It hasn’t been easy but on the eve of Stage 18 of the 2017 Tour de France we can conclude the organisers have got what they wanted. They didn’t want Chris Froome to stomp his familiar brand of victory all over this year’s edition and they wanted each mountain stage to be ridden in earnest. Tomorrow’s stage isn’t mind-blowingly difficult but a simple double-peaked profile with a finish on the Col d’Izoard ensures there’s one last roll of the dice for a tightly packed top six.
We have a pretty good idea of what will happen on the final time trial. Unless Rigoberto Uran does something spectacular – or fate intervenes once more – Froome will gain time on Stage 20. Uran should be the next best, with Fabio Aru somewhere between the Colombian and Romain Bardet, the worst time triallist in the top four. With this in mind, we will certainly see some attacks tomorrow. Froome looks beatable and that hasn’t always been the case.
With gaps still relatively small, several riders could hypothetically seize the yellow jersey. Here’s how…
Let’s start with the most straightforward outcome. This time tomorrow we could all be laughing at our own naivety having just watched Team Sky shed the peloton to a string of riders before releasing Froome to roar up the road for an overdue stage win.
Whilst some Sky riders have underperformed, others have been earning their bonuses and Froome has rarely been short of support. With time trial gains in the bank, Froome might not need to go on the attack but he is clearly wary of his small 27 second lead and does love a Tour de France stage win.
Likelihood: Let’s be honest, it’s very likely Froome will remain in yellow
Rigoberto Uran +0:27
The story of the race so far has been Uran’s transition from lost cause to surprise package and finally to the strongest of Froome’s rivals. The former Giro runner-up has followed attacks with ease. On the opening mountain stage his presence in the front group was a pleasant surprise but with just one day of climbing remaining he is to be taken very seriously.
He has rarely been separated from the race leader with his stage victory in Chambery and Froome’s slow finish Peyragudes helping to eat into the 51 second deficit he suffered in the opening time trial.
We’ve yet to see him really attack and that needs to change if he is to win the Tour de France. Will Uran risk it tomorrow to land the biggest win of his career? Cannondale look weak so Uran will have to go alone. Can he drop his rivals one by one?
Likelihood: Unlikely, I still think Uran in yellow would be a remarkable story
Romain Bardet +0:27
Bardet can win this Tour de France and repay the faith shown by AG2R. His performance on the Galibier was arguably his strongest ride of the year. He no longer looks inferior to Froome and clearly has nothing to fear.
So how can he do it? Unfortunately he probably needs north of 45 seconds on Froome to take any sort of chance into Marseille. No matter how good Bardet is, he won’t take 45 seconds unless Froome is having a bad day.
There have been signs that Froome is operating close to his limit and the final mountain stage is not usually his best. AG2R need to rid Froome of Michal Kwiatkowski prematurely and force Mikel Landa to do some early work. From then on it’s down to Bardet to pick the right moment to attack.
Likelihood: If anybody can take the jersey, Bardet can
Fabio Aru +0:53
Fabio Aru was right on the cusp today. Last year the Italian found himself flung from 6th to 13th after a terrible day in Morzine and alarm bells were surely ringing as he battled to stay in touch on the ramps of the Galibier.
Nevertheless, at both the Giro and Vuelta Espana we have seen Aru’s ability to bounce back from bad days and there’s no reason to completely give up on him – I certainly haven’t.
Now nearly a minute behind Froome, you wonder if Aru has readjusted his focus to getting back on the podium. Either way he has to be active and will likely be left to work alone. Aru needs to pray he has a good day but the Izoard should suit him. If anybody cracks early, Aru may draw for the sword.
Likelihood: Very unlikely, Aru would need to do something very special.
Mikel Landa +1:24
How does Mikel Landa win this Tour de France? Assuming he doesn’t lob his earpiece into the crowd, he needs Froome to crack badly and early.
If – by some miracle – he finds himself as de facto Sky leader he needs to gain a minute on the rest of the top three. At this point he would only have one real option: attack hard and release the anger of three seasons of frustration.
Likelihood: As likely as Vincenzo Nibali tweeting his support of Astana
Dan Martin +2:37
Dan Martin is unlucky to be 2:37 off the race lead as – for the most part – he has ridden in the group of podium contenders. He’s been the most active of the current top ten (save for Alberto Contador) and I don’t expect that to change tomorrow.
Despite needing nearly three minutes to take an unlikely lead, Martin won’t be allowed much rope beyond thirty seconds. The stage should suit him but he was distanced today and will do well to reverse that form.
He is another who won’t have any teammates and it would need to be a phenomenal attack.
Likelihood: As likely as Yoann Offredo winning on the Champs-Élysées
Simon Yates +4:07
Right, so we’re getting into the realms of ridiculousness now. How on earth can Simon Yates wrestle the leader’s jersey onto his shoulders on tomorrow’s stage?
We’ve seen that Yates has been given some freedom to attack but it would require a major miscalculation for him to be given the four minutes he needs to become a factor.
Perhaps Esteban Chaves has been saving himself for this very stage and will pull Yates up both the Col de Vas and Col d’Izoard in a never-to-be-forgotten Tour de France twist.
Perhaps… but probably not.
Likelihood: As likely as Joaquim Rodriguez coming out of retirement to win next month’s Vuelta
Louis Meintjes +6:35
What a story this one would be.
After clinging on to every group’s back wheel for the best part of three weeks, Louis Meintjes may just be preparing the greatest shock in cycling history. After all, he did seem to enjoy today’s stage…
— Louis (@LouisMeintjes) July 19, 2017
In truth, Meintjes won’t be a factor tomorrow – we probably won’t see him as he bops his way to an eighth place finish.
Likelihood: As likely as Lance Armstrong being invited to a Tour de France Grand Depart
Alberto Contador +7:45
“True, but you can never rule out Contador…”
Well, I think it’s time that we did rule out Contador – his legs just can’t match his crazily ambitious spirit. Nevertheless, El Pistolero is still the most likely of the outsiders to try something preposterous.
Picture the scene, Contador’s remaining seven teammate’s team time trial off the front of the peloton as soon as the flag drops leaving the Spaniard to look as innocent as possible. Contador dances away on the opening climb and swings from teammate to teammate like Tarzan as he makes his way to the head of the race.
Grimacing for most of the Izoard, Contador takes eight minutes from Froome as the peloton deliberately sabotage the race.
Likelihood: As likely as Nacer Bouhanni attending Arnaud Demare’s Birthday party
Nairo Quintana +12.45
Quintana’s still in this. He’s got something planned. This is his big moment.
What if the Colombian signs for Team Sky at the foot of the Izoard and Froome sets him up for a brilliant stage win before waiting at the side of the road for the next thirteen minutes.
Bardet and Aru follow suit, refusing to attack the yellow jersey…
Likelihood: As likely as Darwin Atapuma winning Milan – San Remo next year