So you think the Tour is over? Think again.
A third Chris Froome Tour de France victory looks increasingly likely, and if we’re honest, we wouldn’t bet against him. But the fact remains that he enters the final stages with a smaller gap than in either of his prior victories, a gap that could absolutely be wiped out in one or two stages should things not go his way. The maillot jaune hasn’t revealed many chinks in his armor, but we know a couple things about him that should give Nairo Quintana, Bauke Mollema, Adam Yates, and the rest of his rivals a bit of hope. Here’s how Froome could lose.
1. Isolation station
Froome has better climbing domestiques than any other rider in the race, and he has more of them (five, in fact). They’ve kept him protected, and have stifled most attacks so far. But it may be possible to get Froome on his own in the Alps, particularly in in Wednesday’s stage to Finhaut-Emosson.
The key is the back-to-back tough climbs, first a Cat. 1 and then the HC finish climb both stacked in the last 30km. If, for example, Movistar can use Valverde to draw Froome away from his teammates on the Forclaz, then Quintana, Mollema, and Yates could take shots at him on the way to Finhaut.
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“The main idea is to try to get him on his own,” Quintana said on Tuesday.
The big time Quintana was able to take back on Froome on Alpe d’Huez last year came as a result of a one-two by the Colombian and Valverde. Froome had Richie Porte and Poels for some of the climb, but in the end had to fend for himself.
Movistar may lean on an alliance with Astana and Fabio Aru, too. “Astana have not been very aggressive but Aru is a guy who comes into his own in the third week, and the fact of the matter is I think we could find common objectives,” said Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue.
The problem with this is that Froome’s team has shown no signs of leaving him to fend for himself. On Sunday’s stage, he still had two domestiques over the Grand Colombier while most of his rivals were alone, and he would have had three if Geraint Thomas hadn’t suffered a mechanical. It will take something special to get Froome on his own.
2. Froome’s late fade
We’ve seen it twice now: Froome comes into the Tour’s finale with a big gap only to lose a large portion of it before the finish.
Last year, he had a 3:10 gap after stage 17. By Paris, it was down to 1:12. In 2013, his gap after stage 17 was a massive 4:34 to Contador and 6:58 to Tour rookie Quintana. By Paris, Quintana had cut his deficit down to 4:20.
Ahead of Wednesday’s stage 17, Froome has only 1:47 over Bauke Mollema, 2:45 over Adam Yates, and 2:59 over Quintana. If history is any guide, the Colombian is still within striking distance — in fact, he’s closer than he’s ever been at this stage. And both Mollema and Yates are well-placed to take advantage of any last-week Froome fade.
However, Froome says he’s prepared differently this year, and is ready to hit his top form in the last week instead of slowly falling off. But we shall see.
“Myself, personally, I feel more ready for this third week than in previous editions,” he said. “Starting this season later helped that, having a quieter run-in to the Tour helped that. My personal ambition is to be at my best in the third week of this race, and I think I’m on track for that.”
3. Hunger monster
Froome lost about a minute to Nairo Quintana on Alpe d’Huez in 2013, when the climb featured twice in the finale of stage 18. But he could have lost far more.
The Sky leader was on the verge of bonking as the front group hit the Alpe for the second time. Then-teammate Porte grabbed him an illegal feed from the car, a gel, and it kept Froome’s motor running just well enough to keep Quintana in check (he had a gap of five minutes, so it wasn’t all that desperate). Froome was penalized 20 seconds, but he could have lost minutes had he fully bonked.
Apparently, one of Sky’s team cars had a mechanical problem and it was unable to feed Froome and Porte at the proper time. Regardless, the day proved that even the well-oiled Sky machine can produce moments of weakness. If Froome were to confront hunger knock again this Tour, it could provide an opening.
4) Rest day leg-lock
Froome has not historically had much trouble with the stages right after rest days. However, days off can do odd things to the body, and the stage that follows Tuesday’s rest day is particularly brutal, ending with a Hors Categorie climb to the finish line. It’s a safe bet that at least one of the podium contenders will have a very bad day on Wednesday.
5) Bad luck
If Froome’s team surrounds him, his nutrition is spot on, and his usual late fade doesn’t make an appearance, there’s still no avoiding those metaphorical banana peels of fate.
I’m talking flats, crashes, anything outside of Froome’s direct control. Crashes took him out of the Tour in 2014, and they could knock him back or out again (or do the same to any of his rivals). Richie Porte already proved that a poorly timed flat can result in a loss of nearly two minutes — Froome’s current lead.
Ventoux proved that anything could happen. None of Froome’s rivals want to win the Tour due on the back of a mechanical, but the Tour has all kinds of tricks up her sleeve.