Analysis: What is still to come in the 2017 Tour de France
Jul 18 2017 02:49 pm CET

Analysis: What is still to come in the 2017 Tour de France
Analysis: What is still to come in the 2017 Tour de France
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TOUR DE FRANCE

After the second and last rest day of this Tour de France, we are ready for the grand finale of this edition and unlike recent years there is no clear winner yet.

The fight for yellow will continue toe to toe, heading for the Alps, between four main contenders that are separated by less than 30 second in the GC: Chris Froome, Fabio Aru, Romain Bardet and the unexpected Colombian Rigoberto Urán. Behind them a combative Dan Martin is showing a better shape day after day and if the trend continues he could become a fifth adversary in the fight for the yellow jersey and the podium, a struggle that will take place in the two hard Alpine stages that are left and of course the final time trial.

Two thirds of the Grande Boucle have passed by, and perhaps the most relevant moment of all was the climb to Peyragudes, the summit finish of the 12th stage, where Fabio Aru achieved what for the last four years was impossible to anyone else: to take the yellow jersey from Chris Froome. The Italian national champion delivered a dramatic attack on the last few hundred meters of the stage, which happened to be one of the most difficult sections of the entire stage, and took Chris Froome by surprise. Even though the stage victory went to Romain Bardet on the finish line, the differences that Aru, the Frenchman and Rigoberto Urán managed to gain over the rest of the riders, were enough for Aru to claim the yellow jersey.

This was the game changing moment of the Tour de France. It highlighted the not-so-good moment that Froome is going through. He is certainly strong but not as overwhelmingly superior as in past editions. It also showed that the main lieutenant that Froome has for the high mountains is Mikel Landa, and that in some points of the race Landa could be stronger than Froome, as we saw in the same final meters of Peyragudes where the Spaniard dropped his team leader’s wheel in order to react to the attacks of other favorites. This stage reminded us all the situation in which Froome himself was with Bradley Wiggins in the Tour of 2012 and many now believe that in the hardest kilometers of the high mountain stages it could be Landa instead of Froome to be the prevalent rider of Sky.

The twelfth stage was also the confirmation of Rigoberto Urán as a serious contender for the podium. The Colombian is back on track after two rough years without any professional victory, and in Peyragudes he proved that his success of the 9th stage was no accident and that he is at the same level as the main GC contenders. During the whole second week, he remained close to Bardet, Aru, Froome and company and for the final six stages he emerges as the ultimate outsider. After all, Urán is only 29 seconds behind Froome and 6 seconds behind the third place of the GC: Romain Bardet, and the Colombian is a more capable rider than the other two on flat terrain and in time trials (even though he wasn’t that good in the Prologue in Dusseldorf).

The main obstacle that Urán but also Aru faces is the lack of a solid team to assist them in the most critical moments. The Cannondale-Drapac of Urán wasn’t prepared for such responsibility as the Colombian himself wasn’t on the GC radar of many people at the beginning of the Tour. Nevertheless, he seems to be solid enough to look for the good wheel all by himself, as he did in the tricky finale of the 14th stage in Rodez where he and Dan Martin followed Froome closely in the middle of the chaos that was unleashed in the final 500 meters and took 24 seconds to Aru, which meant the yellow jersey for the Briton and more confidence for both Urán and Martin.

Astana is still dealing with bad luck after the abandons of Dario Cataldo and Jakob Fuglsang. The Kazakh team came to France with a competent roster to support Aru’s effort, but once on the road the crashes of the 11th stage decimated the squad forcing Cataldo to abandon on the spot while Fuglsang left the race two days later with two small fractures. This meant that Aru will have to do the same as Urán and try to look after himself since the rest of the team has been unable to effectively support him, as we saw in Rodez.

But if there is a team that has not only the capability but also the responsibility to take a step forward and try to dominate the race it is Bardet’s AG2R La Mondiale. The French squad has been in crescendo during this Tour, and reached its ultimate performance so far in the 15th stage where it was able to drop Chris Froome on a descent prior to the main climb of the day; the 1st category Col de Peyra. For a moment Sky was on its knees with its leader being dropped (although it is worth mentioning that a flat tire had to do with it) by a group controlled by 4 to 5 AG2R’s riders and with difficulty to find effective help from his domestiques.

Eventually Froome recovered and, according to his style, reduced the gap maintaining a steady fast pace. Mikel Landa was in the AG2R group and waited for his leader once he got close enough and the yellow jersey eventually made it back to the main peloton. Although the French squad couldn’t take any time on Froome by the finish line, its attempt has to be taken as a warning by the Briton and the other GC contenders; AG2R knows that its leader is feeling well but also realizes that it needs to gain a healthy time gap before the final time trial in Marseille. It will have to launch more attacks like the one in the Galibier and Izoard stages.

The two very hard Alpine stages: the 17th stage which features the Col de la Croix de Fer, the Col du Telegraphe and the Galibier; and the 18th stage which include the Col de Vars and ends at the top of the Izoard, will be the scenario of the most intense GC battles we have seen in years.

Three of the four main GC contenders: Aru, Bardet and Urán, must take enough time in the mountains so they can overcome their limited time trial skills, maybe with the exception of the Colombian depending on how he will feel in Marseille. At the same time Dan Martin will surely try to take the other team leaders by surprise now that he is clearly feeling better after the nasty crash of the first week.

If Martin attacks, the question will be whether any of the other four contenders are willing to jump to his wheel. If they choose to let the Irishman go, trusting in the existing time gap of around a minute, maybe they will not be able to catch him later, especially in the Izoard stage where there is no descent where gaps can be neutralized. But if they try to respond to the attacks of the Quick Step rider it could lead to a dramatic spending of energy that can cost them in the same stage or in the time trial. In every anxious moment in the high mountain Chris Froome will have to rely on his strongest teammate: Mikel Landa, but if the Spaniard is in better shape than his leader - as he was in the Pyrenees - there is the risk of him again dropping Froome if things get more difficult than expected, which could be a potential disaster for the British aspirations. But this outcome is unlikely given that Landa has declared that he is committed to support Chris Froome, albeit for the last time.

Meanwhile two of the greatest names of the peloton: Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador, now without any chances in the GC, expect opportunities to shine in the mountains and maybe chase a stage victory in order to at least get something from their participations. Although they couldn’t get themselves in the fight for the podium, they are talented and experienced riders so we can expect a good spectacle if the opportunity comes.

The glory awaits in Paris for the strongest and most courageous rider of this Tour, without a doubt the most unpredictable in recent history. Cycling history will be written during the next week on the roads of the Alps and in the south of France, and we are lucky to have the chance to enjoy it.

By Marcelo Hernández
Image: Tour de France logo





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