Although there are two stages of the Tour left, only today’s mountainous haul from Modane to Alpe d’Huez will provide a last-ditch platform for one of Froome’s rivals to claw back time. Sunday’s final stage into Paris and onto the podium is flat and it is generally accepted that it is more of a procession than a day to attack the rider in the yellow jersey.
So today is crunch day. Any rider with aspirations of snatching the yellow jersey from Froome’s shoulders will have to be daring – and perhaps very lucky – to try and overturn such a large deficit in just one day.
The stage features two high mountains rated ‘beyond categorisation’ or hors catégorie: Col de la Croix de Fer and Alpe d’Huez. If the 2015 Tour has shown anything, it’s that as much can be lost or gained on the descents as ascents, and the long drop from the summit of Croix de Fer will play its part.
It’s now Froome’s race to lose, rather than for others to win. Here we take a look at ways in which Froome could – against the odds – still give up the race lead.
Overall classification after stage 19: Froome’s closest rivals
1. Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky
2. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar at 2-38
3. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar at 5-25
4. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana at 6-44
5. Alberto Contador (Spa) Tinkoff-Saxo at 7-56
Long attack from Nairo Quintana
One thing is certain: Colombian climbing specialist Nairo Quintana (Movistar) will attack.
Quintana is the rider best positioned to try and challenge Froome on the last day in the mountains. So far, he and his Movistar team have done little wrong – it’s simply that Froome and Sky have been just that bit better. However, Friday’s stage showed that Quintana still has plenty left up his sleeve and appears to have the legs to take time back on the Brit.
Quintana has two minutes and 38 seconds to make up on Froome. He managed to reclaim 32 seconds on Friday’s stage 18 with an attack in the final five kilometres of the stage up La Toussuire. Alpe d’Huez is a shorter but steeper climb (13.8km at an average of 8.1 per cent gradient) than the previous day’s finale (18km at an average of 6.1 per cent), and eases off before the finish. Quintana will have to attack Froome very early on and keep up a blistering momentum on Alpe d’Huez to beat him.
Could someone attack even earlier on the Col de la Croix de Fer? He could, but it would be harder to keep away on the subsequent descent and could risk blowing everything. Maybe that’s a risk worth taking – certainly if your name is Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), and you have nothing to lose.
In previous stages, Movistar and Tinkoff-Saxo have put riders in the day’s escape, who have then hung back and helped pace their leader – this tactic would certainly help Quintana and Contador up the final climb but relies upon Sky allowing a break to go free and last until the final ascent.
Rival teams gang up to beat him
Team Sky showed its first real sign of weakness during stage 19, with Froome looking isolated on the day’s opening climb as Sky used up its men to keep pace with attacks. Into the final climb, Froome had just a tired Wout Poels as the previously reliable Geraint Thomas started to feel the effects of three weeks’ of hard racing.
Sky will undoubtedly have had a look back over the stage to see what went wrong and it is highly unlikely that they will put themselves in the same position again. Movistar have looked strong, with Quintana and Alejandro Valverde sitting in second and third place, plus a line-up of strong riders in support. However, if they are to beat Froome they may need to form an alliance with another team – perhaps Vincenzo Nibali’s Astana or Alberto Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo.
Other squads with designs on lower positions in the GC could also help out: LottoNL-Jumbo for Robert Gesink or Trek Factory Racing for Bauke Mollema, for example.
Together, the teams could weaken Sky to leave Froome isolated and vulnerable to attacks. Such allegiances may be frowned upon, but are certainly not unprecedented.
Team Sky implodes
Having looked so strong for the preceding weeks, we witnessed a jaded Team Sky on Friday with a succession of riders appearing to struggle. Most surprisingly was Froome’s right-hand man Geraint Thomas, who entered the stage in fourth place only to suffer a monstrously bad day and lose 22 minutes, slipping to 15th overall. He was simply not there to help Froome.
Also conspicuous by his absence was Richie Porte, who has not performed as he did in 2013 when he assisted Froome to his first Tour victory. Irishman Nicolas Roche did what he could, but had a serious ‘pain face’ when taking turns at the front.
Much of Froome’s help came from Dutchman Wout Poels, who looked like he was on his limit and may not have left much in the tank to do the same today. There’s a big question mark over how much support the weary boys in black and blue can give Froome.
Froome suffers a bad day
We’ve mentioned that some of Froome’s team-mates are now suffering from Tour fatigue, but what about the man himself? Avid followers of the Tour will only need to cast their mind back to 2013, when Froome was on the verge of blowing on Alpe d’Huez and required team-mate Porte to go back and get an energy gel from the team car, attracting a time penalty.
Tired legs or an unreported illness could both be a factor. Even a one per cent drop in form compared to his rivals would mean an inability to react to attacks and stop rivals gaining time. Froome’s biggest benefit is his decent buffer of two and a half minutes over nearest rival Quintana. That’s a lot of time to lose, even if you are feeling jaded.
Froome has a mechanical issue or a crash
Although he flatly deny it, defending champion Vincenzo Nibali appeared to use Froome’s mechanical problem on Friday’s stage to use as a launchpad for his stage-winning attack. Froome stopped momentarily at the roadside to free a stone in his brake, and the next thing he knew – Nibali was up the road.
No one can predict when a mechanical issue can strike: be it an equipment failure or a puncture. A badly-timed issue can mean a serious loss of time, particularly is a Sky team car struggles to get up to Froome along a narrow mountain road.
Equally, Froome could crash at any moment. This doesn’t have to be his fault, as we have seen during this race a moment’s inattention or a poor line from another rider can have a knock-on effect. Thomas was taken off the road by Frenchman Warren Barguil during stage 17 through no fault of his own.
Crowds, too, have previously been an issue on Alpe d’Huez. Froome has already attracted his fair share of roadside abuse this year, having been dowsed with urine and spat at, but equally it’s all to easy for a fan to step out at the wrong time and cause a crash or hold-up.
If the rain pours, then mountain roads can become very treacherous, and the weather could have other negative connotations for Froome too…
Alpe d’Huez was enveloped by a heavy rainstorm last night, and weather in the high mountains can be highly unpredictable and changeable. Riders can move from bright sun and warmth to freezing cold and rain with just a few kilometres.
Froome has previously seemed to struggle with very cold and wet weather, something that perhaps goes back to his upbringing in the hot conditions of Africa. On the other hand, riders such as Nibali and Quintana seems to thrive when the conditions turn nasty.
Nibali showed on his way to the 2013 Giro d’Italia victory that rain, ice and snow are not a problem, and few riders are as sure-footed (tyred?) when going downhill in the wet.
A combination of the above
Of course, the Tour de France could throw absolutely everything at Froome. Trying to defend the yellow jersey in a downpour, feeling fatigued, hungry, with no team-mates and all the other squads rallying against you makes for a gargantuan task. But that is how champions are made, and why winning the Tour de France is the most coveted and respected victory in cycling.
Video: Tour de France preview – the Alps