As the Tour de France resumes tomorrow in Le Puy-en-Velay and gears up for a final, crucial six days, the peloton do so knowing that this is the closest general classification fight at this juncture since 1951.
Not since the days of Hugo Koblet and Raphaël Géminiani in the ’51 Tour have four riders been within 30 seconds of the race leader.
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After stage 15, Chris Froome (Team Sky) has an 18 second advantage to Fabio Aru (Astana), while Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) is 23 seconds adrift of the Briton and Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) is at 29 seconds.
The close-fought battle will make for an intriguing, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-the-race week, with two stages in the Alps – one going over the Col du Galibier and one finishing atop Col d’Izoard – and a penultimate stage 22.5km time trial in Marseille.
The widely agreed answer as to why the Tour is so tight among riders and teams is the parcours. Christian Prudhomme, the race director, said at the route’s unveiling last October that it should entice more attacks and prevent one team (pointedly, Sky) from controlling the race.
Some were sceptical, but the route has proven to satisfy Prudhomme’s request and wishes. Team Sky, who have been so dominant in recent Tours, have been unable to control the race as they have done in previous years, and for the first time, having more domestiques around their leader has not yielded advantages.
What will happen in week three?
The route has fewer time trial kilometres than usual; indeed, the 36.5km of testing is the least amount of time trial kilometres in Tour history.
This has meant that the better GC riders against the clock have been unable to put sizeable time gaps into their rivals. One can’t help but feel this was a deliberate plot to prevent Froome from notching up a huge advantage courtesy of his time trialling, à la previous Tours.
Complementing that, there have been and are fewer summit finishes. The race has had two so far, and features one more; three summit finishes in one Tour is the lowest number since 2012. This has had a similar outcome to fewer time trial kilometres as it means there are less opportunities to create substantial time gaps.
Summit finishes may be an exception rather than the rule, but stages that end with a descent are having the biggest impact.
Fifth-placed Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) gained time on stage 13 and stage 15, via attacking down a descent. Froome, memorably, daringly attacked on a descent in the 2016 Tour, and by not having to wait until the finishing climb, the route has enabled attacks from further out and encouraged riders to be brave and have a go.
On stage 13, there may not have been a big shuffle in the GC standings, but all of the GC riders at least attempted to distance one another on the descent. Summit finishes, logic states, create the bigger gaps while descents produce more exciting racing, but not as many time differences.
Another factor has been the number of sprint stages. Marcel Kittel is dominating these and it is very feasible that he will clock up eight stage wins.
For the GC men, this has meant a reduction in days when they can attack one another. And, by not having days riding across pavé in northern Europe, or along the windswept and crosswind-prone North Sea and Atlantic Coast, the flat stages have been a lot more relaxed and calmer for the yellow jersey hunters. They have been less stressed than they have in recent years.
The parcours has created an exciting, unpredictable race which has allowed riders who would otherwise be less fancied in more standard Tours be in contention: namely Martin who struggles in time trials and Uran, who hasn’t been tested by the world’s best climbers in the high mountains for a number of years, and has yet to be distanced in this race.
There are non-route reasons, too. The most obvious one is that Froome hasn’t been as superior and dominant as he has been in the past. He showed weakness in the Pyrenees, and in all of his Tour wins that have preceded this July’s edition, he has looked invincible until the final few days when he has been so assured of a win that he has been able to afford time losses.
Meanwhile, no one has, so far, managed to launch a successful attack and rip the race to pieces. The race has been devoid of a rider like, say Bardet, attacking unexpectedly some distance from the finish and holding onto his advantage to cross the line more than a minute ahead of his principal rivals.
Why has that been? Firstly, the GC rivals have been marking each other very closely, but it could also be that the riders fear burning themselves out for little or no reward.
Also, aside from Aru who won the Vuelta a España in 2015, Froome’s rivals have not won a Grand Tour.
There is, therefore, a lack of know-how and knowledge in how to win a three-week stage race. There is no leader, no rider who can take a stranglehold on the race. In many ways, it feels like this is the best chance Bardet et al. have and potentially will have to beat Froome and they are wasting that opportunity. Where’s the panache, guys?
The race is so close because Contador has seemingly aged beyond his Grand Tour-winning years, while Quintana has been unable to replicate the form that has had many predicting that he would become the first ever Colombian winner of the maillot jaune.
The race has been poorer without their top form. It’s also worth asking here, would Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) have profited from Froome’s lack of dominance?
Whatever the reasons, this Tour has been a captivating fortnight of racing. Who knows what will have happened come Paris next Sunday?