With the toughest part of the three weeks still to come, the big question at this 100th Tour de France is: Will Chris Froome score a blow-out victory, or will he (or more critically his team) blow up and allow one of his many rivals to challenge for the yellow jersey? Right now, after Team Skys weaknesses were exposed on Fridays flat, windy stage to Saint-Amand-Montrond, and with a hilly time trial and five days of mountain climbs before the finale in Paris, Skys Froome has a 2:28 lead over runner-up Bauke Mollema of Belkin, while the next most talented climbers have deficits of 2:45 (Saxo-Tinkoffs Alberto Contador), 5:18 (Movistars Nairo Quintana), 5:48 (Katusha Teams Joaquim Rodriguez), 5:52 (Garmin-Sharps Dan Martin) and 6:54 (BMC Racings Cadel Evans).
The odds are that Froome will continue to gain time thanks to next weeks three mountaintop finishes (Mont Ventoux on Sunday, LAlpe dHuez on Thursday and Semnoz Mountain on Saturday) and the second individual time trial (from Embrun to Chorges on Wednesday). But taking into account the weakness displayed by Froomes colleagues last Sunday in the Pyrnes and the pressure on his six remaining teammates to defend the lead every single day, the 28-year-old Brit will have to be on constant alert. At the Tour de France, nothing can be taken for granted.
One of the sports most experienced team managers, Jim Ochowicz of BMC Racing, summed up the current situation with these words: There are many more mountains ahead in the last week of this race that maybe people havent taken into consideration yet in their mathematical equations. We think that the race is far from over[and] I wouldnt say Froome is the definite winner yet.
Like others who have worked at the Tour for decades, Ochowicz knows that the Tour is never over till its over. There are several famous cases of riders losing the yellow jersey on the last weekend of the race, including those who conceded victory in a final time trial (such as Herman Vanspringel to Jan Janssen in 1968, Pedro Delgado to Stephen Roche in 1987, and Laurent Fignon to Greg LeMond in 1989), while the Tour was decided on the last days road stage in 1947, when Jean Robic came from three minutes back to join a winning breakaway that gained a dozen minutes and dropped previous race leader Pierre Brambilla into third.
In more recent Tours, Marco Pantani was in fourth place overall in 1998, three minutes behind Jan Ullrich going into the 15th stage over the Col du Galibier to a summit finish at Les Deux-Alpes. Ullrich was dropped when Pantani attacked near the top of the Galibier in a thunderstorm and the race leader cracked mentally on the long descentwhere Pantani was helped by friends from other teams and finished the day almost nine minutes ahead of Ullrich to take the yellow jersey and defend it all the way to Paris.
That 1998 Tour, of course, was the one where the then No. 1 team in the world, Festina, was excluded because of admitted systemic doping. And six other teams later pulled out in protest against French police arresting and interrogating riders on suspicious teams. And, later this month, more will come out about doping back then when a French senators committee will make public the results of retroactive drug testing from that Tour.
The ethical culture in pro cycling has come full circle in the 15 years since the Pantani Tour, and riders today are more likely to see their strength fade in the final week of a Grand Tour, especially if they have to consistently race hardas the Team Sky men are being asked to do, to defend Froomes yellow jersey. This was demonstrated last weekend in the Pyrnes.
Froome did indeed win the first mountain stage at the Ax 3 Domaines summit, but all he had to do was finish off the demolition work performed by his teammates Vasili Kiryienka, Peter Kennaugh and Richie Porte, who dropped all of Froomes rivals before their leader raced ahead 4 kilometers from the top of the final climb. The next day, along with all their other Sky teammates, Kennaugh (following a crash) and Porte were dropped (and Kiryienka finished outside of the time cut) when the Garmin-Sharp, Saxo-Tinkoff and Movistar teams launched a fusillade of attacks on the second of the stages five major climbs.
This coming Sundays stage to Mont Ventoux is the longest of the race at 242.5 kilometers (just over 150 miles!) and it crosses four categorized climb, along with half a dozen other significant uphills before reaching the Giant of Provence. Riding a steady lead tempo on such a stage will be a tough task for the Sky domestiques, especially after Edvald Boasson Hagen was forced to quit Wednesday with a fractured shoulder, while Geraint Thomas is nursing a cracked pelvis, and neither David Lopez nor Kanstantin Sivtsov is on top form. Should teams like Garmin, Movistar or Belkin put even semi-dangerous riders in breakaways, the Sky men will have to work even harder. That may not affect Froomes ultimate strength on the 20.8-kilometer-long Ventoux, but it could mean that Kennaugh (riding his first Tour) and Porte (without Kiryienkas support) will be too weary to set a pace that stops Froomes nearest opponents from attacking on the steeper grades of 9 to 11 percent that kick up in the middle part of this final climb.
A couple of days ago, Contadors team boss Bjarne Riis vowed: We will isolate Froome and see what happens. Obviously, his team is not as strong as ours. And any tactical alliance Riis makes with Movistar or Garmin or Belkin could make life very miserable for an isolated race leader. Adding to the Ventoux climbs challenges will be implacable heat. Sundays forecast indicates temperatures close to 90 degrees in the shadeand theres no shade on the final third of the climb! This is where the mountain road meanders across a rocky moonscape of white limestone to the 1912-meter (6,273-foot) summit, with riders likely fighting gusting winds from the north. (The road is often closed to traffic because of high winds).
Although Monday is the Tours second rest day, the riders wont have an easy stage to get back into the rhythm of racing, because Tuesdays stage to Gap is almost identical to the one two years ago that ends with the climb and (very tricky) descent of the category 2 Col de Mansewhere eventual Tour winner Evans gained 1:09 on eventual runner-up Andy Schleck with an attack over the strategically placed climb.
Its true that in an analysis of the remaining alpine challenges, the experts at French sports daily Lquipe have given Froome the highest rating to win Wednesdays time trial, the double climb of LAlpe dHuez, and the penultimate days summit finish near Annecy. And should he (and his team) hold strong, then this Tour will be a blowout for the Kenyan-born Englishman. But if the most knowledgeable team managers are right, then Froome is going to have to fight for his yellow jersey all the way to Paris.
* * *
You can follow John at twitter.com @johnwilcockson. Look for more of Johns commentaries from France in the Tours final week.