Can Geraint Thomas hang on?
That’s not something most expected to be asking at the start of the race, but the Welshman has exceeded expectations to ride the race of his life.
Unlike at last year’s Tour and Giro, where he made similarly good starts, Thomas has managed to build upon his early platform rather than falling out of contention, winning back-to-back summit finishes in the Alps to give himself a healthy lead of 1-39 on the GC.
Many threats still lie ahead, however. Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) is too canny a racer and too fast a time triallist for 1-50 to be a comfortable buffer. And although the likes of Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and the Movistar duo of Mikel Landa and Nairo Quintana are a significant way down on GC, they all have the ability and the prerogative to attack in the Pyrenees and make Thomas’ life potentially very uncomfortable.
And of course there’s the internal threat of his team-mate Chris Froome. Although the relationship between the two appears amiable, Thomas can’t afford to betray even the slightest sign of weakness if he’s to convince Sky that he is a safer bet than the four-time Tour winner.
It won’t be easy, but if Thomas can overcome all of these obstacles, he’ll cast all previous misfortunes and shortcomings into the past, and seal a career-defining victory.
Long slogs through the mountains
One area in which Thomas may yet come unstuck is during the two long, attritional slogs through the Pyrenees on stages 17 and 19.
Although he has looked imperious so far, the third week of any Grand Tour is a whole different kettle of fish, and the sheer length of these two stages could be enough to break him if his form starts to waver and tiredness begins to kick in.
Neither culminate in summit finishes, but feature enough climbing that the race could be in pieces long before their finishes.
At 218km, stage 16 is the longest day spent in the mountains of the race, featuring the category two Col de Portet d’Aspet and category one Col de Mente to soften the legs up, and later the category one Col du Portillon and a tense and possible hazardous descent to the finish.
Stage 19 is tougher still. On the menu are three horrible climbs that constitute the legendary Pyrenean ‘Circle of Death’ – the Col d’Aspin, the Tourmalet, and the Col d’Aubisque. A substantial portion of this 200km stage will be spent either lumbering up these fearsome mountains, or trying to stay alert on their equally lengthy descents.
It will be an exhausting challenge both physically and mentally, and could have a huge impact on the outcome of the race.
A radically short, intense day in the Pyrenees
Nestled in between these two conventional outings in the Pyrenees is one of this edition’s most innovative and anticipated days – the 65km stage 17 from Bagneres-de-Luchon to Saint-Lary-Soulan.
We’ve seen short stages in the mountains plenty of times in recent Grand Tours – most recently the 108km stage La Rosière won by Geraint Thomas – but not anything quite like this.
The novelty of its radically short distance means no-one knows exactly what to expect, but the consensus is that there will be attacks aplenty. With the road tilting uphill right from Kilometre Zero with the Col de Peyresourde, immediately followed by the Col de Val Louron-Azet, and climaxing with a finish atop the Col du Portet (which, coming in at 16km with an average gradient of 8.7%, is arguably the toughest climb of the entire race), there’s a huge potential for carnage.
Whereas the other Pyrenees stages will be a test of attrition, this will challenge the riders’ ability to deal with intensity. Anything that might seem set in stone going into this stage could be flipped topsy turvy across these 65 kilometres.
The time trial
One of the interesting quirks about the top of the GC at the moment is how it is populated by time trial specialists.
In fact, the three riders who trail immediately behind Thomas were also the three medallists at last year’s time trial world championships – Froome (bronze), Dumoulin (gold) and Primoz Roglic (sliver).
If all these riders can remain in contention for a podium place after the Pyrenean stages, we could be in for a thrilling and highly competitive time trial stage on the penultimate day of the Tour.
On paper there’s lot an awful lot separating them with regards to their ability against the clock. Dumolin is probably the quickest, while Thomas – though a fine time triallist himself – usually slower than the others.
But the context of Saturday’s time trial will be key. Each rider’s performance will depend upon how fresh they feel after three weeks of battling for the yellow jersey, which could cause some surprises. And the parcours is over the kind of bumpy terrain which also often throws up unexpected results.
Sometimes the final time trial of a Grand Tour can be underwhelming, especially recent ones in which the GC already appeared to be sewn up prior to it. This one, however, has the potential to be a classic.
How many more stages can Sagan win?
With three stage wins to his name, and a record-equalling sixth green jersey all but wrapped up, it’s been another sensational Tour de France for Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).
As we enter the third week, Sagan now has the chance to make this his best Tour to date.
He needs just one more stage win for his highest ever haul in a single Grand Tour, and looks in the mood to attain it. He got himself into the day’s break on both the weekend’s medium mountain stages, and, although he wasn’t rewarded with a win, did have the form to pull-off an impressive fourth place finish in Mende on stage 14.
Two stages in the final week look far better suited for him Sagan, who currently looks like the quickest sprinter in the race following tha many abandonments last week.
First is Thursday’s flat stage to Pau, which should, if the break is controlled, be decided by a bunch sprint
Then there’s the Champs-Élysées on the final day of the race, a stage that Sagan has twice finished second on but never won, and remains arguably the biggest omission from his palmarès.
Victory on the famous thoroughfare would be a perfect end to a perfect Tour for the world champion.