Tour Talk: Rest Day 2

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Fireworks were expected for the second week of the Tour but after Chris Froome lit up the field on the Col de Soudet seven days ago it’s all got a little cagey. Froome’s attack on the Soudet, a summit finish but the first and only climb of the day, blew away the field with next-best Nairo Quintana restricting his loses to a minute. Thankfully, there’s since been some signs of defiance from the other contenders and the race is yet to reach the Alps. The best part of the second week has been some genuinely exciting battles for stage wins and Peter Sagan’s gripping pursuit of a victory. Here’s ten shorts.

Geraint Thomas is one of the best in the world.

Despite his sole focus being Froome’s second Tour win, Thomas sits sixth in the GC and was rarely troubled by the climbs of the Pyrenees. After supporting Froome throughout Stage 10, he roared up the Col de Soudet behind him to sixth and also finished with a very elite group on the Plateau de Beille despite chasing down attacks when needed (he seemed particularly happy with his efforts to follow Quintana). Thomas also suffered an incredibly horrible crash into a telegraph pole having been knocked by an out of control Warren Barguil. The world held its breath after the incident but Thomas later joked about being asked what his name was by team doctors. It’s time to stop being surprised by Thomas’ climbing ability, he’s won the Algarve and placed runner-up in Switzerland, but his capacity to adapt to different race types is unmatched. No other rider could top 10 in the Tour and also win the cobbled classic E3 Harelbeke.

Nibali will go down fighting… sort of.

After a challenging first week, Nibali shipped over four minutes on the Col de Soudet and his race defence was effectively over. He couldn’t even hang on to the wheels of Rafal Valls, Bauke Mollema or team mate Jakob Fugslang and it was expected that Nibali would drift outside the top 20 and perhaps throw himself at a stage win. However, the Italian steadied himself slightly before rediscovering some confidence and attacking the leaders on numerous occasions. His first attack proved costly as he was caught and dropped- he should never have followed and passed Quintana- but the fact he even attempted such a move gives an indication of his defiance. Even with his futile attacks, Nibali has managed to hang with the best on a number of stages and has clawed his way up the standings. His best day of the second week came yesterday in Gap when his attack on the final climb went unfollowed. He opened up a small gap, which he increased (only) slightly on the descent and he pinched back 28 seconds from his rivals. Nibali now sits seventh.

Peter Sagan is still fantastic.

Since debuting in 2012, Sagan has come second in the Tour de France in Cap d’Agde, Foix, Paris, Ajaccio, Calvi, Montpellier, Saint-Amand-Motrond, Harrogate, London, Nancy, Saint-Etienne, Zelande, Amiens, Le Harve, Rodez and Gap. Oh, there’s also been third places in Brive-la-Gaillarde, Tours, Marseille, Nimes, Cambrai and Fougeres. We can add to that his four wins for 26 podiums in just under four Tours. There has also been a number of fourth place finishes that I will spare you in listing. That’s 70 stages excluding time-trials Sagan has ridden and, taking into account the many days spent in the high mountains, the soon-to-be four time points winner has barely missed an opportunity to contest a stage. Whilst his frustration continues, examining the finishing locations above you’ll see a definite progression in Sagan as a bike rider. His last second place was as part of a break that tackled a late category 2 climb. Sagan’s failed chase of Ruben Plaza was a definite highlight of last week. In an interview Sagan blamed his ‘stupid head’ for costing him one win but there’s nothing stupid about his brand of extremely aggressive, exciting and versatile riding. Take a look on the excellent for more on his record.

Van Avermaet gets landmark win.

One of Sagan’s most agonising second places was inflicted by Greg Van Avermaet. The finish to Stage 13 in Rodez was one of the hardest to predict. With 3km to go the sprinters were getting into position but by 1km it was clear this was not their day. The climb to the finish tore apart the field with Arnaud Demare kicking far too early and falling back through the bunch. It ended up a battle between Van Avermaet and Sagan, the former at home on the climb, the latter more suited to the sprint. The stage was set for Sagan to round the Belgian for that elusive win but his legs, or his timing, or his judgement, or something, deserted him and Van Avermaet held him off. The Belgian himself has often been the bridesmaid but can now boast a Tour de France stage win. He’s now left the race as his wife went into labour. A week to savour for Van Avermaet.

Clever Cummings breaks French hearts.

Stage 14 was another treat with a large break fighting it out on a lumpy finish. The escape included last year’s surprise packages Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot. After surviving the politicking of the 20-strong break, the pair showed their strength on the climb of the Cote de la Croix Neueve with Bardet going early and Pinot reaching him just after the summit. A stage win meant so much to the pair and they seemed to freeze in what looked to be a winning position. They began to watch each other as Steve Cummings paced his way up the climb and caught them on the descent. The strong Brit attacked immediately and time trialled away from the pair. Clearly the more powerful rider, Cummings completed his smash and grab without threat. The MTN-Qhubeka veteran brought smiles to the faces of his team directors with a perfect mix of patience and opportunism.

Sky aren’t afraid to let a big break go.

It’s been a funny old week with the transitional stages animated by large breaks. Team Sky have been setting the tempo of the peloton but have showed no interest in chasing escapees. Their team must radio in if the break contains any dangerous riders and once they give the all clear Sky take their foot of the gas. Breaks of size twenty have been common, as have gaps above ten minutes. On yesterday’s stage, 23 riders finished ahead of the main bunch and the winner over 18 minutes ahead of Froome. Clever riders will begin to take back huge chunks of time.

Tejay still at cut below the best.

Van Garderen is third overall and yes, he is having his best race. However, many were hoping he had legs strong enough to stay close to the likes of Quintana, Valverde and Contador. Unfortunately, the American is unable to respond to their accelerations and is not being given the time to ride his way back to them. On Stage 14 the elite group split and Van Garderen was distanced by even Nibali who, remember, is supposedly having an awful race. Van Garderen’s certainly not having a bad Tour but it’s beginning to resemble a very typical one. Prove me wrong Tejay.

Silly Sepulveda.

Sitting 19th overall, Argentine Sepulveda was delivering on his potential for French wildcard team Bretagne-Seche Environment. Whilst his team mates attacked at every possibility, he had been climbing well and riding sensibly. That is until Stage 14, where he was disqualified. The Tour debutant seemed to leave his sense on the team bus when, in a moment of panic, he got into the Ag2r La-Mondiale team car and was driven a hundred or so metres up the rode to his own team. He had suffered a mechanical and needed assistance but the Bretagne team car had driven past him. Sepulveda will have a great career and his actions were a long way from cheating. But climbing into a car? In a bike race?

Clean Froome paying price for those before him.

Another story from week two involves some idiot who threw a cup of urine at Froome and accused him of being a doper. Days before, French darling Lauren Jalabert said Froome was on ‘another planet’ and it made him feel ‘uncomfortable’. Leading the Tour de France nowadays involves a lot of negative press conferences and time spent justifying your talent. Chris Froome is clean and doesn’t deserve to be put under this scrutiny. Fans will make their own mind up but too many scowl at genuinely great performances in this post-Armstrong, post-Festina, post-Puerto world.

Combativity award heading to France?

France may be battling to get just one top 10 finisher but the ‘Combativity award’ could be heading their way. At the end of the second week the main contenders are all French- Pedrig Quemeneur, Pierre-Luc Perichon and Frederic Brun.  The problem is, the award usually goes to somebody who’s stolen a lot of air time and maybe even claimed a victory. The French trio have escaped on a number of occasions but don’t seem to do a lot when they are away. This is in part due to the size of breaks making it difficult to catch the eye. I expect somebody to grab the award in the Alps with a series of attacks. As it stands, Thomas De Gendt has been a notably aggressive non-French rider but so too has Sagan and my vote goes to the Slovakian.

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