The SkyTrain Isn’t Unstoppable

Team Sky has a well-earned reputation for taking the excitement out of professional cycling with their tactic of lining up the world’s best and most expensive riders at the base of the final climb of every race and riding the competition off their wheels until their designated leader rides away for the stage and overall victory. This type of mechanical riding has caused major races like the Tour de France to retool their route to foil it and even has the director of the Tour calling for power meters to be banned to keep the team from riding such a brutal and metronomic pace.

Despite rival teams spending millions of dollars and drawing up unusual strategies in order to beat Sky, a previously unknown 20-year old Slovenian just revealed how to beat Sky’s famed mountain train.

The secret? Simply have the strongest rider in the race on your team.

At the bottom of the final climb of Thursday’s second stage of the Volta ao Algarve, viewers were treated to a common sight. Team Sky moved to the front of the peloton and proceeded to gradually raise the pace to an internal level that burned off all but a select few competitors.

As the race neared the final kilometer and exhausted Sky domestiques swung off one-by-one after completing their pacemaking, leader-for-the-week Wout Poels was dropped off with slightly over a kilometer meter to strike the killer blow on the remaining competition.

Screenshot 2019-02-22 at 10.20.31 AM

Poels pulled the triggered with a few hundred meters remaining, easily pulling in Amaro Antunes, who had made a late solo flyer and appeared set to take the stage win and all-but-seal overall victory. However, this well-worn script was flipped on its head, when previously unknown Tadej Pogačar (how the heck a tiny European country is churning out so many world-class riders will be explored in a future post) not only followed Poels, but jumped past him to take the stage win and the overall race lead.

To prove this performance wasn’t a fluke, Pogačar beat Poels by 36-seconds in the stage 3 time trial the following day. Pogačar now leads the race by over 30-seconds with only race decisive stage remaining.

The wealthiest team being outgunned by an unknown, 20-year rider with no team support really exposes the theory that Sky has hacked professional cycling with their uber-powerful mountain lead-out train and fancy power meters. The train is merely window dressing and somewhat obscures the fact that Sky nearly always possesses the strongest rider in a given race. When Chris Froome and/or Geraint Thomas show up at the Tour de France as the strongest climbers in the race, their team riding a fast pace on the final climb helps them only because they are simply fitter than every other rider attempting to match them.

On Thursday, Pogačar even benefitted from Poels’ teammates keeping the pace high and deterring attacks from rivals. Poels’ team did everything right, and even Poels himself laid in wait and attacked the way Froome or Thomas would have, but he simply didn’t have the fitness and power to ride a better rider off his wheel.

On its face, this result is somewhat inconsequential. A young rider beat a leader-less Sky at a small, early-season race in Southern Portugal. However, this shows that dominating mountain stages isn’t the video-game that the cycling media portrays it to be. When riders line up and ride up a mountain as fast as they can, the strongest rider usually wins. This is something to keep in mind as we head into the 2019 season and Sky heads to the Tour with two long-in-the-tooth leaders. We may finally begin to see younger, stronger riders land serious body blows on the previously unstoppable Sky dominance.

The Giro d’Italia Could Outshine the Tour de France in 2019

The Tour de France has been the undisputed premier grand tour in modern cycling. The biggest names in the sport routinely craft their seasons around the July race. While this has been the status quo, there is no denying the intense spotlight has been turning the Tour into a downright boring event. With the surprising amount of next-generation blue chip general classification riders announcing they will be targeting the Giro d’Italia in 2019, Italian grand tour is taking steps to overtake the Tour de France in terms of quality of the field and on-the-road excitement.

The most exciting young grand tour riders in the peloton have recently announced they are choosing to target the Giro instead of the Tour. Since the two races unveiled their respective routes, there was speculation about which race up-and-coming grand tour star Tom Dumoulin would target. It was a tough decision for the young star to make with the Giro offering three time trials, while the more-prestigious tour is set to feature a heavily mountainous route with only one individual time trial.

Dumoulin ended that speculation when he revealed he would be targeting victory at the Giro d’Italia in 2019 (some riders like Dumoulin have expressed interest in doubling up at the Tour. However, it will be more difficult for them to animate the race in 2019 compared to 2018 when riders had extra time between the brutal events due to the Soccer World Cup.). Reigning Vuelta a Espana champion Simon Yates followed suit by announcing he would also be putting his energy into a redemption ride at the Giro instead of targeting the Tour. After losing his lead by surrendering over an hour in the final three stages of the 2017 edition, Yates certainly has unfinished business in Italy and is placing emotion above rational thought in his schedule selection.

In addition to Dumoulin and Yates, Vincenzo Nibali will be chasing a third Giro victory while Movistar’s grand tour ingenue Mikal Landa has confirmed the Giro as his main 2019 goal. Lotto-Jumbo’s Primož Roglič has also confirmed his intention to the target the Giro, along with an appearance by Sky’s wunderkind Egan Bernal. Even defending Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas is now rumored to be kicking his title defense to the curb to line up at the Giro.

Giro d’Italia GC Contender Startlist
Tom Dumoulin (28 years old)
Simon Yates (26 years old)
Vincenzo Nibali (34 years old)
Mikal Landa (29 years old)
Primož Roglič (29 years old)
Egan Bernal (21 years old)
(Rumored)-Geraint Thomas (32 years old)

Tour de France GC Contender Startlist
Chris Froome (33 years old)
(Possibly targeting Giro)-Geraint Thomas (32 years old)
Romain Bardet (28 years old)
Nairo Quintana (28 years old)
Richie Porte (33 years old)
Thibaut Pinot (28 years old)

This lineup of young, exciting stars (plus one old exciting star) stands in stark contrast to a Tour de France that is set to feature the old-man Sky duo of Geraint Thomas (if he starts) and Chris Froome, Romain Bardet, Nairo Quintana and Richie Porte. Bardet and Pinot will be considered contenders heading into the race, but both rider’s usually aggressive style consistently wilt under Sky’s infernal pace and the bright lights of the Tour. In theory, Quintana and Porte could add spice in the mountains, but Quintana has struggled to hang, let alone attack when things get serious on the climbs, and Porte has struggled to finish grand tours since leaving Sky in 2015. The Australian has only finished two grand tours since leaving to lead the BMC squad.

With this Tour lineup, it isn’t difficult to imagine the race providing little action with Sky setting a searing pace on the front while Froome and Thomas subtly duke it out for the win while insisting they are racing for the other. The race could very easily be even more a snoozefest that it has been in year’s past, with a significant chunk of the young talent siphoned off by the Giro d’Italia’s more dynamic race.

An Ascendant Race

While the Giro and Tour were on somewhat equal footing throughout the 1970’s, 1980’s, and early 1990’s, with non-Italian stars such as Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Stephen Roche, Tony Rominger, and Miguel Indurain all nabbing wins at the Italian race. However, the Armstrong era of the 2000s saw the international spotlight shift north of the Alps and the French grand tour took center stage. This shift saw the Giro become a local affair that failed to net a non-Italian winner between 1997 and 2007.

Alberto Contador, barred from the 2008 Tour de France, lined up at the Giro and broke the Italian winning streak. This began the slow emergence of international stars at the race. The organizers lured Lance Armstrong the following year during his highly-publicized comeback and have been expanding its profile ever since. This is apparent in its blue-chip winners in every edition between 2013 and 2018 (Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali, Tom Dumoulin, Chris Froome).

The expansion has been quietly been serving up the best grand tour racing over the past few years and the Giro has emerged as the more exciting alternative to the lumbering, rigid Tour de France. The Italian race looks to expand on on this growing profile by luring the young, exciting talent away from the stranglehold Sky has had on the Tour in recent years.

The irony of major players choosing the Giro over the Tour in 2019 is that the Tour specifically designed next year’s route to minimize the effect Sky could have on the race. But by stripping out time trial kilometers and making the race more focused on the high mountains, they have alienated riders like Dumoulin and Roglic who rely on the ITT to create time gaps between them and the rest of the field. Even Yates, who would greatly benefit from the Tour’s TT-lite, climb-heavy course is opting to head south of the Alps for his major grand tour goal of the season.

The Giro’s relatively recent profile rise is undeniable and it stands to deliver the most exciting grand tour field of the 2019 season. The Tour is too powerful, wealthy and holds a far too valuable slot on the calendar to ever truly lose its title at the most important grand tour, but that doesn’t mean ASO should refrain from glancing over their shoulder. At least for this year, the most exciting young stars in the sport won’t have the Tour de France circled as their main target. It is clear the lack of competitive balance has caused the Tour’s sporting value to suffer. This has never been more clear by their lack of ability to demand the full attention of key grand tour stars. This is an issue that needs to be swiftly and effectively addressed by the top brass at ASO before the Tour begins to lose its position as the season’s premiere event.

Which Grand Tour Should Tom Dumoulin Target in 2019?

When the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, the sport’s two biggest Grand Tours, release their respective routes for the following season, there is always chatter about which race each favorite will choose to target. Chris Froome’s failed attempt at the Giro/Tour double in 2018 has likely put serious attempts to bag both to rest for the near future. This means each major favorite will be forced to choose a Grand Tour to target. While we know that Froome, the defending Giro champion, will mostly skip his title defense in an attempt to join the five Tour club, and Geraint Thomas, the defending Tour champion, will most certainly show up to the Tour to defend his 2018 title. While the path looks set for the two Sky stars, the 2017 Giro champion and rising star Tom Dumoulin is faced with an incredibly difficult decision in the 2019 season. Does the time trial crushing Dutchman head to a climb-heavy, TT-light Tour de France, or play it safe at the more suitable, but less prestigious Giro d’Italia?

The Dutch contender won his first and only Grand Tour to date when he took the 2017 Giro d’Italia title and has been tipped as a ‘star of the future’ since. But at 28, Dumoulin is rapidly entering his prime and needs to start winning Grand Tours on a semi-regular basis if he wants to be considered a true star. His runner-up placings at the 2018 Giro and Tour was a truly impressive feat, but the fact remains that Dumoulin needs to start winning on the sport’s biggest stage sooner rather than later. Another Giro title would certainly be a worthy feat, but if Dumoulin wants to ascend to the level of Froome, Nibali, and Thomas, he needs to Tour de France win.

Putting his Giro ambitions aside to go all in for a Tour de France title would the standard move for an ascendent Grand Tour star. However, Dumoulin, who thrives in time trials, must be concerned by the recently released Tour route that features a mere 27km of individual time trials.

tumblr_ph5rt9DIBR1ropreyo1_1280

This is the second fewest amount of TT kilometers in any recent edition, behind only the paltry 15km in 2015. The lack of TTs is compounded by a course so laden with climbing that Tour director Christian Prudhomme has deemed it the ‘highest’ route of all time. If Geraint Thomas shows up in 2019 with the climbing form he sported in 2018, he would be close to unbeatable on the five mountaintop finishes.

In contrast to the Tour’s route, the 2019 Giro d’Italia route features a whopping three individual time trials that add up to a total of 56 kilometers. On the surface, this is a route designed to easily serve Dumoulin up his second Giro title, but if we dig a little deeper, a few cracks in this theory appear. The opening 8km time trial on stage one features the steep 1.8km climb to the San Luca basilica in Bologna (in recent years, the 10.8% average climb has been used as the finish for the Giro dell’Emilia race).

San_Luca_Bologna_profile

The 34.7km TT on stage 9 features close 3,000 feet of climbing, with the entire second half of the course climbing at a 5-7% grade to the microstate of San Marino.

tumblr_phi7z8z8EY1ropreyo3_r1_1280.png

Even the ‘flat’ final 15.6km TT on the final stage in Verona features a 4km-long climb right in the middle of the course that features close to 700 feet of vertical gain.

tumblr_phk7j2UKV61ropreyo2_r1_1280

These climb-heavy TTs are paired with an extremely mountainous final half of the race. Stage 20 features four brutal climbs deep in the Dolomites and will ensure the eventual winner of the race is a legitimate climber.

tumblr_phk7j2UKV61ropreyo1_1280

While Dumoulin isn’t thought of the climber on par with Chris Froome, Simon Yates, Vincenzo Nibali or even Geraint Thomas, the results speak otherwise. The chiseled Dutchman was present in the lead group at every mountain top finish in the 2018 Tour, and showed up to the World Championships looking leaner than ever. The new physique likely cost him some raw power, which was evident when he surrender his World TT title to Rohan Dennis, but saw him hang with the absurdly steep climb specialist on the final Höttinger Höll climb. The 3.2km climb had an average gradient of 11.5%, and even hit grades up to 28% in sections. If Dumoulin, who traditionally just looked to hang with the best on the long climbs in the Grand Tours, was able to stay within seconds of the lightest and punchiest climbers in the world at the end of a long, brutal race, then it seems likely to expect him to be able to stay with the lead group on any climb the Tour and Giro can serve up.

Dumoulin’s 2018 season, in which he finished 2nd in both the Giro and Tour, in addition to a 4th place at the World Road Race Championships, was a spectacular feat of endurance and versatility but saw him fail to get a single mass-start victory. This means that he needs a statement win more than ever if he wants to continue to advance his star power. He most certainly would prefer that win to come at the Tour de France, but the lack of any significant time trial kilometers means he would need to take time on the mountains, versus simply limit his losses as he’s done in the past. With its lumpy TTs and mountainous last half, the Giro d’Italia presents challenges, but surely represents his best chance to get his bank his second Grand Tour victory.

If Dumoulin wants to play it safe and pad his palmares with a second Grand Tour title, he should focus solely on the Giro. But if he feels like rolling the dice and face steep odds in exchange for a massive payoff in the unlikely event of success, he should go all in for a highly unfriendly Tour route. If he goes in with the ultra-slim physique he had at World’s, he could upset the pure climbers on the supposedly shorter, punchier climbs spread throughout the Tour.

What Can Stop Team Sky at the 2019 Tour? (Hint: It’s not the route)

Since the 2019 Tour de France route was unveiled last week, speculation of who will benefit from the time trial-light course has been rampant. Two major narratives have emerged since the release of the course details. The first is that ASO has designed a course with minimal time trials and a preference for shorter, punchier climbs to benefit homegrown contenders like Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot. The second is that the arbiter of the race, Christian Prudhomme and ASO, are tired of watching Team Sky send out their formidable armada of word class riders to sit on the front of the peloton for three weeks with a pace that inevitably and methodically asphyxiates the competition.

ASO, a vestige of the old-school French cycling establishment, would certainly prefer a French winner of the national tour, and it is no secret that Sky’s stranglehold on the Tour since 2012 has stolen some of the race’s iconic luster. However, the assertion that ASO is tipping the scales in an attempt to foil the British squad has some major flaws.

The first major flaw in this argument is that if the French organization truly wanted to put the brakes on Sky’s dominance, they surely wouldn’t have included a 27km team time trial on the second stage. While Sky has never won a TTT at the Tour, the event has seen them solidify their GC leads whenever the discipline has been included in the route (2013, 2015, and 2018). Their collective team strength has seen them put time into their GC rivals and forced them into the unenviable position of chasing the world’s best stage race team with a deficit.

In theory, the event allows lesser time trialists like Bardet and Pinot to hide behind the collective strength of their teams and attempt to limit their losses. However, it is tailor-made to accentuate the team with the budget to afford the world’s biggest engines and makes it difficult for superior time trialist with weak teams, like Tom Dumoulin, to get an edge on the Sky leaders.

The second flaw in the theory is that, realistically, an anti-Sky route simply does not exist. When Chris Froome is on form, he is the best climber and time trialist in the world. To add to the team’s wide swath of dominance, at last year’s edition, his teammate Geraint Thomas proved himself to the strongest climber, while missing out on victory during the stage 20 time trial by a mere second. And even if their two veteran riders find themselves on the wrong side of their best performances come July, the team still has the young Colombian climbing sensation Egan Bernal. In short, Sky will likely show up to the 2019 Tour with riders that can potentially win over any and all terrain

Is an Anti-Sky Route Possible?

While there are riders that can challenge the Sky triumvirate of Thomas, Froome, and Bernal in the respective disciplines, nobody can match them as a combined force. If ASO substituted an individual time trial in place of the team time trial, hybrid time trialing/climbers like Tom Dumoulin could challenge Sky, but strong climbers with dubious TT pedigree like Quintana, Bardet and Pinot would hemorrhage time to Thomas and Froome before the race got to the mountains.

If ASO eliminated time trials from the route altogether, Thomas, Bernal, and Froome could outclimb the competition in the high mountains. Thomas won back-to-back mountain stages in the 2018 Tour, and looked like the strongest rider nearly every time the race tilted skyward. Even though age looks to be slowing him down, Froome would ritually slaughter every so-called climber on the opening mountain stage early in his reign, and his mountain ambush to win the 2018 Giro d’Italia on stage 19 proved he can still deliver knockout blows on the most demanding mountain stages. Bernal awed during the 2018 Tour with his ability to set a blistering tempo for an absurd amount of time up Alpe d’Huez, which prompted many pundits to anoint him the star of the future. Bernal wrestling team leadership away from his older teammates in 2019 would be a drastic departure from Sky’s familiar blueprint, but it wouldn’t be entirely shocking.

Since Sky’s top talent has proven to be the best at climbing and time trialing, while being competent in descending, tactical nous, dealing with the ‘chaos’ of the new, shorter mountain stages and winding roads of the rolling ‘trap’ stages, what route could ASO possibly serve up that could set them at a disadvantage?

Looming Issues in 2019

Even though Sky can’t be thwarted by a specific route, they do have a few major questions marks looming in 2019.

The defending Tour champion, Thomas, has spoken about inter-team tensions that arose during the race. For example, prior to the stage 3 team time trial, team directors informed Thomas that the team would not wait up if he flatted. This decision was made despite assurances that he would be a ‘protected’ rider going into the race. While he went on to win, these issues will arise once again at the 2019 Tour. While having two leaders can present an obvious advantage, it also doubles the odds of an ill-timed flat or mechanical derailing the team’s plans. For example, if Froome flats early on and Thomas is the closest rider, will he offer his bike to Froome as he did on stage 19 of the 2016 Tour, or will he ride on as Froome is left to wait for a spare from the team car? It is difficult to imagine a defending champion deferring leadership to a teammate, which means Sky will likely have to deal with the accommodating two full leaders from stage one.

The second major obstacle is the age of their top two riders. Froome will be 34 and Thomas 33 when the pair line up for the 2019 Tour. Winning a tour at this age is incredibly rare, with grand tour performances dropping off drastically after the age of 32 (Cadel Evans became the oldest rider to take a Tour title in the modern era when he won in 2011 at the age of 34). Also, once a ‘senior’ rider loses a Grand Tour, they almost never return to their winning form.

As Froome and Thomas find themselves on the downslope of their careers, Sky has the luxury of an insurance policy in Bernal. However, a nasty crash at the San Sebastian put him out of action for a few months, and his return at the late-season Il Lombardia saw him distanced on the final climb by Pinot and Vincenzo Nibali. If Bernal is looking to assume a leadership mantle at Sky, getting dropped by the likes of Nibali and Pinot isn’t a great sign. In addition to the questions of his ability to return to his Tour de France form, young Colombian stars have a history of burning bright at extremely young ages, only to plateau and struggle to improve the final few percentage points (i.e. Quintana, Uran, Henao). A similar development trajectory for Bernal would throw a wrench in Sky’s plans.

The 2019 Tour de France, while featuring limited time trial kilometers and a few punchy climbs, should play right into a Sky team at full strength. However, keep an eye out for increased team tensions and age considerations to potentially trip up Sky when the 2019 Tour finally gets underway.

——————————

This piece has since been published by The Outer Line.

Saturday’s Climb to Mende Could Reveal Team Sky’s True Leader

Heading into stage 14 at the 2018 Tour de France, Team Sky is facing an old-fashioned leadership crisis. Chris Froome, looking for a record-tying fifth Tour title, is trailing his teammate Geraint Thoms by 1:39, and has the formidable cheekbones of Tom Dumoulin lurking a mere 11-seconds back. Most viewers are looking ahead to the brutal Pyrenees to decide Sky’s leader once and for all, but few are looking at the stages through the Massif Central, especially Saturday’s steep final pitch in Mende.

The three-kilometer climb comes right before the finish, averages a 10 percent gradient and will see the peloton hit the climb relatively fresh after a slow-rolling the first 2/3rds of the stage. It will offer no chance for the overall contenders to hide, and everyone’s form will be laid bare for the world to see. Potential gaps won’t be large, but they could be a bellwether for things to come in the higher mountains.

While Thomas and Sky are publically saying Froome is still the leader, Thomas has put time into Froome everytime the road has titled skywards and Thomas has just won consecutive mountain stages, the latest being atop the legendary Alpe D’Huez while wearing the Yellow Jersey. Only three riders have ever won consecutive mountaintop-finishes, and nobody has ever won on the Alpe in the leader’s jersey.  We can’t rule out a catastrophic third-week collapse, or a spat of bad luck,  but the chances are not looking good for Froome’s chances after such a dominant display in the mountains by Thomas.

When the Tour visited a carbon copy of tomorrow’s finish back in 2015, Steve Cummings schooled Romain Bardet and Thibault Pinot to win the stage from the break, but back in the GC group, Chris Froome marked the early moves on the steep pitches, and then proceeded to shred the overall favorites on the flat final few hundred meters.

giphy

If Thomas gets frisky and drops his rivals while Froome struggles behind, we could see Sky make a subtle tactical shift before the race heads into the final week. But if Froome can put on a display similar to 2015, it could be the initial rumblings that a comeback could be brewing. However, if they finish on the same time, we will have to wait for the Pyrenees to chose their leader for them.

Tour de France Notebook: GC-Only Standings and First Week Winners/Losers

With the first “week” of the Tour de France over, we can look back and see who won, and lost, the opening stages and how that sets up the upcoming decisive Alpine and Pyrenean stages.

Below is the weighted overall standings. When we take out current race leader Greg van Avermaet [edit: Wow, I was very wrong. Really impressive ride to hold yellow, watch out for GVA at the lumpy world’s course in Innsbruck], and third place Phillippe Gilbert, Geraint Thomas is in “virtual yellow,” and young Bob Jungels is right behind him in second place. Behind them, the menacing presence of Valverde and Fuglsang stick out. Despite his bad luck on the first day, Chris Froome comes out ahead of almost all of his main rivals.

Let’s take a moment to run down the winners and losers of the first nine stages based off the GC-only standings.

1 Geraint Thomas 0:00:00
2 Bob Jungels 0:00:07
3 Alejandro Valverde 0:00:48
4 Rafał Majka 0:00:49
5 Jakob Fuglsang 0:00:50
6 Christopher Froome 0:00:59
7 Adam Yates 0:00:59
8 Mikel Landa 0:00:59
10 Vincenzo Nibali 0:01:05
11 Primoz Roglic 0:01:14
12 Bauke Mollema 0:01:15
13 Tom Dumoulin 0:01:20
14 Steven Kruijswijk 0:01:23
15 Romain Bardet 0:01:49
16 Warren Barguil 0:01:54
17 Ilnur Zakarin 0:01:59
19 Domenico Pozzovivo 0:02:05
20 Nairo Quintana 0:02:07
21 Rigoberto Uran 0:02:10
22 Daniel Martin 0:02:39

The Winners

Geraint Thomas hasn’t put a foot wrong so far in the Tour, and baring a mishap, will likely be in the actual yellow jersey at the end of stage 10. Scoring a yellow jersey on a mountain stage in the Tour de France would be a massive achievement for the Welshman. However, the implications of Thomas taking yellow could be somewhat disruptive to the Sky team.

When Alberto Contador took yellow on stage 15 of the 2009 Tour de France, even Lance Armstrong, who famously hated the Spaniard, wouldn’t attack his teammate. Instead of going on the offensive, he was forced to wait for his teammate to crack, but the chance never came. Thomas and Froome have an infinitely better relationship than Armstrong and Contador, and Froome will have no responsibility to wait if Thomas has an issue in the mountains, but things could get interesting if Thomas doesn’t crack. With rumblings of Froome making preparations for the run at a Vuelta a Espana title in August, Thomas certainly feels slighted. He was promised GC leadership at the Giro before Froome announced his intention to ride the race. After Froome decided to race the Giro, Thomas changed his focus to the Tour with an eye on leading the Team at the Vuelta. Now that Froome is potentially calling Thomas off once again, tensions could start to bubble up between the two riders.

Another name that sticks out on that list is Alejandro Valverde. When Movistar announced their tri-leader strategy, he was considered the least likely rider to actually contend for the win. However, he has emerged from the first third of the Tour with nearly a minute and a half over Nairo Quintana, and ten seconds over Mikel Landa. While Landa would normally be tipped over Valverde in the high mountains, he appeared to crash incredibly hard on stage 9, and one has to wonder how that is going to affect him over the next few days of racing.

Other big winners are Bob Jungels, who some tipped as a dark horse contender for this race. He hasn’t proven an ability to hang in the high mountains, but it will be interesting to see how he performs.  Jakob Fuglsang and Adam Yates are both sitting well less than a minute back. Both are superb climbers who have been able to quietly head into the Alps within touching distance of the lead. We haven’t heard, or seen much, of Vincenzo Nibali, which is exactly what the Italian wants. Outside of a lackluster TTT, he has avoided any major time losses, and when he is on form, can put time into the best in the mountains. Watch out for the shark of Messina to strike as the race enters the twisting roads of the high mountains.

Chris Froome is fresh off a tough Giro d’Italia win, crashed twice in the first week, and has a teammate threatening to take the race lead, but the four-time champion is less than a minute off the lead and sits ahead of many of his main contenders in the GC standings. The Briton doesn’t even need to attack to win the race at the point. He can hold steady knowing he can put time into nearly every contender in the final 31-kilometer time trial.

The Losers

While Tom Dumoulin is only 80 seconds off the lead and sits on equal time with other favorites, the big Dutchman is going to have his work cut out for him in the mountains after losing over a minute on the final kilometers of stage 6. He is a good climber, but likely won’t be able to advance his GC position until the final time trial. He’ll chew into the leads of the other GC contenders on stage 20, but ultimately, he will rue the 1:20 he shipped on the Mur.

Romain Bardet needed to take advantage of the punchy climb of Mûr de Bretagne and stage 10’s cobbles, but instead, he sits nearly two minutes behind Geraint Thomas. On top of that, he lost two teammates in the first nine days. In the past, Bardet is a grinder who chips away time here and there, not one that takes giant cuts out of leads with long-range attacks. He needed to have a perfect opening to the Tour. Instead, he’s dug a whole.

The two Colombians riding for victory, Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran, both have the ability to climb with the best, but their 2+ minute deficits will likely prove too much to overcome. If either Quintana or Uran is on top climbing form, it will certainly be thrilling to watch them try to dig themselves out.

A Fit and Lucky Geraint Thomas Is Turning into Froome’s Biggest Rival

With six days in the can at the 2018 Tour de France, Team Sky is sitting at the top of the list of overall contenders. They have a rider three seconds behind Greg Van Avermaet, who has been kind enough to keep their Yellow Jersey warm for the race’s opening week. This scenario is par for the course for the British squad and barely merits a mention in a first week Tour de France piece. However, there is a major wrinkle in the plan this year. The leader sitting in pole position with sparkling form is former Sky domestique, Geraint Thomas, while the four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome sits close to a minute down in 14th overall.

While we saw Thomas ahead of Froome during the Tour’s first week last year, it was by a mere twelve seconds, and the moment the road tipped skyward, Thomas stumbled and ceded the overall lead to Froome. But as of stage 6 in 2018, Thomas hasn’t put a foot wrong and currently sits second overall, a full minute (technically 59 seconds) ahead of Froome. Most importantly, he outperformed the former champion on the first big climbing test. The stage 6 finish on the slopes of the Mur-de-Bretagne saw Thomas finish five seconds in front of Froome. The eye-test revealed an even bigger gulf in form than the final results let on. Thomas looked incredibly strong and appeared to even be a legitimate contender for the stage, while Froome dangled off the back. The Welshman looked appears to be on the form of his life, while Froome appeared fatigued from his recent Giro d’Italia victory.

While the climb is much shorter and more explosive than the high alpine slopes where the race will be decided, the Mur has proven to be a reliable bellwether of climbing performance later in the race. In the Mur’s past two appearances, the eventual race winner has been present in the front group of finishers. Froome’s absence in the lead group could be a sign of things to come later in the race.

The gulf between the two riders even has the potential to widen before the Tour hits its first real mountain stage when the peloton hits the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix during Stage 9 on Sunday. Thomas was once a legitimate classics contender, and while he has slimmed down and lost raw power since those days, he still posses deft bike handling and an ability to read the treacherous cobblestones. It stands to reason that Thomas will be able to pull out even more time over the more traditional GC contenders who have little-to-no experience on the brutal cobblestones. While anything could happen on Sunday’s stage, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Thomas head into the first rest day with a sizeable advantage. This scenario would wreak havoc on Sky’s team dynamics and Froome’s ability to mount a long-range attack similar to his coupe on stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia. A lot was made of Movistar’s decision to bring three leaders to the 2018 edition, but not enough attention was paid to the leadership tussle that was set up when Sky designated Froome and Thomas co-leaders.

This co-leadership situation raises a number of complications and theoretical questions. For example, what if Froome had suffered misfortune like Tom Dumoulin and Romain Bardet at the base of stage 6’s finishing climb? What would the team have done? Would Thomas feel compelled, or be forced, to sit up and wait for his teammate, or would Sky be true to their “co-leader” word and let Thomas ride away from a four-time champion while he waited for a wheel change?

Many have been saying Froome comes into form later in grand tour’s and the early setup is nothing to worry about. There is only one issue with this argument, it isn’t true. While he came back with a stunning late-race comeback in the 2018 Giro, he traditionally pulls out his winning margins in the first 10 days of a race.

In 2016, 2015, and 2013, Froome took a significant chunk of his winning margin in the first 10 stages. In 2013, Froome took 40% of his winning margin to Quintana on the first mountaintop finish of Ax 3 Domaines, on Stage 8. In 2015, at La Pierre-Saint-Martin, Froome took 88% of his eventual winning margin to Quintana on Stage 10.

2016 deviated slightly from this template. Froome won the first mountain stage into Luchon, a shocking downhill victory, netting 23 seconds. This gap was only roughly 9% of his winning margin and the first big gaps had to wait until individual time trial on Stage 13. In 2017, he used the steep slopes of La Planche des Belles Filles on stage 5, and a slight time bonus on stage 9 to carve out an 18-second lead by the stage 10 mark, which turned out to be 33% of his final margin.

Screenshot 2018-07-13 at 9.02.20 AM

While Thomas is obviously a massively talented cyclist with a mind-boggling set of skills, and looked on incredible form at June’s Dauphine Libere, he has an abysmal track record in three-week grand tours. He’s never stood on a podium at a grand tour, and his biggest result on the road is the overall win at the aforementioned Dauphine Libere. It is incredibly risky to suppress Froome’s chances of pulling back time in the name of backing an unproven Thomas for victory. Even if Froome has free reign to ride his own race in the mountains, he certainly won’t have access to the team’s vast firepower to wind up a long-range attack like we witnessed at the Giro.

The co-leadership situation with Thomas, at one point an abstract way to repay a loyal teammate for years of service, is starting to look like a major liability to Froome’s potential, and record-tying, fifth Tour de France title. It is too early to draw any definitive conclusions, but Sky could have a legitimate leadership controversy by the time the race heads into the Pyrénées during the third week.