Stage 11 – Sky show who’s boss. But who?
So the first real test of the GC contenders came in the form of a short stage with three gruelling climbs, the last a summit finish up the La Rosiere Espace San Bernardo. La Rosiere is especially cheeky. 17km long with an average gradient of 5.8%, it’s the middle section, of 6km at 8.2% that really sorts them out. And so it did yesterday.
If Van Avermaet conceding yellow was a nailed on certainty, what actually unfolded was remarkable and unexpected. Team Sky had driven the leading contenders at a fast pace up the lower slopes of La Rosiere chasing a number of splintered breaks, notably Tom Dumoulin (who had broken away following his opportunistic attack on the previous descent off the Cormelet de Roselend) and further up the road (and out on his own) Mikel Nieve. As soon as Team Sky Domestique Michal Kwiatkowski blew up just under 6km from the summit having done sterling work up the really steep section of La Rosiere, Thomas set off at a blistering pace passing Dumoulin as if he was standing still. Dumoulin had the presence of mind to grab his wheel but it was clear who the stronger man was. Chris Froome played a clever game with a bunch of other serious GC contenders (Bardet, Roglic, Nibali and Quintana) not wanting to drag them along back to Thomas but that also put him in a bit of tactical no man’s land with his team mate riding away up ahead. So in the end he had to accelerate. He bridged across to Dumoulin and Thomas but no sooner had he done so, Thomas then put in another burst of acceleration leaving Dumoulin and Froome behind and catching Nieve well ahead of the finish line to register a famous stage victory and grab yellow.
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So the question is this; has the twin track approach of Team Sky now given them an intractable problem? Is Thomas now about to break with the established order and go for the Tour win? What will Froome’s reaction be? Was Thomas just being politically correct in his post race interview claiming that Froome is still the leader?
We’ll find out a fair bit on Alpe d’Huez today, many people’s favourite climb in the world. But here’s Criterium Cycles’s take on what is going on; it’s that Team Sky are playing an absolute blinder. The whole “who is the leader thing” is a clever piece of bluff and double bluff, designed to keep every other GC team guessing and off balance. And it’s working. The reality surely is that the contracts both Froome and Thomas have with Team Sky make it very clear who is the leader. It is inconceivable to us that come the last knockings in Paris, and if they are both at the top of the standings, it will be anything other than Froome 1 and Thomas 2. Of course, either one could have an incident between now and Stage 20 which means Sir Dave Brailsford has got the best possible Plan B set up in the world.
Our prediction? Froome 1st, Thomas 2nd and Nibali 3rd. But with the way this tour has already served up shocks, the one thing that’s almost certain is that our prediction is wrong. Bring on Alpe d’Huez and the rest of the Tour. It’s shaping up to get really interesting now!