Eleven stages done and we have our first candidate for ‘most over-analysed thirty seconds of this year’s Tour’ – amongst the English-speaking media, anyway (the French report is ‘Rolland first, Pinot second, others were also riding bikes yesterday’). Chris Froome’s sudden burst of acceleration with around four kilometres to go to La Toussoire, followed by an equally sudden easing-off as it was realised that while Nibali and Van Den Broeck were following him, Wiggins wasn’t, has been replayed and discussed many times since yesterday afternoon.
Yesterday delivered everything the organisers would have wanted when they drew up the route – high drama on the high roads, lots of attacks, a yellow jersey under pressure, a champion cracking, interesting team tactics, a rewriting of lots of the general classification and, of course, a Frenchman crossing the line first. Of course, I managed to miss a lot of it thanks to a puncture and a broken spoke while I was out on a ride of my own, without a support vehicle to give me a replacement. But that’s what highlights are for, right?
Luckily, I was back in time for the decisive climb of La Toussoire. While the battle for the yellow jersey is important, Pierre Rolland’s ride to victory was a superb effort from him, and confirms that he can be the challenger for overall victory that France has been waiting for for several years. He perfectly combined effort and aggression, riding away from his breakaway companions and then keeping a constant pace to the top. Behind him, Thibaut Pinot also showed a lot of promise in finishing second, managing to stick with the favourites group when it mattered. Both of them are now in the top ten of the general classification, and one interesting conflict over the next week might be their battle to be the leading French rider of the Tour.
After yesterday, I think we know two things about the battle for the yellow jersey. First, that Vincenzo Nibali now seems the only real threat to Team Sky, and second, that no one’s going to shut up about whether Froome or Wiggins is the stronger Sky rider, and if Froome should be allowed to attack his team leader. The key thing here is that Froome knows that he’s at the Tour as support for Wiggins, and would have known that when he signed his new contract with Sky after the Vuelta last year (when there were plenty of offers for him to move to other teams as their leader). That final attack did look like a statement of intent, but it also made strategic sense for the team – there was no way he’d gain enough time to catch Wiggins with it, but he could secure time over the other rivals. However, when Nibali and Van Den Broeck were able to go with him – and Rolland was too far ahead to be caught for the stage victory – Sky’s bosses called him back.
(This is a good argument against team radios, of course. While I don’t think they should be totally banned, I think giving every rider one does eliminate some of the spontaneity. My personal solution would be to say that each team can have no more than two riders with radios at any one time.)
I’m pretty sure that Froome has been promised a leading role on Sky in the future (hence him agreeing the new contract), possibly even starting at this year’s Vuelta if he recovers well enough from the Tour. Then at next year’s Tour, he can lead the team and then everyone on Twitter can start questioning why Wiggins and Rigoberto Uran aren’t being allowed to attack him…
Today’s an odd stage as the race transitions out of the Alps. It starts with two climbs, then levels out, but has a final tricky climb near the end that seems to be there solely to put the sprinters’ teams off from chasing down a break. I wouldn’t be surprised to see several breaks today, probably starting with one featuring Frederik Kessiakoff as he tries to grab King of the Mountains points early. It might also be a stage where BMC release Philippe Gilbert, as it could suit him and other Classic riders. Liquigas may be tempted to give chase to any break that doesn’t get too far down the road, as the uphill finish should suit Peter Sagan. If things do come together, Sky will be at the front to protect Bradley Wiggins, which could set up Boasson Hagen, or possibly even Cavendish if he wants to start preparing himself for the Olympic climb of Box Hill before a sprint finish.