Tour Talk returns! Stage 9 of this year’s Tour de France may have had more action than the previous eight combined but the resulting situation is a nicely packed top ten, albeit with a few notable absentees. There’s still plenty of racing left but here’s what we’ve had so far.
Despite several of the opening nine stages unfolding with a dull predictability, there’s been more than a few moments of controversy. The sprints have been messy since the very first in Liege. There’s been plenty of misfiring lead-outs and a lack of order has made for some sketchy sprint lines. Arnaud Demare and his FDJ team weren’t afraid to bump around old rival Nacer Bouhanni and the Cofidis rider also collided with Andre Greipel.
Sprinting has always been confrontational – perhaps less so in recent years – but there was one moment that the authorities could not look past. Most of the race’s leading sprinters were hurtling towards the line when Peter Sagan introduced Mark Cavendish to the barriers with a horrible impact; the World Champion was later disqualified from the Tour. Several carefully paused screenshots have shown how Cavendish leaned close to Sagan as he wriggled through a tight gap but the Slovakian paid the price for his reaction. A bulky elbow was lifted and at 70kph Cavendish’s race was always going to end.
Not wanting to be outdone by the sprinters, on yesterday’s stage we saw a disgruntled Chris Froome drop a shoulder into Fabio Aru on a steep hairpin. The awkward-looking triple Tour winner has offered an explanation of a ‘wobble’ and there’s a shred of evidence in the form of a possible unclipping. It seems improbable but so does Aru’s story that he didn’t attack Froome when he saw he had a mechanical. We’re supposed to believe that neither act was intentional – perhaps they’re best friends after all…
Froome The Unflappable
Froome has survived a fall, a mechanical and the loss of his chief wingman to lead the Tour de France by 18 seconds. Moreover, his strongest rival has crashed out of the race and some other big names are several minutes in arrears. Since crashing in 2014, Froome has had a real knack for avoiding big problems or landing on his feet. Even when without a bike on Ventoux last year he escaped any form of time loss.
Apparently short of form, Froome looks imperious despite the close proximity of Aru and Romain Bardet. He has ridden his luck so far but I’m expecting a big victory soon. I can picture him dropping a gasping Aru on the slopes of the Galibier.
More Agony For Porte
There’s a staggering difference between the fortunes of Froome and Richie Porte. Perhaps Froome deserves praise for the way he deals with his issues but there’s no denying Porte’s been dealt a rough hand. Just minutes after cresting the Mont du Chat, the BMC leader lost control of his back wheel, straight-lined a fast left-hander and was thrown into the mountain wall. The incident follows costly mechanicals at both last year’s Tour and the 2015 Giro d’Italia. Porte was later diagnosed with hip and collarbone fractures but thankfully avoided any serious head injury.
Plan Bs, Cs and Ds
BMC are now looking at twelve stages without their best climber and team captain. Nicolas Roche has already been active and I’m expecting others to follow suit. Paris-Roubaix winner Greg Van Avermaet isn’t exactly the worst guy to rally around…
It’s been a race full of Plan Bs and after losing four riders FDJ will be cancelling their rest day BBQ in favour of a crisis meeting. Thibaut Pinot doesn’t seem to be at his best but looks the only rider capable of saving their race.
It’s a similar story for Bahrain-Merida who have really struggled since losing Ion Izagirre. There was plenty of promise from Sonny Colbrelli on Stage 2 but their absence from many of the breaks doesn’t bode well.
Trek-Segafredo are also struggling. With Alberto Contador’s race hanging by a thread, I’d love to see Jarlinson Pantano or even Bauke Mollema raid the KotM competition.
And what about Bora’s cooking revolution? Both Sagan and Rafal Majka will be back filming adverts for the next few weeks. Can Emmanuel Buchmann save their race?
Brown Shorts Everywhere
AG2R La Mondiale have been superb. It’s a stretch to say they’ve out-muscled Team Sky but Romain Bardet has been suitably guarded by Cyril Gautier, Axel Domont and especially Pierre Latour whilst Mathias Frank, Jan Bakelants and Alexis Vuillermoz have been gallivanting through the Jura in pursuit of a stage win.
The current AG2R set-up is barely recognisable from the one that used to deliver Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu (who quit the Tour de France a record 12 times) to the front of bunch sprints.
Kittel Gunning For A Magnificent Seven
In a recent piece on Marcel Kittel, I wrote that I’d be surprised he gets ‘more than three’ victories and that the sprint stages would be ‘shared around’.
I’m now pretty certain I’ll be wrong on both fronts. Not only has Kittel won three stages already but he’s won them amidst difficulty. He came wide to win in Liege, left in late in Vittel and appeared to underestimate a Cavendish-less Dimension Data on Friday. There’s four sprint stages left plus your own judgement on Stages 14 & 19. I thought Kittel would be dropped at least once and mess up another – I’m now struggling to see either situation occurring.
Michael Matthews has done everything he can to stay in the fight for the green jersey. Unfortunately his best efforts haven’t prevented him from falling 62 points behind Kittel with plenty of flat stages to come. He needs to get as close to Kittel as he did on Stage 7 (when finishing third) on a regular basis whilst also continuing to chase the intermediate sprints. His performance yesterday was immense and he collected maximum points after surviving two HC climbs and having his teammates bring him up to the leaders.
To the Australian’s detriment, the intermediate sprints on Stages 12 & 13 will arrive before any seriously climbing giving Kittel a chance to score highly. Some time spent with the calculator suggests Matthews will have serious difficulty closing the gap. Stage 15 to Le Puy-en-Velay should have a big role to play. Sunweb will have to choose between getting Matthews in the morning break or trying to bring it back together for an unlikely bunch sprint.
The Three Martins
This Tour has been blessed by three great riders all with the same name. Wanty’s young hopeful Guillaume Martin jumped away for third place on the finish to Station de Rousses and should be on the attack this week. He’s having a good race so far and is out-performing his namesake Tony Martin.
The German and World Champion would have been disappointed with a fourth place in the opening time trial and has been restricted to a role in Alexander Kristoff’s lead-out train ever since. I’m hoping we’ll see more of him in the next two weeks but it’s looking like he’ll have one of his quietest Tours.
However, my favourite Martin and the ‘Martin of the Race’ so far would have to be Quick-Step’s Dan. The Irishman is climbing better than most and is defying the idea that he prefers the shorter, sharper ascents. He was caught up in the Porte crash but recovered quickly to limit his undeserved losses to 75 seconds.
After being collected by Porte’s propelled body/bike, Martin bounced across the road but was up surprisingly quickly.
Unfortunately, his front brake had been damaged and he didn’t realise until the next corner… where he crashed again. I can’t imagine what was going through a dazed Martin’s head when he went for his brake and absolutely nothing happened.
Not nice arriving at the next hairpin and learning I had no front brake 🙈
— Dan Martin (@DanMartin86) July 9, 2017