Following the rest day in Switzerland, the riders of the Tour de France will tackle a selection of the hardest Alpine climbs not named Alpe d’Huez. The four days stretching from Wednesday to Saturday can be thought of as; hard summit finish, mountain time trial, even harder summit finish, trio of big climbs.
The two summit finish stages are similar in design with a selection of mountains tackled throughout the day and a feature climb at the day’s close. Stage 17, to Finhaut Emosson, has a nasty finale with the final two summits separated by less than 20km. Stage 19 ends on Mont Blanc with the Alpine giant following a HC category climb in Montee de Bisanne. It’s long and steepens at the top striking plenty of fear into contenders and groupetto alike. Mont Blanc arrives 40km later after a long, staggered descent. The opening slopes of Mont Blanc are brutally hard and any rider distanced early will face the most gruelling 10km of their Tour. Stage 20 may lack an acclaimed summit finish but the Col de Joux Plane is one of the hardest climbs in France. The concluding descent into Morzine is just 12km long and the 145km stage could be perfect for the more venturesome riders in the top 10.
Let’s be honest, despite the short stage lengths and interesting peaks, it’s a stretch to imagine the next four days being Tour de France greats. Sky have returned stronger than ever with Alberto Contador absent, Nairo Quintana jaded, Fabio Aru fragile, Tejay Van Garderen struggling and Richie Porte, well, he’s just been unlucky. Chris Froome himself has been in sparkling form, even winning a fraction of his hate mob round with his willingness to clip-clop up Mont Ventoux in an attempt at the Tour’s first duathlon. Another problem the Tour may encounter is that the other riders making a good impression – Bauke Mollema, Adam Yates and Dan Martin – are likely to defend their high positions as opposed to attacking the yellow jersey. Whilst some throughout history would regard this as a form of racing sacrilege, it’s hardly unexpected and completely understandable that they will have eyes fixed firmly on the podium spots. Economists would say the race is bordering on a state of Nash Equilibrium with no participant set to gain through a change in collective strategy. Whilst any rider bar Froome can improve their position in the GC, offsetting the status quo leads to a greater chance of collapse. The struggle to topple Team Sky, combined with a contentment of current GC standings, makes for, right now, a cagey top ten.
But hang on a minute…
Perhaps now I’m being too negative and talk of equilibrium should not hold true in the Alps. Quintana, the pre-race favourite of the anti-Froomers, has had, in reality, one bad day. The damage Froome did in Luchon, Montpellier and, to an extent, the individual time trial has everything to do with Froome’s brilliance and little to do with the Colombians form (he could have reacted better in Luchon, but that wasn’t a legs issue). It was on Ventoux that he was dealt a real blow as his gentle attacks posed Sky no issue before Froome rocketed to a sizeable lead (and later into Porte’s tangled body and the backside of a motorbike). Quintana’s had just one bad day going uphill; he has four more now and he needs to ‘win’ them all. He’s won the Giro and placed second twice at the Tour, he’s guaranteed a high status for the next five years, and he really doesn’t need to come fourth. Or third. Or even second. Another rider who has freedom is Romain Bardet. The Frenchman has more to gain than lose and a realistic shot at moving up the classification.
Bauke Mollema cannot be discarded either. Holding his second place would be a phenomenal achievement but after a wonderful time trial he sits just 1:47 behind Froome. He certainly has the bit between his teeth and is showing a new aggressive side. The Trek leader rides alone for much of the Tour and could become the latest anti-Sky hero to cheer. The boys in black have been so strong that it’s difficult to wholeheartedly get behind them and a stage where Froome becomes isolated would be a joy to watch. The odd thing is, Froome would probably win any one-on-one mountain showdown and do so with a typically exuberant attack.
The Brit is known for fading in the final week and, whilst this probably won’t happen again, I’m not willing to give up on this back-loaded Tour de France. The likes of Quintana and Porte will soon grow unhappy of their current positions and be forced to mix things up. BMC and Movistar have been tactically naive at times but they, like Sky previously, can learn from their mistakes. Furthermore, Astana and leader Aru have begun to show their foolhardy side and they’ll certainly take on Sky – if just for pride alone. Forget Nash Equilibrium, we’ve got Mont Blanc.
What could happen?
Scenario One: Froome and Team Sky crush the opposition
On the climb of Finhaut Emosson Sky crank up the tempo and soon even riders from the top ten fall away. With half the lead group teammates of the yellow jersey, Mollema, Yates, Quintana and Porte have no chance of making ground. With 5km to go Froome makes his move, shaking Quintana off his tail. He solos to victory and ends the day four minutes clear in the GC. Despite Quintana’s efforts in the mountain time-trial, Froome takes a third win of the race by handful of seconds. Now confident of success, Sky hand the last two days in the Alps over to large breakaways and polka-dot pretenders. The top five finish together on Mont Blanc and the podium is set.
Final Podium: Froome, Mollema, Quintana
Scenario Two: Sky control the race and the podium battle intensifies
The Finhaut Emosson stage follows much the same structure as the Pyrenees. The contenders finish together, with the exception of Mollema who loses a handful of seconds. Porte stars in the mountain time-trial, finishing second to Froome and moving up to fifth. On Stage 19 the race comes to life. Valverde is dropped early on Mont Blanc and Quintana begins to struggle. Mollema is unable to find his Ventoux form and Sky lead a smaller group up the climb. Bardet attacks and Froome follows with Porte and Wout Poels. The four work together to gain an advantage and Bardet wins the stage. Less than a minute separates Yates, Bardet and Porte going into Stage 20 and several attacks on the Joux Plane flip the trio around.
Final Podium: Froome, Porte, Bardet
Scenario Three: Sky crack, Quintana takes a stage, but Froome holds on
A large breakaway dominates Stage 17 but Froome ends up alone in the final kilometres. Sensing the slightest opportunity, Quintana attacks and distances Froome with his second kick gaining twelve seconds. The Colombian wins the mountain time trial and Froome again looks sub-par finishing fourth and losing more time. A revitalised Quintana is paced up Mont Blanc by Movistar but Sky have numbers and Froome looks comfortable. The two finish together and Quintana takes the stage. Quintana starts the final day in the Alps two minutes behind. He is watched carefully on the Montee de Bisanne and is shutdown when attacking on the Joux Plane. The Colombian finishes second to Froome for a third time.
Final Podium: Froome, Quintana, Mollema
Scenario Four: Sky crack, Froome cracks, Mollema/Yates/Quintana/Porte wins the Tour
Sky are already down on numbers approaching the final climb of Stage 17 when Mikel Nieve suffers a mechanical leaving Froome alone. BMC head the lead group and Porte is the first to attack. Quintana follows but Froome cracks and frenzy spreads through the group. Eventually Mollema, Yates, Quintana and Aru ride away and they all gain time. Quintana wins the mountain time trial with Mollema second and Aru third. Froome is ninth and narrowly holds on to his jersey. Sky’s lieutenants go missing on Mont Blanc whilst Froome shadows Mollema. Quintana attacks and Froome is dropped as the group begin to chase. Mollema takes the yellow jersey and Froome is in no shape to reclaim it on Stage 20. Yates hangs on to third.
Final Podium: Mollema, Quintana, Yates