Post-race analysis from the Tour's 65km mountain stage

Geraint Thomas settles Sky’s leadership question

Geraint Thomas crosses the line in third place on stage 17 of the Tour de France (Credit: Yuzuru Sunada)

After all the talk of the awkward situation Team Sky had found themselves in, and the difficult decisions they may be forced into making when choosing which of Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas to back, ultimately the road settled the dilemma for them.

When Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) attacked two kilometres from the finish at the summit of the Col du Portet, Thomas leaped immediately onto his wheel, while Froome languished behind.

It was the moment when Thomas proved definitively that he is Sky’s strongest rider at this year’s Tour de France. Whereas his two stage wins in the Alps came from late kicks for the line, with Froome finishing close behind, this time Thomas covered the attacks of his rivals while Froome was physically unable to.

The ride saw Thomas gain 48 seconds over his teammate, extending his gap over him in the GC to 2-31, while Dumoulin leaps into second overall. Any ambiguity over who Sky should back has been categorically settled.

Now Sky’s full attention will be on getting Thomas through the final few stages – including a potentially hazardous final day in the Pyrenees on Friday – and making sure there is no chance for Dumoulin (now 1-59 down ) and Primoz Roglic (at 2-47) to stage a late coup.

The yellow jersey is now Thomas’ to lose, and any talk of him suffering a customary bad day sound increasingly fanciful.

End of an era for Froome

Chris Froome struggles as he crosses the line on stage 18 of the Tour de France (Credit: Yuzuru Sunada)

Eddy Merckx’s was the Puy de Dome and the punch from a spectator that forced him to abandon. Miguel Indurain’s was the Les Arcs when he was dropped at the 1996 Tour.

Has Chris Froome finally met his own Tour de France Waterloo on the Col du Portet?

It was hardly a dramatic capitulation. Froome only cracked near the summit, and had enough left in the tank to limit his losses to under 45 seconds to all of the other GC contenders minus Thomas.

But the Pyrenean mountain may go down as just as historically significant, as the first time since his breakthrough in 2013 that Froome showed a fatal weakness, and lost a Tour de France on a climb.

Prior to the stage, Froome still harboured hopes of winning the yellow jersey. Comments in a post-race interview by Thomas revealed that Froome ‘wanted to try something’ today, suggesting that heading into the stage the team was still keen to implement a two-headed leadership approach.

That plan appeared to be put into effect when Froome followed an attack by Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) early on the climb while Thomas sat on Dumoulin’s wheel, but Froome ultimately did not have the legs come the business end of the climb.

His spectacular long-range attack up the Finestre to win the Giro earlier this season is a apt reminder for why we should never write Froome off, but he won’t be able to attempt anything quite so bold at this Tour without endangering his teammate Thomas, meaning his only real hope of winning yellow is if the Welshman cracks.

If Froome is to join Hinault, Anquetil and aforementioned Merckx and Indurain in the five-time-winners club, therefore, he’ll probably need to do so at a future Tour de France. The question now is, with the emergence of Thomas, will he be Sky’s outright leader for 2019?

Nairo Quintana has still got it

Nairo Quintana took his first Tour de France victory for five years on stage 17 (Credit: Yuzuru Sunada)

Fans of Nairo Quintana (Movistar) will have been worried on Alpe d’Huez, when the Colombian pure climber attacked feebly, only to be dropped

Was his career in decline? Did he still have what it takes to challenge for the yellow jersey?

Many doubts will have been satisfyingly rebuffed today, however, as Quintana demonstrated his zest of old to attack early on the final climb to win his first Tour de France stage since his debut ride in 2013.

Movistar will be relieved that he managed to pull-off the win having attempted to animate the race, although in truth it’s difficult to imagine Marc Soler’s turn at the front of the peloton and Alejandro Valverde’s 2km pace-setting him up the Col du Portet making all that much of a difference.

The result means that Quintana leapfrogs his teammate Mikel Landa into fifth overall, although he remains unlikely to challenge for a podium place with a time trial lying ahead.

Given his intention of winning the race overall, the past three weeks must still go down as a disappointment for Quintana, but today’s stage win is a considerable consolation prize and proof that, with more consistency, he can still be good enough to win a yellow jersey one day.

Innovations have minimal effect

The start grid on stage 17 had almost no effect on the racing (Credit: Yuzuru Sunada)

The first few moments of today’s stage were a sign of things to come. Laid out in a new grid style-formation implemented by ASO in an attempt to try something new, the riders simply road in their usual manner, with Sky taking to the front and the usual suspects going out on the attack.

Similarly, despite being radically different in form at just 65km long, the stage ultimately played out in much the same way as a conventional stage – Sky set the pace over the first two climbs, and the GC riders waited until the final ascent to make their attacks.

In this respects the stage was a bit of a let down, and the GC riders will no doubt re criticised for riding too conservatively. But was there much more they could have done? Team Sky were preposterously strong today even by their own high standards, with Egan Bernal and Wout Poels both still around to support Thomas and Froome halfway up the final climb even as the rest of the rest of the peloton was reduced to only riders in the 10 overall.

Ag2r La Mondiale appeared on the brink of trying something when the white jersey of Pierre Latour put in a long turn on the penultimate climb, but no attack was forthcoming from Romain Bardet – perhaps down to a lack of legs, based on the way he was dropped later on.

We’ll never know what might have happened if they, along with the likes of Movistar and LottoNL-Jumbo, had gone all out right from the beginning of the stage. But we can perhaps safely say that Sky would have emerged in control whatever was thrown at them.

Peter Sagan crashes

Peter Sagan rides to the finish after crashing on stage 17 of the Tour de France (Credit: Yuzuru Sunada)

The most unusual thing to happen today was not Chris Froome cracking, nor – as some might slyly suggest – Nairo Quintana attacking: it was Peter Sagan falling in a crash.

The Slovak generally has a remarkable tendency to remain upright even in the most stressful of situations, but today came a cropper on the descent of the Col de Val-Louron-Azet.

He managed to remount and finish in a group some 25 minutes, and remained in good humour when describing his condition in the aftermath of the incident – in pain, but with nothing broken.

Despite having achieved such success at this Tour so far, it is of paramount importance that Sagan manages to finish the race – he has a mathematically unassailable lead in the green jersey competition, but will only be awarded it if he makes it to Paris.