With two riders in the top five of the Tour de France general classification, Team Sky are in a stronger position than rivals – what tactics could they employ? Or could is pose a problem?
Despite all the anarchy that befell stage 13 at the Tour de France, to a large degree the status quo remained unchanged – Fabio Aru (Astana) remained in the yellow jersey, none of the major favourites were dropped, and Chris Froome (Sky), Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) all neither gained nor lost any time in relation to Aru.
There was, however, one crucial shift in the race situation – Mikel Landa is now a serious player on the GC, and a genuine contender for the yellow jersey.
Having unexpectedly lost the yellow jersey on stage 12, Team Sky pulled off an impressive tactical manoeuvre by having Landa launch up the road on the first climb, from which position he was ultimately able to gain 1-46 on the yellow jersey – enough to move him up to fifth overall, just 1-09 behind Aru.
In theory, that should put Sky in a very strong position. Landa will now not only be useful to the team as a super-domestique to pace Froome in the high mountains, and a viable ‘plan B’ should for whatever reason the defending champion’s GC bid come to an end – he’s now also a GC threat in his own right, meaning he and Froome could attack in tandem.
That strategy has proven very effective in the past. At the 2008 Tour, Team CSC used Frank Schleck and Carlos Sastre to work over Cadel Evans, with Sastre attacking on Alpe d’Huez in what turned out to be a race-winning move while the Schleck marked the other contenders in the peloton.
Schleck went on to team up in a similar fashion with brother Andy in future Tours, although they were often criticised with being too concerned with the others’ performance rather than landing a significant blow over their rivals. More recently, Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde have made for a fearsome co-leader pair at the Tour and Vuelta.
And, while at Astana, Landa himself teamed-up with, ironically, Fabio Aru at the 2015 Giro d’Italia. They ultimately finished third and second respectively behind Alberto Contador, but put the Spaniard under serious pressure that, on the penultimate stage, nearly cracked him.
If Froome and Landa are to form a similar partnership, they need to work coherently together, to ensure they benefit the team rather than their own individual hopes. That might involve Landa, who remains the team’s secondary leader, being willing to commit to the more risky moves, endangering his place on GC in order to set Froome up.
When asked at the finish line, Landa confirmed that Froome ‘no doubt’ remained ‘boss’ of the team. However, there are doubts concerning how selflessly he is willing to ride. He continues to be linked with a move away from Sky, which begs the question of whether he feels he owes the team.
And there have been signs that he is prioritising his own ambitions over that of the team – in a revealing albeit largely unnoticed incident on stage five’s finishing climb to Planche des Belles Filles, Landa was dropped before taking his turn at the front of the peloton yet still managed to finish 15th, a sign that he was preserving his own losses rather than using up everything in aid of Froome.
There is also the possibility that Froome is concerned about Landa threatening his status as undisputed leader. Froome proclaimed at the finish line how ‘Landa put in an amazing ride’ and that it was ‘a great outcome for us’, but the amount of energy he and teammate Michal Kwiatkowski expelled in the latter stages of stage 13 while Landa remained up the road appeared to make little tactical sense.
It could be argued that they were concerned with the time Landa’s fellow escapee Quintana was gaining, but if that was the case then why did Landa continue to ride with the Colombian? It seems plausible instead that Froome was cautious not to let his teammate slip ahead of him on the GC.
We’re a long way from all-out warfare in the manner of Bernard Hinault vs Greg LeMond in 1986, or even the hostility between Froome and Bradley Wiggins in 2012 (of which many parallels have already been observed). But with several testing days in the Alps to come, and with the GC still so tightly wound, the potential still exists for another of cycling’s tense teammate fall-outs.