Sheltering from the rainstorm atop Arcalis last Sunday, many GC contenders would have immediately switched their focus to Mont Ventoux. A rest day would follow Tom Dumoulin’s superb victory, before a departure out of the Pyrenees on Tuesday and one for the sprinters the following afternoon.
Dangerously high winds have meant the Ventoux stage will finish at Chalet Reynard, 6km short of the intended summit. Whilst this will take the edge off the climb, I’m expecting much of the same from today’s stage. Some of Ventoux’s most brutal gradients and long, open slopes will now be avoided increasing the chances of aggressive riding or a successful breakaway.
Yesterday’s ‘sprinters stage’ was blighted by crosswinds creating many splits in the peloton. Froome attempted to increase his Ventoux buffer, following a Peter Sagan attack in an exciting finale. The Maillot Jaune sprinted home behind the World Champion, increasing his lead over Quintana to 37 seconds.
The Pyrenean three-parter suffered from being the first of the Tour’s mountain ranges – a fate that fans will be suitably prepared for. It was a game of chess, rather than battleships, with Team Sky moving their strongest piece into position. The first stage saw a strong group of favourites follow Stephen Cummings up the Col d’Aspin. Sky set tempo but never attacked and a watchful Movistar were happy to wait. Fabio Aru and Warren Barguil were among those to lose time. The next day saw Sky again dominated on the final climb but a trademark Froome attack was delayed. Instead, the Brit waited for the summit before an acceleration took him a few lengths clear as the descent began. Quintana, usually so brilliantly diligent, was stunned by his rival’s newly acquired taste for daring descending and never looked like getting back on terms. Froome took a thirty second lead which was reduced to thirteen plus a stage bonus by the time he raised his arms in Luchon; marginal gains. Froome took the Maillot Jaune into Stage 9 and the contenders again left it late to spring into action. Up ahead, Dumoulin, Rui Costa, Thibaut Pinot and Rafal Majka were playing for stage honours and when the heavens opened we were treated to some memorable racing. Richie Porte was first to attack from the main group and Froome responded on cue. Quintana stayed glued to his wheel and Dan Martin also jumped across. The Irishman would then attack, before Froome himself, Porte again and finally Bauke Mollema. Each time a comfortable Quintana stayed on Froome as if their bikes were connected. The big gaps never materialised and by the end of the day nine riders sat within a minute of Sky’s leader.
Arriving in the middle of the race, some distance from the Pyrenees and an estranged cousin of the Alps, Mont Ventoux stands out in the Tour’s second week in much the same way it does the Provence region. It’s long and hard, both steep in slope and steeped in history. Trusting their teammates to weave them through the pack, Froome and Quintana will have had Ventoux on the mind for the last three days. In 2013 Froome rode a young Quintana off his wheel on Ventoux but Quintana will also hold good memories of the stage. He had started the race as Alejandro Valverde’s number two but by the top of Ventoux the world knew he was clearly the stronger climber. He hasn’t looked back, winning the Giro the following year and, perhaps a greater victory, earning Valverde’s blessing as Movistar’s chosen one.
The climb will also be on the mind of Porte, Martin, Tejay Van Garderen, Romain Bardet and best young rider Adam Yates. Furthermore, it’s an opportunity for the likes of Fabio Aru to get back into podium contention. The gaps really are that small; Aru has been discarded back in 13th place but is just 1:23 back. By contrast, going into Stage 12 last year Sami Sanchez sat in 13th place – he was 10:27 behind Froome.
We arrive at the foot of Ventoux with the race in its infancy. This could cause things to be cagey with riders looking to respond to rivals’ weaknesses – but the emphasis should really be on attack. Greg LeMond said he was on his limit in the 1989 Tour bluffing his way to the final time-trial. Laurent Fignon would keep attacking without realising how much his US rival was hurting. For riders outside the top five attacking is the way forward; Froome might be about to blow, Quintana could be having an off day.
The long Ventoux climb should suit BMC’s diesel-engine duo of Porte and Van Garderen. But for a puncture, Porte would be just 25 seconds behind Froome and, despite his two minute deficit, looks one of the more likely to attack. Van Garderen looked second rate last weekend but managed to limit his losses. He is still there or thereabouts and could use Ventoux to jump up the classification.
Dan Martin and Adam Yates have had superb races but might just struggle on Ventoux. If Martin holds his best form he should be in the mix but he’s never before been considered a Tour de France contender. Yates was brilliant on Sunday but could meet his match on tomorrow afternoon’s monster climb. Ventoux is the only summit of the day and a large selection should start the climb together. By the steepest sections only the strong will remain.
Whilst Ventoux has been on the mind of most since last weekend, others may have taken aim back in October. Thursday is Bastille Day and the French will be out in force. Bardet’s GC position compromises his ambitions as he won’t be allowed any freedom to attack. Pierre Rolland was an early pick for Ventoux but at ‘just’ four minutes back he will be seen as a threat by the super-cautious Sky.
By default that leaves Thibaut Pinot as the French hope but whether or not he is up to the challenge remains to be seen. After suffering a bad day in the Pyrenees he has adjusted his focus to the KotM competition but even struggled to stay with Daniel Navarro and Winner Anacona when part of Sunday’s break. It may seem harsh on the Frenchman but his season started so well that a familiar Tour collapse comes as a major disappointment.
(Really wild) Wildcards for the stage include Eduardo Sepulveda, Alexis Vuillermoz and Frank Schleck. Whilst Sepulveda may still hold GC ambitions, Vuillermoz and Schleck look set on stage wins. Schleck, however, may be asked to work for Trek leader Mollema, whose attack on Sunday showed a rare aggressive side and renewed intent. Julian Alaphilippe’s spell in the top ten ended when he nosedived on Stage 8, losing 25 minutes. However, the young Frenchman is no stranger to attacks and his two ascents of Mt.Baldy show he has form on long, hard climbs. Nibali is another rider worth watching. He seems to be splitting his workload between helping Aru and hunting stages, so far pretty unsuccessful at both. He still has the potential to do some fine work for his Italian junior but may request a run at Ventoux glory. With the flat opening kilometres, next week’s Alpine stages look far better for breakaways and Ventoux should really be won by a GC favourite.
Quintana and Froome to arrive together, Quintana to win the stage
Van Garderen to cause a shock
Schleck or Nibali go early and get a gap
Alaphilippe produces something huge