What a difference a couple of days in the Pyrenees makes. At its halfway point, the Tour de France seemed to have settled into a familiar pattern for Team Sky, but a 300-metre mountain runway and a 101-kilometre mountain thriller have thrown the winners of four of the past five editions into uncharted waters.
The theme of each of those four victories, the first with Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and the subsequent three with Chris Froome, was an early grab for the maillot jaune and total control thereafter. On all four occasions, the winner spent at least 14 consecutive days in yellow before being crowned in Paris.
When Froome took the lead of this edition on La Planche des Belles Filles on stage 5, having already gained time in the opening-day time trial, it looked like business as usual, and, despite the loss of Geraint Thomas, the embarrassment of Sky domestique strength only reinforced that notion.
Yet Froome’s Peyragudes wobble saw the team lose yellow at the Tour for only the second time, and for the first time to a GC rival. The sense of shock on the mountain, enhanced by the way Sky had stifled proceedings for the previous 214 kilometres, was palpable.
Froome, for the first time, finds himself chasing the Tour in the second half of the race, yet this is also new ground for Sky in that they have suddenly found themselves with two cards to play, rather than one.
Mikel Landa caused ripples as he rode away from Froome on the Peyragudes runway, and made waves on Friday as he jumped from 10th to fifth overall on the explosive short stage to Foix. The Spaniard is now, in theory, a potential winner of the Tour de France. Sky haven’t been in the position of having two of those since 2012, when Froome, despite a couple of pointed attacks, had to cede to Wiggins, the ‘chosen one’ for the first British victory of the Tour de France.
A repeat of 2012 tensions?
The Frenchman Warren Barguil won the stage to Foix, on Bastille Day no less, yet the story of the day revolved around Sky, and that was evidenced by the buzz at the team’s bus beyond the finish line. Landa had been out in front all day, coming close to being virtual maillot jaune, which took the onus off Froome and Sky and placed it onto race leader Fabio Aru and Romain Bardet, both of whom lacked support.
“It was perfect for us,” Team Sky DS Nicolas Portal said in Foix, and the general message from all parties at the Sky bus was one of self-congratulation.
Indeed, by the end of the day, the podium contenders had failed to put time into Froome – a necessity given the penultimate-day time trial – and had let a danger man – danger men, even, as Nairo Quintana was also up the road – back into contention.
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From one side, it looks like a tactical masterstroke, yet there are multiple angles and myriad complexities to this situation. For a start, there will be question marks over whether they really wanted Landa in yellow. Granted, it was UAE Team Emirates doing most of the work in the yellow jersey group, not Sky, but Michal Kwiatkowski, up the road with Quintana, chose to drop and work for Froome instead of continuing to try and reach Landa at the head of the race. And Kwiatkowski did pull, and Froome did attack towards the top of the final climb, and again on the descent to the finish.
It has to be pointed out that Landa is something of a maverick, that he’s not on the best terms with Sky and almost certainly on his way out at the end of the season, and that he’s had previous. At Astana, he felt he could have won the 2015 Giro had the team backed him and not Fabio Aru, while at the Vuelta later that year he brazenly ignored team orders to take personal glory on the queen stage.
Could Landa rip out his earpiece and stab Froome in the back? It’s far from likely, but not beyond the realms of possibility – what’s certain is that it’d be a storyline for the ages.
Interestingly, there was no immediate post-stage communication between Froome and Landa outside the Sky bus, with the pair warming down almost side-by-side without as much as making eye contact. Perhaps aware of the throng of waiting television cameras, Froome then went over to Landa with a smile and a pat on the back.
Everyone was certainly on message in front of the microphones. Landa, despite some heavy prodding by Spanish media, insisted he knew his place and that Froome was the clear top dog. Froome himself praised Landa’s work and the tactical dimension it has opened up. Portal excitably spoke of the ‘cards’ now at his disposal. Dave Brailsford said he was “very happy Landa got away”, a move that “tactically made all the difference”.
“We have one leader, which is Froome, and then Landa, who’s clearly very strong,” said Portal, settling the score. “We’re still focused on Froomey, but that opened the cards for us really well.”
Michal Kwiatkowski leading Chris Froome, Romain Bardet, Fabio Aru and Rigoberto Uran (TDW Sport)
The question, now, is: how do Sky play those cards from here?
“Exactly the same as today,” was Portal’s response, indicating that Landa will again be sent up the road in the Alps, and maybe even beforehand.
“We’ll put the pressure on even more. When you have two such strong riders on one team, and the other leaders don’t have anyone to support them, that complicates things, that puts pressure on, and we can play those cards.”
Sky have a luxury, that’s for sure, but also a delicate balancing act.
As Brailsford himself pointed out: “For two guys on GC to really work, if you send someone up the road, then the other GC leaders have to genuinely feel the threat that that guy can win. Otherwise, it doesn’t work.”
In other words, Aru, Bardet et al must believe Sky are willing to win the Tour de France with Mikel Landa. That’s why Kwiatkowski’s and Froome’s actions on Friday were curious; if there’s a hint that Froome is the ‘chosen one’ in the manner of Wiggins five years ago, his rivals might soon call bluff.
Asked directly whether he’d be happy to see Landa take the yellow jersey, Brailsford replied: “If it comes and if it tactically feels like the right thing to do, then absolutely.”
Yet despite all the talk of cards, there are doubts about how creative Sky want, and indeed need, to be.
Froome is only six seconds off the lead of the race, and he should, on paper, gain a chunk of time on the penultimate day. In the Dusseldorf time trial he put 35 seconds into all GC rivals – more into Aru and Bardet – and the Marseille course is 8.5km longer. In other words, Froome is a virtual leader of sorts at this point, and it’s the others, not least Aru, who still have to attack.
Brailsford, with a straight face, waxed lyrical in Foix about the way his team had engaged in the sort of “proper racing” that “attracted us all to the sport in the first place”, having “fun” instead of “defend defend defend”. Yet he also suggested that they’d be happy with the status quo.
“If the race stayed the same now all the way to the time trial, we’d be happy,” he said. “We don’t need to move. If it stays like it is, we’d take that.”
It’s hard to predict what happens next, but then that’s the beauty of it. Excitement thus far had been limited to confined bursts – Peter Sagan’s disqualification, the white-knuckle drama of that stage in the Jura mountains – but the Pyrenees have brought the Tour de France to life, and left us with a race brimming with intrigue.