huez.
Having said that, maybe the only way to beat Froome is to uncork a risk-it-all, long-distance attack. In today’s highly controlled, power-metered style of racing, it’s almost impossible to imagine someone pulling off something so spectacular. Perhaps the rider to do that would be Contador, who stands nothing to lose by risking everything. Languishing in fifth overall, he will have a hard time scrapping his way onto the podium, and he’s already said third place doesn’t interest him. The only way for him to make history with the Giro-Tour double would be to do something historical. Perhaps miracles don’t happen anymore in the day and age of the biological passport.