Cycling truth, that is. After the stages in the Pyrenees yesterday and today, any lingering questions about the top riders in this year’s Tour have been decisively answered. What a great two days it’s been!
Recall that entering yesterday’s stage, Bradley Wiggins led the Tour, with teammate Chris Froome in second 2’05″ back, Vincenzo Nibali 2’23″ behind, then defending champion Cadel Evans 3’19″ behind, Jurgen Van Den Broeck 4’48″ behind, Haimar Zubeldia 6’15″ behind, and Tejay Van Garderen 6’57″ behind. In my post two nights ago, I asked:
1. Who is really the best rider in this year’s Tour, Wiggins or Froome?
2. Can Evans keep from losing time in the mountains and maintain his position, keeping open the possibility of vaulting ahead of Nibali with a strong time trial on Saturday?
3. If not, will teammate Van Garderen be released to ride for himself and see what he can do.
We now have answers to #2 and #3, and we know that #1 will have to go unanswered.
Yesterday’s stage featured the massive climbs of the Col d’Aubisque and the Col du Tourmalet early, with the Col d’Aspin and Col de Peyresourde leading to a closing descent into Luchon. Evans survived the first two climbs, but began to fall off on the third. By the fourth, Van Garderen was freed at last to make the best of it. Up front, Thomas Voeckler was busy winning every climb to take over the lead in the polka-dot jersey competition, with several others running ahead of the peleton as well, but the real action was with the leaders a few minutes behind. Nibali had to attack if he had any hope of improving on his third place position, given that Wiggins and Froome will pick up time on him in the time trial. On the Peyresourde, he attacked, opening up a gap temporarily. Froome and Wiggins closed it, leaving everyone else behind, and that was that. The three of them crossed the finish in the same time, 58 seconds ahead of Van Den Broeck, Zubeldia, Van Garderen, and four others (including the surprising 40-year-old American Chris Horner). Evans was 4’47″ behind the leading trio, sliding from fourth overall down to seventh while Van Der Broeck, Zubeldia, and Van Garderen each moved up one.
Following some early climbs today, the riders had a huge climb up Port de Balès, then a return visit (from the opposite direction) to the Col de Peyresourde, followed by a 3km descent and then a 3km ascent to the Col de Peyragudes and a flat finishing kilometer. Voeckler dashed ahead again, nailing down the lead in the climbing classification, before giving way on the final climbs. The other breakaway riders gave way too, except for Alejandro Valverde, back in the Tour after a doping suspension. (It happens. This is cycling.) Evans was broken again, as was Zubeldia, creating some possibilities for overall lead changes below the top four. On the final climb, Nibaldi had nothing left for any further attacks on Wiggins and Froome. He was content to stay with them.
Wiggins and Froome had other ideas, though, and began to ride away. Froome looked so good that it soon became apparent he could chase down Valverde for the stage win, with or without Wiggins in tow. The gap was dropping, and with 2km to go, victory was his. If he chose. Which he didn’t. As a slight gap opened between him and Wiggins, he turned back, seemingly beckoning Wiggins on. Then he let up, Wiggins joined him, and they finished together, just 19 seconds behind Valverde. Nibali and Van Den Broeck lost 18 seconds to them. Van Garderen lost 35. Evans lost just under 2 minutes, Zubeldia just under 3. Van Garderen moved up one spot to 5th, Evans moved up one spot to 6th despite his losses, and Zubeldia dropped down two to 7th.
The time gaps between the top riders and their relative strengths as time trialists with Saturday’s stage approaching suggest that we won’t see any further changes among them. Van Garderen may have a great time trial in him, but he’s almost two and a half minutes behind Van Den Broeck and way back of the top three. Fifth is where he will surely stay.
We now know that Wiggins and Froome are the class of the field; that Nibali is not their equal but sits above everyone else; and that Van Garderen is the real thing, a potential Tour winner of the future. What we don’t know is how well Froome might have performed if he weren’t riding in support of Wiggins. What if he were leader of another team, for instance? Of course, like Wiggins, Froome has benefited from the overall strength of Team Sky. As leader of a weak team, he might have had his own struggles in the mountains. One doesn’t win the Tour alone. This question will go unanswered.
But there are more Tours to come, and more opportunities for Froome, as well as for Van Garderen, and for the 22-year-old French sensation Thibaut Pinot, who sits tenth overall. Even as we await this Tour’s conclusion, I am already excited about next year.