TOULOUSE, France (VN) — The first climb of the 2016 Tour de France didn’t reveal much. All the major GC favorites — with the exception of 2014 podium man Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) — made it over the Tour’s first serious hurdle in stage 7.
“No one really attacked. Col d’Aspin isn’t the hardest climb. We didn’t have any climbs before to really soften the legs up so everyone was pretty fresh,” said BMC Racing’s Tejay van Garderen.
More than a few questions should be settled after the dust settles Sunday on the Arcalis summit. The “real Tour” doesn’t start until Mont Ventoux next week, and the Alps that follow, but the Pyrénées should provide a much clearer picture of how this Tour will unfold.
Here are five things we’ll know at the top of Sunday’s mountaintop finish:
1. If Froome can blow away everyone
[pullquote attrib=”Jose Luis Arrieta” align=”right”]“Froome will try like he has in other years.”[/pullquote]
In each of his two previous Tour victories, Froome took important gains on the first major mountaintop finish. Last year, he simply blew everyone out of the water at La Pierre-Saint-Martin, and could ride defensively to Paris. Thankfully, Tour organizers waited until at least Sunday to offer the first kill shot. The expectation is that Sky will try the same ploy in stage 9. “Froome will try like he has in other years,” said Movistar sport director Jose Luis Arrieta. “If they try something, we will try to be as close as possible.” If Froome hits the repeat button, and drops everyone, including Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, it will set the tone for the remainder of the Tour. If he doesn’t, well, we’ll have a race on our hands.
2. If Contador is a contender
We might know that already after Saturday’s four-climb 184km stage 8 that climbs the Col du Tourmalet in the opening 86km. He crossed the first hurdle Friday, but if he is as hobbled as he looks — and as he’s made himself out to be — he will have real trouble over the next two days. Evidence of chaos inside the Tinkoff team bus doesn’t help, either. “We’ve cleared the air over the misunderstanding, and we’re ready to move on,” Contador said. With those words, Contador has laid the groundwork for a possible early surrender in this Tour. Currently at 1:21 behind the major favorites, any more time losses will turn this Tour into a stage-hunting operation.
3. If Quintana can seriously challenge Froome
Movistar got him this far, equal on time to Froome and the other GC rivals, setting up the battle in the mountains that everyone’s anticipated. In his two previous Tour second places, he was handicapped by early time losses to Froome. This time, they roll into the Pyrénées knotted up. Even if he loses some time — anything less than a minute would be OK — Quintana still believes he can take it to Froome in the Alps. With Mont Ventoux and the first of two time trials waiting just after Arcalis, Quintana won’t want to cede much time at all. And if he can drop Froome on Sunday? His yellow jersey dream could become a reality.
4. If Van Avermaet can pull a Voeckler
[pullquote attrib=”Greg Van Avermaet” align=”left”]”It’s not often you see yellow in the breakaway. It wasn’t easy but I gained some time.”[/pullquote]
The Belgian classics star was hoping to hang onto the yellow jersey by seconds on Friday’s opening climbing stage, but he ended up widening his lead. Could he be a dark horse who might disrupt the race entirely? Almost certainly not. Even though Van Avermaet is a solid climber, there is no way he’ll survived the climbing onslaught that lies ahead. Plus, BMC Racing will ride for Tejay van Garderen and Richie Porte. Van Avermaet’s play Friday was smart, but the money has him out of yellow by Sunday. “I knew it would be hard to keep the jersey today. I made a smart move I think to go in the break,” Van Avermaet said. “It was a great day, it’s not often you see yellow in the breakaway. It wasn’t easy, but I gained some time. I look forward to tomorrow as it’s probably my last day in yellow.”
5. If Aru is the real deal
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Every Tour seems to serve up a revelation or a surprise. Who will it be this year? Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx – Quick-Step) is sitting pretty on GC, but will he be able to match the fury of Froome and Quintana? Maybe through the weekend, but probably not all the way to Paris. Arcalis will also settle some nagging captaincy issues within some teams. One already looks resolved: Astana is firmly backing Fabio Aru as its man for the GC. Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali sat up Wednesday, and couldn’t match the pace of stage-winner Steven Cummings (Dimension Data) on Col d’Aspin. If Aru can hang close Sunday, he could well be in the running for a podium spot.