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Rest Day, 2

Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome

[Bryn Lennon/Getty Images, from The Guardian]

I haven’t written a Tour report in a week, since the first rest day, though my Tour commentary hasn’t been missed. I did intend to write last Thursday, after the second of the Tour’s two big days in the Alps. It was every bit as dramatic as expected, and in all likelihood served to decide the overall standings, which haven’t changed among the leaders since. But two more huge mountain days await, tomorrow and Thursday in the Pyrenees, and Saturday brings the second time trial, providing opportunity aplenty for form and standings to change. It just doesn’t seem likely.

Let’s go back a day, to last Wednesday’s Alpine stage, won in thrilling fashion by Frenchman Thomas Voeckler, but one that led to no changes at the top of the GC (the general classification, or overall standings). Bradley Wiggins still led, with last year’s winner Cadel Evans 1′ 53″ back in second, Wiggins’ teammate Chris Froome in third another 14 seconds back, and Vincenzo Nibali in fourth 16 seconds further behind. Plus, Nibali finished Wednesday’s stage upset at Wiggins for what he took to be a sign of disrespect at the finish. Thursday would present the best opportunity for Nibali, and Evans, to move up.

Nibali attacked with about 10km remaining in Thursday’s stage, gaining as much as 20 seconds, but Froome did the hard work of chasing him down, Wiggins in tow. There was a victim: Evans couldn’t keep up. In what may be the decisive moment of the Tour, teammate Tejay Van Garderen had to pull back from the lead group to pace Evans up the mountain, both losing time to the other three. In a moment of great surprise, Froome took off ahead of the others, only to be told (or so it appeared) over his earphone to drop back and stay with Wiggins and Nibali.

The end result: Wiggins stayed in the lead, Froome and Nibali took over second and third overall, Evans dropped to fourth, and the others who did well on the climb, and Jurgen Van Den Broeck moved into fifth, with Haimar Zubeldia in sixth and Van Garderen, even though he lost time on the leaders, moving up to seventh. Nothing changed in the four subsequent stages. The time gaps: Froome 2’05” behind Wiggins, Nibali 2’23” behind, Evans 3’19” behind, Van Den Broeck 4’48” behind, Zubeldia 6’15” behind, Van Garderen 6’57” behind.

As long as Froome works for Wiggins, as he surely will, it’s difficult to see how they won’t keep their top two positions in the Pyrenees. And since they appear to be the top two time trialists in the race, they will only increase their lead over the field on Saturday. The only remaining question would seem to be whether Evans can keep from losing more time in the mountains, at least with respect to Nibali, and snare the last podium spot with a strong time trial effort. Alternatively, if he cracks again, will Tejay be released to go out on his own and see what he can do?

Which brings us to the most fascinating question of the Tour? Is Wiggins really the top rider, or is Froome? Not that it matters. Froome will ride for the team, supporting Wiggins rather than trying to beat him. And the time gap at this point is probably too large. We can only speculate on what might have been if Froome were the designated team leader from the beginning. Of course, there’s a history here, Froome finishing 13 seconds back of Juan José Cobo in last year’s Vuelta a España after riding in support of Wiggins, who ended up third.

But riders must wait their turn. Greg LeMond famously finished second in support of Bernard Hinault in 1985 before winning the next year (with Hinault less interested in supporting LeMond than he had promised the year before). And when Bjarne Riis won in 1996, his rookie teammate Jan Ullrich sure looked the stronger rider, making good on his promise by winning the next year.

But I’m getting ahead of myself in this entire discussion. Let’s see how the next few days play out. Then we can dream about Froome’s potential.

———————
I was just looking back at The Guardian’s coverage and see that I missed an article last Saturday by William Fotheringham on the Wiggins-Froome situation. He covers some of the same ground I do, but much better. I’ll finish with an excerpt. Well, I don’t see a lot to cut. Here’s most of the piece, with a paragraph snipped in the middle and one at the end:

Some of cycling’s most enduring and hotly debated plotlines have emerged when two equally talented and ambitious cyclists on the same team find themselves racing for the same prize. The dilemma Team Sky faced as the Tour de France entered its final week, with Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome lying first and second overall respectively, was one that cycling teams had encountered in the past – and history indicated that the team’s management would be tested as never before.

The problem stems from the fact that cycling is an individual sport run on a team basis. Talented cyclists are expected to subjugate their ambitions to those of the collective, in feudal style. Hence the sight, on this Tour, of Michael Rogers, Richie Porte and Froome – all capable of leading a team in their own right – working selflessly for Wiggins. The system only breaks down when a designated worker becomes aware of his ability and his ambition, and becomes frustrated, which is what appeared to be happening with Froome on Thursday, at the toughest mountain-top finish at La Toussuire in the French Alps.

Wiggins had already had to restrain the Kenyan-born climber from setting too high a pace at the first summit finish, La Planche des Belles Filles, last Saturday, when the Londoner took the yellow jersey. Froome had to be drawn back again this week when, having sat on the back of the lead group to recover for a short while, he attacked, briefly leaving Wiggins behind.

The problem, clearly, was that the race leader might lose time to two of his key rivals, Vincenzo Nibali and Jurgen Van Den Broeck. Froome had started the stage almost two minutes behind Wiggins, having lost more than a minute on the first stage with a puncture and a further 35 seconds in Monday’s time trial, and the risk was obvious: if he gained time on his leader, so too might those rivals, potentially putting the entire race at risk.

The twist in the Wiggins-Froome tale is that the pair had been in this situation before. At last year’s Tour of Spain, they surprised themselves by being in the mix at the sharp end of the race. Wiggins was coming back from a broken collarbone, Froome from the illness bilharzia. Froome was expected to work for his leader when Wiggins took the leader’s jersey, but beat him in a key time trial, then rode for him at a crucial summit finish when he was probably capable of contesting the overall win.

Froome finished second to the Spaniard Juan José Cobo by just 13 seconds; the race looked to have been lost largely because Sky were in unknown territory, with a leader who was not in his best form and a second-in-command who had never performed at that level before. The situation now is different, because Wiggins has a two-minute advantage on Froome and the rest, and unleashing the little climber could risk others eating into that as well.

[snip]

The Froome-Wiggins situation has an uncannily close parallel in one Tour in particular, that of 1985, when Bernard Hinault of France started the race as the uncontested leader of the La Vie Claire team, tilting for his fifth win, with the American, Greg LeMond, as his designated domestique. As the race progressed, Hinault took the yellow jersey, but weakened in the final week after a crash. LeMond got stronger and sensed he might be able to win himself. On one key stage in the Pyrenees, LeMond got in an escape with other contenders, leaving Hinault behind. He was ordered not to collaborate, in exactly the same way that Froome was reined in at La Toussuire. LeMond remained convinced that had he ridden for himself, he would have won the Tour.

The Hinault-LeMond plot thickened the following year because, in 1985, the formal agreement was that the Frenchman would assist the American. LeMond eventually won that Tour, but only after being pushed to the limit by Hinault, who insisted that any attacks he made were to soften up the opposition, toughen up the American and make the race entertaining. A quarter of a century later, LeMond remained convinced that Hinault had tried to win for himself, while Hinault maintained he was capable of winning but had enabled his team-mate to do so.

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