A tale of two climbs: Sky showed both strength and vulnerability in the Vosges and Jura mountains

Bradley Wiggins took the yellow jersey with a stunning show of team strength on the Planche des Belles Filles, but Sky were more stretched on the Col de la Croix. What does this mean for the rest of the Tour?

Words by Edward Pickering in Besançon

Monday July 9, 2012

Will Sky win the Tour in the manner that they won the yellow jersey on the Planche des Belles Filles, or will they lose it by displaying the vulnerability that was hinted at yesterday on the Col de la Croix?

The opening middle mountains stages of the Tour have shown two sides to Team Sky. I feared the worst when Michael Rogers, Richie Porte and Chris Froome laid waste to the front group on the climb to La Planche des Belles Filles. It was at the same time hugely impressive and mind-numbingly boring.

Sky didn’t allow a single attack to go on the climb, except for a comfortably-countered dig from Cadel Evans with 400 metres to go which was more about going for the stage victory than gaining time on Bradley Wiggins. It was a relentless, calculated display of threshold riding. Cycling as science, not art.

It was a repeat of what we’d already seen on the Col de Joux-Plane at the Critérium du Dauphiné, which Wiggins also won. There, the same four Sky riders who dominated at La Planche des Belles Filles were among the first 11 over the top of the climb, having set a suffocating pace in a virtual team time trial on the steep slopes.

Lance Armstrong’s US Postal team weren’t the first to employ these kind of tactics, but they refined and perfected them during their winning run at the Tour between 1999 and 2005. Their method was to have the strongest rider, with the strongest team, and squeeze the life out of their rivals by setting a fast pace through the mountain stages. We’ll leave the more controversial aspects of how they achieved this for a different debate, but in terms of tactical interest and aesthetics, it was unattractive.

Sky have adopted these tactics in a display of pragmatism that is classic Dave Brailsford and classic British Cycling. How best to win? Boring, stifling tactics? Fine. Better to win ugly than lose pretty. It’s also fair enough – any rider with Bradley Wiggins’ time-trialling ability would approach this Tour in the same way.

However, if we were in for two more weeks of a Sky-led peloton riding a fast tempo in the mountains, 2012 would be right up there with the dullest Tours in history in terms of the GC, whether you liked the winner or not.

But we’re not, and it was only one day after Wiggins took the yellow jersey at La Planche des Belles Filles, on the stage through the Jura mountains to Porrentruy, that the cracks started showing.

Brailsford talked to journalists at the start village of the Porrentruy stage about how they would be careful to let the right break go, to ensure as orderly a procession to the finish as possible. He even hinted that letting the yellow jersey go for a couple of days wouldn’t be disastrous (although with the Besançon time trial in the offing, this was unlikely to happen).

Sure enough, the attacks came thick and fast from the start in Tomblaine. A huge group went clear inside the first 50 kilometres: more than 20 riders, representing, by my count, 18 teams – everybody except Sky, Lotto, Garmin and Argos. It was far too many, and Sky needed to get it under control.

But they couldn’t.

They chased for a long time, yet they couldn’t quite close the gap, eventually relenting and letting the escapees stretch out their lead to three minutes, while the more ambitious among them – Jérémy Roy, Fredrik Kessiakoff and finally Thibaut Pinot – went about chasing the stage win.

And on the final climb, the steep Col de la Croix, Sky were exposed. Michael Rogers and Richie Porte, so strong the day before, were absent. Lotto-Belisol’s Jurgen Van den Broeck, frustrated after a mechanical had cost him his place in the front group just before Planche des Belles Filles, went on the attack, drawing clear Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome of Sky, along with six others. Vincenzo Nibali and Cadel Evans both attacked on the run-in. Nibali went for one of Wiggins’ perceived weaknesses – descending – by attacking on the downhill, while Evans had a dig on the flat with about two kilometres to go.

What was interesting was the reaction to Evans’ attack: the others clearly left it to Wiggins to chase Evans down. Wiggins did so, but it bodes well for the rest of the Tour that the other riders in the top 10 are not afraid of the Brit. Nor should they be too concerned that Sky are going to crush the life out of the race like they did on La Planche des Belles Filles.

Evans, Nibali and Wiggins’ other rivals will keep probing and niggling at Sky through the Alps and into the Pyrenees. Sky aren’t unbeatable, and the 2012 Tour is going to be the better for it.

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