The Tour de France peloton, thinned by fatigue, injury, illness, and a bit of cocaine, will tackle one of the most difficult tests in cycling on Sunday: the team time trial.
The event’s late start, nine stages into the race, after a week that saw some teams drop to just six riders, adds a level of unpredictability to a day that’s already nearly impossible to forecast.
The team time trial is different from an individual race against the clock, as much dependent on the cohesion of a team as it is on its strength. It’s an event in which the whole can truly be greater, or far worse, than the sum of its parts.
Time is taken with the fifth rider on each team, adding another layer to the tactics of the day.
Sunday could see Tejay van Garderen (BMC) take his first-ever yellow jersey, or Chris Froome (Sky) extend his lead. What’s sure is that the lumpy profile, a week’s worth of fatigue, and the technical difficulty of the discipline set Sunday up to have a significant, but not insurmountable, impact on the overall standings.
“Nobody knows yet how fatigued the riders are going to be, and how that will impact the team’s performances,” said Sky’s David Brailsford. “We’ll have to see how big the differences are on the day.”
The 28 kilometers from Vannes to Plumelac are lumpy, with three rises of slightly less than 300 feet each. That may not sound like much, but under the intense effort of the team time trial, such features can easily split up a team.
The course ends with a short ramp up to Plumelac, the Côte de Cadoudal, which rises for 1.7 kilometers at 6.2 percent. At the tail end of 28km, which should take teams just over 30 minutes to complete, it will be difficult for some teams to keep five riders together on the final climb.
“It’s important how well the team works together, and being quite lumpy, it will be interesting,” said Alex Dowsett, a former hour record holder and TT strongman for Nairo Quintana’s Movistar team.
BMC is the favorite for the stage win. The reigning world team time trial champions recently won the TTT at the Critérium du Dauphiné, besting Astana by 4 seconds and Sky by 35. BMC’s Tour de France lineup also has four of the riders from last fall’s worlds TTT squad in France, so the firepower is certainly there.
“We are the (TTT) world champions, and we have a lot guys from that team – we have four of them – if we can win tomorrow, that would be superb,” van Garderen said.
BMC still has all nine riders, which will prove key particularly given the lumpy course. Teams will want to use up and shed riders over the rollers, and BMC has plenty it can leave behind and still cross the line with the required five.
Orica-GreenEdge, which won the team time trial at the Giro d’Italia earlier this year, would have been in the running if not for a heap of bad luck in the first week. The team is now down to six riders, making victory all but impossible.
“We know our TTT is shot. You lose those horses, like Impey, Gerro, and Albasini, and we know we won’t have a chance. We were looking to win that stage. That’s part of what we’re going to try to do here,” said Svein Tuft, a podium finisher at time trial worlds.
Movistar, anchored by Dowsett and Adriano Malori, will be close. Astana, too, is sure to put up a good ride. The Kazakhstani team was the closest to BMC at the Dauphiné a month ago.
Sky lost 35 seconds to BMC at the Dauphine over a shorter, but far flatter, course. Six of the Sky Dauphiné squad are here at the Tour. The addition of Geraint Thomas should help, and the lumpier course will be better suited to the team’s climbing domestiques, but Sky is still unlikely to be in the mix for the stage win.
Alberto Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo team is always well-drilled in the team time trial, and has riders well suited to the task. Peter Sagan, in fact, is one of the team’s greatest assets in the TTT, a discipline that is only loosely related to the individual test. Team time trials require a series of maximal efforts followed by quick recoveries, just the sort of efforts in which Sagan excels.
Froome enters the TTT with an 11-second advantage over Peter Sagan and 13 seconds over van Garderen. If the TTT at the Dauphiné is any sort of crystal ball, Froome stands a good chance of losing yellow to one of those two, most likely van Garderen.
Beyond the potential change in leadership, the time gaps Sunday generates are not likely to be insurmountable. The worst TTT teams, those without GC men or a shot at the stage win, like Giant-Alpecin, Europcar, and Cofidis, will try to use it as a bit of a rest day. They will likely lose between two and three minutes to the fastest team. But the top GC teams should be piled within a minute of each other, barring incident.
BMC does look the strongest, and van Garderen should enter confident.
Movistar will be heavily reliant on Dowsett, who is recovering from injury, and Malori. Quintana will likely lose some time.
Sky lost 35 seconds to BMC in the Dauphiné TTT, and 31 to Astana over 24.5 kilometers; if it can lose that much, or slightly less, over the 28km on Sunday it will count the day a success.
Sky does have the advantage of rolling down the start ramp last, and will therefore know the time it has to match. “It’s always nice to be ahead, rather than be chasing from behind,” Brailsford said.
Tinkoff-Saxo’s ride at the Dauphiné can probably be discounted, as Contador and his Tour team were not present, making the expected performance of the team on Sunday a question mark.