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Analysis: Can the Sky fall?

Peiper, Demol and Ochowicz strategize on how to beat back Sky's suffocating offensive

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BELLEGARDE-SUR-VALSERINE, France (VN) — It’s getting boring. And that’s just the way Sky wants it.

The British team controlled the Tour de France again over the mountainous stage 10 from Macon to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine on Wednesday, allowing more than 20 riders a long leash but keeping those who matter on the general classification on a choke chain. In the end, Bradley Wiggins kept the yellow jersey comfortably on his shoulders and always had Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) within reach.

The team drilled it up the Col du Grand Colombier and dragged the peloton — or what was left of it — along for the ride. It’s a tactic that sticks in recent memory because it’s the way Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service and Discovery teams did it — lift the pace so high that no one can possibly attack, and, if they do, the guys on the front can nail it back down and start all over again. It’s an apt comparison that observers have made frequently in recent days.

A three-week stage race can be condensed into only a few key moments, such as time trials or fractions of climbs. But the thing is, it’s really, really difficult to execute such a destructive plan. If the calculus is off, the team leader can find himself alone and with only shelled teammates trickling off the back.

“It becomes a numbers game at some point,” said BMC Racing’s manager Jim Ochowicz. “They’ve got eight riders. They can use certain riders for certain parts.”

It very much looks like Sky will be able to dictate this race. They’ve muzzled the peloton on the only two climbs that have mattered through stage 10. But there’s a feeling at the team busses that such performances cannot be extrapolated over three weeks. We’ll see.

Sky has two riders in Bernhard Eisel and Mark Cavendish who cannot take up the GC fight in the mountains; Cav’s here for the sprints, and Eisel is his leadout man.

“Mathematically, it makes sense. Then they’re down to four, then they’re down to two. It just depends on how hard the course is. Today was hard,” Ochowicz said. “We have to keep doing what happened today. Just keep pecking at him until, hopefully, they can’t do what they did today. We don’t know. That could be tomorrow. It may never happen.”

This Sky bunch is all about protecting Wiggins. Evans is less fortunate, and is alone often.

“We were talking about it in the car,” Garmin-Sharp director Allan Peiper said. “It comes down to the final, then it comes down to leaders who are isolated. And Sky still has [Chris] Froome and Wiggins and had Richie Porte today. So it’s pretty impressive what they’re doing. I don’t know how teams are going to get an advantage over that, you know, what they can come up with.”

It’s difficult to suffocate any bike race, let alone the biggest bike race in the world, where even a stage win makes a career, and where the pressures are exacting. Sky hasn’t seemed vulnerable yet, but that’s not to say it won’t.

“It is hard to control a bike race, because effectively they’ve lost a rider, with [Konstantsin] Siutsou breaking his leg,” said Peiper. “When it gets into the mountains, they’ve lost Eisel and Cav, so then they’re down to six, And if you’ve got Froome and Wiggins that you’re not counting, then they’ve got four helpers effectively to control a bike race, which is difficult. But seeing as how they’re two of the best bike riders in the peloton they can play off each other.”

If any team can squeeze the life out of this Tour, however, it’s Sky.

“It’s hard. But we have to be honest. If you have riders like they have, domestiques like Michael Rogers, Richie Porte, [Edvald] Boasson Hagen… We have seen the performance on La Planche des Belles Filles and then the time trial, Bradley and Chris are in super form. It’s not going to be easy to try to do something against them,” said RadioShack-Nissan director Dirk Demol.

“So this is maybe a little bit difficult, that they’re only with five when it goes hard to really take control of the race. But those guys, you can say they count for two,” Demol said. “It looks like, just until now, they control easy and they control smart.

“The only way to try to do something against them is to keep attacking and not waiting, not saying, ‘OK, tomorrow’s too hard’ — you have to sacrifice some riders.”

The consensus is that the pursuit of sprint stages for Cavendish is the only true vulnerability Sky has. But when Froome, who’s supposed to be working for Wiggins, ends up third on GC just doing his job, the writing’s on the wall.

Tactics, though, only go as far as the riders, and a plan never won a thing on its own.

“This isn’t a PlayStation game; this is a bike race. And you’ve got to make decisions constantly throughout the day… it’s a constant sea of decisions,” said Sky manager Dave Brailsford. “I think what we’ve done well this season is that we’ve raced hard to be in the lead of races to get used to leading races.

“You can’t just come here and expect to win this race without leading races.”

BMC and Liquigas-Cannondale management will write up another plan for Thursday’s summit finish at La Toussuire. Evans and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) have each led bike races this year, after all, and they’ll try again to find Chicken Little in the Alps.