Sky is looking strong, but do they really want the race lead this soon?
Joe Lindsey |
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Sky is looking strong, but do they really want the race lead this soon? – By Joe Lindsey
A twisty, technical time trial in the rain is no platform for huge assumptions about what we’ll see in the next three weeks of the Tour de France. BMC’s Richie Porte, after all, soundly thumped three-time Tour winner Chris Froome in a time trial a few weeks ago at the Criterium du Dauphine.So what to make of Porte’s anonymous 49th-place finish, conceding 35 seconds to his rival over just 14km? It’s not ideal, but Porte is still in better shape than, for example, Alejandro Valverde, who slid out on a slippery corner, went down hard on his left side and was forced to abandon.
Several riders spoke of holding back slightly to avoid the fate that befell Valverde. Porte took a recon ride in the car behind early-starting teammate Nicholas Roche, who crashed, which Porte confessed rattled him a bit. “Keeping it rubber-side down was probably more the goal,” said Porte afterward. The question is whether that caution will cost him and other challengers 20 stages from now.One takeaway that is clear? Froome’s Sky team is incredibly strong. Aside from Geraint Thomas’s stage win, Sky put riders in third, sixth and eighth place on the day. Only Quick-Step, with Matteo Trentin in 5th and Marcel Kittel 9th, managed to put more than one rider in the top 10 and just two other teams—Astana and Movistar—got two riders each into the top 20.So, just one stage in to the race, defending champion Froome is in a great position. He has a strong team, and he was best-placed of all the GC contenders by considerable margin. In just 14 kilometres and a little over 16 minutes of racing, he’s already 19 seconds clear of his closest even-plausible challenger: LottoNL-Jumbo’s Robert Gesink. Nairo Quintana lost 36 seconds to Froome; Dan Martin lost 37 seconds; and Romain Bardet, Fabio Aru and Alberto Contador conceded 39, 40 and 42 seconds, respectively.This year’s Tour de France course is an odd one: short on TT kilometres, and with only a few true mountaintop finishes. Chances to make up chunks of time are somewhat rare. And with Sky looking as strong as they do, that may reduce even those meager opportunities.
Valverde’s shocking DNF is also a massive hit to Movistar’s hopes. The team still has its leader in Quintana. But he went deep at May’s Giro d’Italia trying to win that race, and the last two contenders to attempt the Giro-Tour double—Vincenzo Nibali last year and Contador in 2015—weren’t able to make the podium in the Tour.
Valverde has had a dream spring, with wins in several major week-long stage races, along with the Liege-Bastogne-Liege monument. With such a tense and tricky Tour route, and with time bonuses for the first three finishers on all road stages, Valverde’s blend of strength and tactical nous made him a fashionable dark horse pick for a long-sought, long-denied Tour win.
All of those hopes—and the idea that Movistar could play Quintana off Valverde as a 1-2 punch—are now dissolved in a wet corner of the opening TT. In fact, the only downside right now for Sky is that they have to defend the race lead right from the start, which means they’ll use energy they might have hoped to preserve for later in the race when the lead matters most.
Because there are time bonuses on the line for the first three finishers on road stages (10, 6 and 4 seconds, respectively), it’s possible that the team could give up the race lead in the coming days. But it’s not all that likely.
Stage 2 on Sunday, from Dusseldorf to the Belgian industrial city of Liege, is on paper a likely sprint finish (a forecast head/crosswind could change that). The best-placed sprinter in Saturday’s time trial was Quick-Step’s Marcel Kittel, a nine-time Tour stage winner who looks like a linebacker more than a bike racer, and has hair for which a boy band would trade a Billboard top-10 hit. He would certainly love to get a 10th victory, especially in a year the race starts in his native Germany.
But Kittel finished 16 seconds behind stage winner Thomas. No other sprinter is closer to Thomas than 20 seconds. So, only two scenarios see Sky handing off the race lead on Stage 2: First, if a breakaway goes clear instead of a sprint finish. Second, Kittel takes over the lead if Thomas sits up in the final kilometres and finishes six seconds or more behind the main bunch (along with BMC’s Stefan Kung, who is 11 seconds clear of Kittel on GC right now), AND the big Dolph Lundgren lookalike manages to win the stage. The “and” there is crucial; if Kittel finishes second and Thomas is less than 10 seconds behind, the Sky rider keeps the lead.
Other than in the breakaway scenario, Kittel is the only rider with even an outside shot at taking the race lead today. The only other sprinters within 30 seconds of Thomas are Sunweb’s Michael Matthews and five-time green jersey winner Peter Sagan of Bora-Hansgrohe. Stage 3 features a short but steep and technical uphill finish that suits them, but not Kittel, who climbs like he has a fear of heights. Stage 4 is another possible sprint finish.
Mathematically, it’s possible Sagan or Matthews could take the overall race lead on Stage 4 based on time bonuses. But one of them would have to finish second or better on stages 2, 3 and 4, and even then, he wouldn’t hold the lead more than a day because Stage 5 is the race’s first real summit finish on Planches des Belles Filles, where the lead might revert right back to Sky (Froome loves that climb).
So, long story short, Sky may be in for a long defense of the race lead—right now by Thomas and by Froome later in the race. In fact, the team’s best outcome is that a breakaway wins on Stage 2 by a modest margin. Responsibility for chasing a breakaway in a stage race traditionally falls to the race leader’s team. But don’t be surprised if a few riders get off the front on Sunday and Sky doesn’t seem to care THAT much about catching them. If the sprinters want a sprint, their teams may have to shoulder the load.