For those of us who’ve been watching other stage racing this season, yesterday’s tactics weren’t a surprise. While Sky know that Bradley Wiggins has a fantastic engine and can deliver huge amounts of power for a long time, he doesn’t have a strong acceleration on climbs, and copes best when the pace starts high and remains high. It’s a tactic others have used before, but it’s tricky to execute as you need the riders to make it happen, who are capable of setting and keeping a pace high enough to push everyone else into the red zone.
When it works, though, the results are spectacular, usually characterised by lots of ‘arriere du peloton’ motorbike shots as big name after big name slips off the back and starts dropping time. The nature of the climb up to La Planche des Belle Filles – relatively short by Tour standards, but with some savagely steep sections – helped cause this too, with more dropping off the back every time the gradient increased. This was Sky’s way of stating their intent to come and dominate this Tour de France, and I think they’ll be satisfied at not just taking the yellow jersey, but in the way they’ve gained time on just about everyone else. Remember that a lot of the talk before the race was about how Wiggins would have to limit his time losses in the mountains, but instead he gained time on all of his rivals except Cadel Evans.
It’s worth noting who did hold on almost all the way – Vincenzo Nibali lost just a few seconds, and Rein Taaramae was there almost to the end. Both of them aren’t out of contention, and could be looking at trying to go for one big break to gain the time to win the race. We’ve had the first big shake up of the overall classification, but a lot of hands might not be fully shown until Monday’s time trial.
We all know that Sky’s target for this Tour is a win for Wiggins, but yesterday was also when his successor as Sky’s leader came of age in the Tour. Chris Froome’s job was to support Wiggins at the very top of the climbs, but the way he was able to accelerate past Evans showed the potential we first witnessed in last year’s Vuelta. Indeed, if he hadn’t lost so much time from a puncture last Sunday, he’d now be in second place. The interesting thing is that Sky know they could have won the Vuelta with Froome last year, if he hadn’t lost time on a couple of stages supporting Wiggins. That lost time, and the fact that Wiggins is much stronger now than he was last September, means they’re not likely to face the same dilemma this year, but Froome could deliver a high finish this year, and he may even be allowed to continue competing for the King of the Mountains title.
Sky’s problem in future seasons may be an embarrassment of riches, or just trying to keep a supremely talented team together. As well as Wiggins and Froome, Sky have potential Grand Tour winners in Richie Porte, Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao, and both Geraint Thomas and Peter Kennaugh have shown the potential to follow Wiggins’ path from track champion to road contender.
There are seven categorised climbs today, getting progressively tougher as they move from France into Switzerland, and culminating in a Category 1 and the descent into Porrentruy. The weather forecast is wet, which could add to the toughness of it, making it a day when a long break is likely to go free, though Sky will be seeking to ensure it doesn’t contain any contenders. It could be a day for one of the riders now out of yellow jersey contention to make their mark on the Tour, and perhaps rack up a host of points in the King of the Mountains contest. There’s a maximum of 33 points available today, which could take someone into the lead in that contest where very few points have been awarded so far – the top three are Froome, Evans and Wiggins from the points they got at the finish yesterday. It might be a chance for a Garmin rider like Dan Martin or Christian Vande Velde to grab something for their battered team, or for someone like Voeckler or Westra to go for glory.