Had anyone asked Adam Yates before the 2016 Tour de France had started whether he’d be happy with finishing fourth place overall, they’d no doubt have received a bemused response – of course he’d be thrilled with such a high result, but in no way did he expect to finish anywhere near that high.
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Prior to the Grand Départ his Orica-BikeExchange sports director made it bluntly clear that he felt that Yates was ‘not ready to run top-10 in the Tour de France at 23-years-old’, and would therefore be targeting stage wins instead.
Then, even after finding himself second overall after the first mountain top finish in Andorra, he still claimed that the GC remained a ‘background objective’ that he was not ‘100 per cent’ riding for a podium.
But now, having got so deep into the Tour while remaining as high as third overall, his ambitions by now must surely have increased to the extent that slipping off the podium and finishing fourth overall couldn’t help but be disappointing.
Yates has just two days in the mountains left to survive, but is far from guaranteed to seal a finish on the podium. Following a GC shake-up in Thursday’s uphill time-trial three riders now lie within 44 seconds of him, with each one looking capable of usurping him.
Closest to him is Nairo Quintana (Movistar) at just 21 seconds behind. Though his form has clearly been off, he nevertheless managed to put thirteen seconds into Yates on the time trial and could still be capable of a resurgence in these two final Alpine stages.
Unlike Yates’ others rivals, though, a second or third place finish would fall short of Quintana’s pre-race aspirations, and he may therefore lack the same desire to dig deep and fight for it.
At 41 seconds adrift of Yates is Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), who also took back some time on the Côte de Domancy on Friday.
Unlike Quintana a podium finish would represent huge progress for the young Frenchman, and he’s the kind of aggressive rider likely to relentlessly attack both the uphills and the downhills in search of time.
Perhaps the rider Yates should fear the most however is Richie Porte (BMC). Taking into his account his performances in the mountains and the time trials, he’s arguably been the strongest rider in the race bar Froome, and would already be on the podium had he not lost so much time due to an unfortunate puncture on stage two.
Since that incident he’s clawed his way back to 44 seconds of Yates’ third place, and is sure to attack on the imminent mountains passes.
Even Fabio Aru (Astana), a little further adrift at 1-52 behind Yates, put in a resurgent performance to finish third in yesterday’s stage, and will have to be watched closely by Yates in the coming days.
With all these riders breathing down his neck, and with Froome so far ahead at the top of the classification, Yates will likely adopt a defensive strategy on stages 19 and 20.
But this underlines another potential problem for him – a lack of climbing teammates. Up until now he’s been able to sit and follow wheels while the formidable Sky train set the pace up mountains. But now, with Froome holding such a huge advantage, they may be happy to allow attacks from Yates’ podium rivals a little more leeway, which may put him in a position whereby he’ll have to chase attacks himself.
One solution to this potential problem to look out for could be an informal alliance between Yates and current second overall Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo).
Both riders will be hugely content with their current position on GC, and both riders lost time to their rivals in yesterday’s time trial, where they finished 16th and 17th at 1-23 and 1-25 behind Froome respectively.
That suggests they’re currently on a very similar level of form, and could find themselves side-by-side for much of the next two days.
Even if both are dropped by their rivals, working together might help make up for their respective lack of teammates, and therefore help each limit their losses enough to hold onto their current places on GC.
It’s still a big ask, but if Yates is still feeling strong and gets his tactics right, he could yet hold on for a podium spot in Paris that three weeks ago he would not have thought possible.