The Upcoming Tour de France Gets More Interesting by the Day

Back in January, I wrote that the Giro d’Italia had the potential to outshine the Tour de France in 2019. With a large field of exciting young talent and the (in)famously chaotic and unpredictable Italian terrain, the Giro seemed poised to topple the Tour, which has become a bit of a snoozefest in recent years.

When that original piece was written, the 2018 Tour de France runner-up Tom Dumoulin and 21-year old Egan Bernal were both targeting the Giro d’Italia. However, Dumoulin was forced to leave the Giro following a crash on stage 4. While this seriously dampened the fight for the general classification in Italy,  it adds fuel to the Tour’s GC fire.

Meanwhile, Egan Bernal ‘broke’ his collarbone a week before the start of the Giro. This means he will likely line up as a legitimate leader of Team INEOS’, who are already struggling to balance the ambitious of last year’s winner Geraint Thomas and 4-time winner Chris Froome.

There were mummers that the Colombian sensation would be lining up at the Tour all the way back in March. I believe this was the INEOS team brass sending up a trial balloon as they looked for an insurance policy as their aging superstar duo struggled through their worst spring campaigns in years.

Since Bernal is already back on the bike and setting PRs on training climbs less than two weeks after breaking his collarbone, it is safe to assume he is going to line up at the Tour de France (which features a route perfect for Bernal with a high-altitude, numerous climbs and a mere 27km of TTs).

I personally subscribe to the fringe conspiracy theory that Bernal and INEOS faked the collarbone break as cover to duck the Giro and get their best climber at the Tour without seriously damaging Thomas’ and Froome’s egos (who have both been quietly struggling to find form in recent months). Bernal’s incredibly quick recovery could potentially support this crackpot idea (release the x-rays!).

All of this combines to give us a fantastically dramatic backdrop for this summer’s Tour. Having three legitimate contenders on one team will be thrilling to watch and could potentially dull the team’s unmatchable strength. The INEOS riders give all the right answers through gritted smiles, but the tension will simmer under the surface and they will have to make due will fewer domestiques and team organization in critical moments (see: Froome’s lack of a full team while chasing after his crash on stage 1 of the 2018 Tour).

The addition of fresh (and hopefully healthy) Dumoulin, the best GC rider under the age of 30, makes this even more interesting. Dumoulin’s focus on the Giro was always a strange fit since he won the race back in 2017 and seems poised to take the title of the best grand tour rider on the planet from Froome. His preparation for the Giro seemed off and it felt like he was hedging to leave something for the Tour, while Primoz Roglic came in red, red, hot, and looks impossible to beat at the moment. The only way he can advance his career and raise his profile is a Tour de France title, so as sad as it is to see him drop off of the Giro, this short-term loss could pay major dividends in July.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Giro Notebok: What Happened to EF-Drapac’s Climbers, Dumoulin’s Mistake and Where Does Simon Yates Go From Here?

The 2018 Giro d’Italia featured one of the most dramatic comebacks, and meltdowns, in modern cycling history. After a slow-burn GC picture over the first two weeks, the race exploded on the 19th stage, with Chris Froome attacking solo from 80 kilometers out to win the stage and take the race lead after being all but written off as a potential winner. This historic comeback (we won’t get into the believability of the performance or the ethics of Froome’s participation at this time) capped off an already thrilling race that leaves me with a few burning questions.

I’m sure I was the only person thinking “what the hell happened to EF Education First-Drapac’s lineup of supposed up and coming climbers” during the most thrilling GC comeback in the modern history of the sport. But seriously, what happened? The “American” team came into the race touting a collection of potential stage (and even possibly overall) winners with Joe Dombrowski, Hugh Carthy, and Michael Woods, only to go home empty-handed on all fronts.

Dombrowski signed with Team Sky in 2013 and was hailed as the next great American climber. He turned in a few promising climbing performances at the 2016 Giro d’Italia but has failed to show the same form since. He is often cited as a young rider and given quite a bit of leeway for his sub-par performances, but he is 27, which is two years older than Simon Yates and the same age as 2017 Giro winner Tom Dumoulin. With an incredibly narrow set up skills, time is running out for Drombrowski to show himself a viable grand tour stage winner.

Carthy is still a legitimate young rider at the age of 23. While he got into a few long-range breakaways on mountains stages, these moves seemed oddly timed and slightly desperate. A pure-bred climber like himself should be tucked in the group when the GC contenders are certainly going to pull the early breakaway back and race all-out for the stage win. Carthy also has a concerning trend of coming into races below an optimal performance weight. He would most likely be better off putting on a few kilograms to produce a little bit more power and strengthen his immune system.

Woods came into the Giro touted as an outside contender for the overall win and probable stage winner. He came close to a stage win on stage 4, but that proved to be the high water mark of his race. His EF team displayed odd tactics by burning significant energy to launch him 70km from the finish line (Sky must have been taking notes). That move obviously didn’t work and Woods was dropped soon after he was caught 30km later and the team was left with nothing to show for their huge energy expenditure. I can’t help but feel there was a better use of Woods’ talents than using the entire team to launch a doomed-to-fail desperation move. A high GC finish seemed to be in the cards early on, but an illness in the final week tanked his overall standing. Woods came into the Giro looking extremely skinny, which paid off on the steep uphill finishes, but likely contributed to his late-race illness.

Speaking of long-range attacks, what was Tom Dumoulin thinking when Froome attacked from 80km out? He certainly thought it would be impossible for a single rider to stay away for the rest of the stage, but he picked the absolute worst composition of riders to attempt to chase back to Froome with.

Froome attacked with 80km left in the stage and quickly established a large, but manageable gap.

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By the time he crested the summit of the Finestre 7km later, he had a lead of 37 seconds over a group of chasers that included Dumoulin, Thibaut Pinot, Miguel Angel Lopez and Richard Carapaz.

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When Froome hit the bottom of the descent 20km later, his lead was at 1:23. Pulling out close to a minute on Dumoulin during this descent would prove to be the difference that would eventually allow him to win the overall.

How did Dumoulin, a rider with immense descending skills, let Froome get so much? His first grave mistake was sitting up to wait for Pinot when he was suffered a mechanical on the Finestre. Distancing Pinot over the top of the climb would have incentivized Lopez and Carapaz to work with Dumoulin in an attempt to push Pinot off the podium. His second mistake was waiting for Pinot’s teammate, Sebastien Reichenbach on the descent. Reichenbach added valuable horsepower to the group, but the time it cost to wait for him on the descent likely cost Dumoulin a second Giro title.

Simon Yates rode an incredible 18 stages, only to stumble and lose the race in fantastic fashion on the 19th stage. He exhibited a stunning meltdown on the race’s penultimate mountain stage and ended up losing 38 minutes by the end of the stage. The Briton wasn’t able to recover the following day and was relegated to the groupetto the following day. His collapsed mirrored that of his teammate, Esteban Chaves, who lost 25 minutes on stage 10, a transition stage that only featured mild climbs. Both of these stunning meltdowns were written off the Mitchelton-Scott team as “bad days,” but neither Chaves or Yates was able to recover and couldn’t hold pace on the climbs for the rest of the race. These weren’t mere stumbles, but extremely concerning trends that raise questions about their abilities to compete for wins in three-week races in the future.

Dumoulin cracked on stage 20 of the 2015 Vuelta a Espana, and fell out of the overall lead with one day left to race. He was able to recover from the late-race collapse by going on to win the 2017 Giro d’Italia.  However, there are major differences between Dumoulin’s bumble and Yates’ epic loss. Dumoulin only lost 3:52 to eventual winner Fabio Aru and went on to finish 6th place overall. This stands in stark difference to the historical fumble that befell Yates. His Mitchelton-Scott team is saying all the rights things to the press, but it will be interesting to see how much they hedge their chances during the Briton’s GC campaigns going forward. Another big talent, Richie Porte, suffered from the same type of inconsistency in grand tours and was never able to string together a successful campaign. With the new reduced team sizes, teams won’t have the luxury of taking chances on unproven entities year after year, which raises the stakes for the mid-race bobbles.

 

Chris Froome’s Deficit Is a Really Big Deal

Chris Froome lost 37-seconds to Tom Dumoulin in the opening time trial of the 2018 Giro d’Italia on Friday. Conventional wisdom tells us this is no big deal.

“There is plenty of time for Froome to make up this margin. The race is 21 stages long, and we still have the mountains! It’s way too early to count anybody out! Anything can happen!”

However, after taking a deeper look at trends from the recent past, conventional wisdom proves to be incredibly wrong, and this time loss seems much more significant than appears at first glance.

Citing the fact that we are three stages into a 21-stage race is a bit misleading. Time gained or lost on the first stage is equally significant to time gained or lost in the first week. I’m of the belief that both fans and teams tend to overvalue potential time gaps in the third week of a grand tour, while greatly undervaluing the chances to gain time in the first week. A second on day one is equal to a second on day 21.

Since 2015, five out of nine grand tours have been decided by less than a minute. In last year’s Giro d’Italia, a gap of 40 seconds separated the entire podium. While casual observers assume that even though margins are tight in the opening stages and we’ll see major gaps open up in the mountains, these stages rarely serve up the time gaps they would expect.

Below is a graph showing the winning margin in every grand tour since 2015. A quick glance will tell you that 40-seconds is a significant margin of separation.

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If Froome’s loses this year’s Giro d’Italia by his current deficit, it wouldn’t be the first time a recent grand tour was decided by an opening time trial. The 2016 Tour de France opened and closed with the opening time trial in Dusseldorf. Eventual second-place finisher Rigoberto Uran ceded 51 seconds to Froome over the 14-kilometer course. After three weeks and 21 stages of racing, the Colombian rolled into Paris 51 seconds behind Froome.

Furthering the seriousness of this time gap is that the Giro organizers dialed back the number of traditional climbing stages in the Dolomites and placed a greater significance on the time trials in an attempt to court Froome and Dumoulin. The irony of this is that a course tailor-made for Froome could end up being his undoing.  We’ve seen he hasn’t been on the same level as Dumoulin in the race against the clock since the Dutchman absolutely crushed him at the 2016 World Time Trial championships.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but in a three-week grand tour, every second counts. The spontaneity and ample time gaps that so many fans expect simply aren’t that common, and the opening time trial is proving to be just as, if not more, important than a 7-hour, 6 categorized climb, queen mountain stage. Whatever happens, don’t be surprised if the top two places in the Giro ride into Rome in three weeks with less than a minute between them.

Forget the Pretenders, The Giro d’Italia will be Froome Versus Dumoulin

The Giro d’Italia starts tomorrow and a pu pu platter of contenders will line in an attempt to take home the Maglia Rosa at the end of the 3-week race. Despite the plethora of talented up-and-comers, the 3-week long race will likely come down to a duel between Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome.

Dumoulin will be the only former winner to start, while Froome and Fabio Aru are the only other riders in the race with grand tour wins to their names. There is a sea of young pretenders like Miguel Ángel López, Esteban Chaves, Simon Yates, and Thibaut Pinot, that will attempt to finally close the gap from also-rans to champions, but to win a Grand Tour, it helps to have already won one, along with an ability to post a good time trial.

The race only features 43km of time trials, but recent grand tours have seen an inverse relationship between the amount of TT kilometers and how decisive those kilometers are to the final result. Dumoulin and Froome are the only two riders in the field that can climb with the best while putting serious time into the competition the time trial.

Aru has a grand tour win, but he has struggled to find the consistency that propelled him to that 2015 Vuelta a Espana win. He has shown flashes of brilliance, best exemplified by his performance on stage 5 of the 2017 Tour de France. Aru rode away from feared SkyTrain like they were standing still and went on to win the stage and take the overall lead.

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These sublime performances are tempered by the fact that you never quite know what you are going to get from the Sardinian. He could ride away for an impressive mountain stage victory constantly or crack to lose significant time. This lack of consistency and his weakness in the time trial make it difficult to imagine Aru wearing the Maglia Rosa in Rome.

Thibaut Pinot looked fantastic at the recent Tour of the Alps, but the Frenchman is infamous for his erratic performances. He is in the rare club of riders who can climb with the best and put in a solid time trial and I would love to see Pinot break through and take a Giro win, but I certainly wouldn’t put any money on it happening.

Miguel Ángel López is being touted as a contender. He is a fantastic rider who appears to be riding an upswing of form, but as is the rule in modern grand tours, the fewer number of overall TT kilometers means the importance of those kilometers is magnified. The 2018 Giro will be decided by the gaps seen in the time trials on stage 1 and 16, and Lopez doesn’t have the ability to hang with the contenders in the race against the clock.

With gaps in climbing stages getting slimmer, the time trials are likely to decide the fight for the GC. This means Froome and Dumoulin have to be considered the top two favorites since they are simply at another level against the clock. Even though Froome’s powers appear to be waning and he hasn’t displayed great form so far in 2018, his first win in 2017 didn’t come until the final day of the Tour de France, when he took the overall victory. However, he is a year older, his form hasn’t had the same sparkle as in pre-Tour 2017, and he has been forced to put an immense amount of energy into the defense of his Adverse Analytical Finding. His lack of form and ongoing legal battle makes it difficult to imagine him winning a third consecutive grand tour.

Even taking the above into account, Froome still has to be considered a safer bet than anyone not named Tom Dumoulin.

Dumoulin rode to an emphatic victory in the 2017 Giro despite spotting his competition over two minutes due to an ill-timed bathroom break during the most decisive stage. His win appeared to be the coronation of a future star, but his buildup to the 2018 Giro has been a disaster, which saw the Dutchman struggle to finish the majority of his early-season races for a plethora of reasons. However, his impressive 15th place at the recent Liège – Bastogne – Liège showed his form could be coming around just in time for the Grande Partenza in Jeruselum.

With Dumoulin throwing verbal jabs at Froome in the days leading up to the start, the 2018 Giro is shaping up to be a fantastic showdown between riders at opposing ends of their careers.

It’s Time For Team Sky to Worry About Chris Froome

Chris Froome wound up to unleash a trademark attack on the final slopes at the Tour of the Alps. This was not a surprise, this is business as usual for the Briton. It’s what he does, he crushes the souls of his competitors in the final uphill kilometers of stage races. However, what has stood out at the Tour of the Alps is that his attacks have dropped almost no one, and have appeared to hurt Froome more than his competitors.

While we’ve seen Froome start his season slower and slower with every passing year, it’s unusual for him to look this vulnerable two weeks from a major target. It could be time to ask if we are watching Chris Froome age out of his grand tour dominance. Sky needs to seriously consider hedging this risk and putting plans in place to line up a viable plan B.

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After today’s botched attack at Tour of the Alps, Froome pulled off the front to examine the carnage, only to see a group of five, led by Thibault Pinot, not only still with him, but launching counter-attacks (it really doesn’t get any worse than being unable to drop Pinot).

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Froome clearly hasn’t been able to find the form that propelled him to four Tour de France victories this season. With his first big goal of the year, the Giro d’Italia, only two weeks away, it’s a very real possibility that he shows up to a grand tour only to get his butt kicked by a wave of young, hungry Froome-stoppers.

We could be watching Froome fall off the cliff that has befallen every great champion before him. It’s always shocking to see a champion lose their top end. It happens faster than anyone can imagine. Everyone looks unbeatable until they aren’t.

While it’s difficult to imagine the controversy around his adverse analytical finding from last year’s Vuelta and a looming suspension isn’t affecting his performance, Froome’s increasing age is likely to cause a greater threat to his performance than a looming legal case.

If Froome does go on to find his old form and win either the Giro d’Italia or Tour de France, he would have to beat some steep odds. Only 3 riders have won the Tour de France at the age of 33 or older in the past 38 editions. While Froome is one of the best grand tour riders we’ve ever seen, shucking off the realities of biology to win another grand tour is a tall order.

Team Sky needs to seriously look at these odds and reconsider deploying 100% of their resources to exclusively back Froome. We could be in for a summer of watching Froome experience a few unprecedented bobbles, and they would be wise to take a look at their deep bench of domestiques to create a solid succession plan.