French sports newspaper l’Equipe ran a headline before Wednesday’s 17th stage of the Tour de France, saying: “At last the Alps”. The inference was that the Alps would finally kick some life into a Tour that was becoming increasingly predictable and uneventful.
As it happened, the Alps brought nothing new or exciting to the three-week race which seems to be as good as decided – Chris Froome has a third Tour crown all but wrapped up.
Briton Adam Yates said as much after the 184.5km stage through the Swiss Alps.
“Obviously Froome is pretty strong. In my opinion, he’ll be on the top spot of the podium in Paris,” said the 23-year-old Briton.
For the rider lying third overall at 2min 53sec to say that with three tough Alpine stages to come spoke volumes about how Froome and his Sky team have strangled the life out of this year’s race.
Froome boasted before the Grand Boucle began that Sky had cobbled together their “strongest Tour team yet”. And it proved to be anything but bravado, even his assertions that many of his team-mates would be team leaders elsewhere.
When the group of favourites reached Wednesday’s final climb, Froome was surrounded by five teammates, hardly anyone else had more than one, and most of them not even that. Once the climb reached its steepest and toughest slopes, Froome still had Wouter Poels and Mikel Nieve setting a tempo the other rivals were simply finding hard to follow. Ireland’s Dan Martin did try to break away, but was soon brought back. Richie Porte launched the one successful dig which Nairo Quintana tried to follow, but couldn’t.
In the end it was Froome who set off after Porte, caught him easily, and then rode in the Australian’s wheel to the line. There was a feeling that he could have gone past him if he wanted to, but as Froome said afterwards: “It wasn’t possible to go much faster there.
“Richie seemed to be doing just fine on his own; tactically for me there was no real need to get on the front and start pulling in the final.”
With Quintana – who despite sitting fourth likely remains Froome’s biggest rival – falling away, there certainly was no need to push harder with three more days in the Alps to come.
With Thursday’s uphill time-trial next, the general feeling is that Froome still has time to gain on his rivals rather than lose. Quintana initially suggested that he hadn’t given up hope, despite admitting it “wasn’t a good day”.
“I need to recover and get my body back to its natural state, as happened in other races. Anything can happen between here and Paris,” he said defiantly, before suggesting his day would have to come some other time. “I have a long time left. I’m 26 and I have very experienced people behind me. I have a lot of time left to keep fighting.”
Having seemingly been most worried about Quintana until now, Froome did suggest he thought that boat had sailed.
“It’s been a difficult Tour for Nairo. Of course he’s still a great rival and a big challenger for me, but he lost more time (on Wednesday). For him to re-enter in the game again he’s going to have to do a great time-trial (on Thursday).”
For that Froome believes Tom Dumoulin, who won the first time-trial last week, is the favourite, but he acknowledges Quintana could shine if he rediscovers his legs.
“The main guys are going to be Tom Dumoulin for the stage win, Richie Porte maybe – he showed (on Wednesday) he’s really strong. Who knows (the time-trial) might suit Quintana really well.”
But the smart money is on Froome winning it and leaving his rivals looking at each other and a fight for the other two podium spots. This is not a Tour that will live long in the memory, unless your name is Chris Froome.
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