The conditions changed dramatically during stage 12 and two races effectively took place: Joaquin Rodriguez won a second stage this year and took charge of the first contest, the one for line-honours… meanwhile the GC specialists were all marking each other closely – and even trying to gain time on each other but Chris Froome remains in command of the yellow jersey.
From hot to cold, the weather did what it could to change the standings a little but there’s little sign of Team Sky’s leader capitulating. Chris Froome had to endure a few attacks but he held his calm, picked the surges he had to follow and got to the top of the wet climb to Plateau de Beille in control. Did we expect anything different? Not really, but it offered a hint that the Tour is not yet over even if the GC standings didn’t get a big shake up in stage 12.
Considering the drop in temperature – from 38 degrees to 15 thanks to a torrential downpour that included hail before the peloton’s arrival – the riders handled the conditions well.
When Froome arrived at the post-stage interview session, he entered the room with a little cough but otherwise the same calm, composed demeanour that we’re growing more and more accustomed to. And, for the first time since he started answering questions as the leader of the 2015 Tour, there was an easing of queries about doping. Instead, he got to talk about the racing.
There was a volley of attacks on the final climb, but as they say, each was more a ‘wet cracker’ rather than anything truly explosive – and Froome says he “wouldn’t let them get up the road – I certainly wouldn’t let them get a big gap on me”.
If he has to, he seems capable of chasing anyone down.
The yellow jersey even put in a surge of his own but ultimately there was a cluster of riders with ‘…1’ as a race number that finished in the same group 6:47 behind the stage winner, Joaquim Rodriguez. And it was Froome ahead of them all: 31 – Froome in 10th place followed by 51, 21, 61, 41, 121 and 1… these are the designated leaders of their respective teams: Nairo Quintana, Thibaut Pinot, Tejay van Garderen, Alberto Contador, Pierre Rolland and Vinenzo Nibali, respectively.
The cream, it seems, does rise to the top.
Still, there was a sign that the other GC men haven’t yet conceded. They’re at least willing to show themselves and put in a surge to see if it sticks.
No one gained much more than 50 metres. And the reaction never had to be extreme, instead it was a controlled pacing that reeled them in – and often it was done by Geraint Thomas, a domestique deluxe for the race leader.
Was there one attack in particular that was of concern for Froome? Not really. “I wouldn’t say there was one that stands out,” he said. “Obviously I’m just looking at the GC and looking at who is closest to me so I’d have to say Quintana [is the biggest threat] at this point.”
Froome paused with his answer, then added: “But [Quintana’s] attacks aren’t extremely explosive. He can maintain a very high pace for a long time but when he goes he’s not necessarily really explosive like an Alberto Contador who’s on form – when he attacks, it’s normally a big acceleration. We haven’t quite seen that side of Alberto yet, maybe we’ll see that side of him in the Alps.”
The Big Four remains a theme but, as everyone watching the race has noted, the composition of this quartet has been amended: the defending champion, Nibali, was originally touted as a rider capable of claiming another title but Froome believes the time lost already – added to the signs of weakness in the first two days in the Pyrenees – have put the Astana rider out of the picture for the title.
The Sicilian has been replaced in the Big Four by an American from BMC Racing; van Garderen is still Froome’s nearest rival, 2:52 behind on GC but he was also one who refrained from an attack in stage 12.
“I think at this stage I’ve got to pay all those rivals the same amount of respect: Tejay, Quintana, Contador,” said Froome, then he drew a blank, and asked: “Who am I forgetting?”
No one said so, but another name that could have been referenced is Thomas. The Welshman from Sky is fifth overall after 1,888km of racing, just one second ahead of Contador. There’s a reason why other questions for Froome related to the prospect of another duo from Sky standing on the Parisian podium. ‘G’ is genuine star, a worker who seems capable of finishing in the top five of GC, so why not the top three?
The top six overall includes the (new) Big Four and two assistants for the major title favourites: Valverde and Thomas. Beyond that, the time gap extends beyond five minutes.
The race leaves the Pyrenees behind. The first phase of mountains are done and undulations will take the peloton closer to the Alps. The 2013 champion has shown that he’s capable of monitoring his challengers but the list has been whittled down to a handful of men in recent days. “I think all the guys who are sitting around three or four minutes – I’ve got to pay them all the same kind of respect.”
– By Rob Arnold