A showdown in the Alps
There have been plenty of twists, drama and controversy to keep the 2017 Tour de France an entertaining and tense affair, but as yet the general classification contest has been tentative.
The favourites have sprinted on uphill finishes, put in speculative attacks, and played tactical games through their teammates, but not yet gone at each other hammer and tongs.
That will change when the race reaches the Alps. There will be no holding back on stages 17 and 18 – the former features three of the Tour’s most famous climbs, difficult enough that even a 30km descent to the finish won’t sanitise proceedings, and the latter ends with the last and easily the most challenging summit finish of the race, the Col d’Izoard.
With no other GC stages beyond this double-header aside from a penultimate day time-trial, everyone with ambitions of winning the yellow jersey – and there are give-or-take half a dozen riders who still can – will have to commit everything on these two stages.
There has been little to choose between the top riders so far, as reflected by how tight things are at the top of the GC. But these Alpine summits will be difficult enough to separate the strong from the strongest, and coronate the winner of the Tour de France.
Romain Bardet may ultimately have failed to put any time in Chris Froome (Sky) despite isolating during yesterday’s stage, but he will be emboldened by how strong his Ag2r-La Mondiale team looked.
Ben Gastauer, Axel Domont, Alexis Vuillermoz and Pierre Latour aren’t exactly household names, but they’ve all arrived at this Tour in top shape, and even outperformed the mighty Team Sky line-up on stage 15.
Ag2r could therefore shape how the crucial final stages play out. Bardet loves to attack on the downhill, and such moves could prove deadly if he is able to use his team to put under pressure and isolate the other contenders, and send teammates up the road to assist him later on.
The other GC-contesting teams – and spectators watching at home – would be well advised not to take their eyes off them.
Michael Matthews chasing green jersey points
Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors) retains a healthy lead in the points classification, but his main (and probably only) rival Michael Matthews has reduced the gap to 79 points over the weekend having claimed maximum points at Saturday’s finish and at Sunday’s intermediate sprint.
That leaves him still with an outside shot of winning the green jersey, so look out for him again testing his climbing legs by trying to get into the break on the Alpine stages to aim for more intermediate sprint points. Stage seventeen’s is positioned after a cat two climb, and stage eighteen’s after a cat 3 – not the most difficult, but perhaps too much for a heavy Kittel to mark him over.
The Australian could close the gap in these sprints, but the jersey will most likely be decided by what happens on the two days that sandwich the Alpine stages. Both look finely balanced between being days for the bunch sprinters and days for a breakaway – the former scenario would surely suit Kittel, who has dominated the bunch finishes so far, while the latter could aid Matthews, especially if he can slyly conspire to get himself into a winning break.
Kittel no doubt remains the favourite, especially with the points on offer on the final Champs Elysees stage, but him and his Quick-Step Floors team will have to remain attentive.
Teams seeking salvation
The cruel mathematics of the Tour dictates that 22 (the number of teams) does not go into 21 (the number of stages), and therefore there will always be those who end the race empty handed.
Thanks largely to Marcel Kittel’s haul this year, there will be plenty of teams to miss out this year – in fact a total of twelve teams remain winless at this point in the race, and will be scrambling over the final six stages to get riders in breakaways and snag a victory.
For smaller teams like Cofidis, Fortuneo-Oscaro and Wanty-Groupe Gobert, failure to win a stage will not be considered a disaster, so long as they gain a reasonable amount of exposure elsewhere.
But bigger teams will be panicking. BMC have failed to bounce back from Richie Porte’s abandonment, Katusha-Alpecin’s two stars Tony Martin and Alexander Kristoff have under-performed, Lotto-Soudal’s André Greipel has been denied in the sprints, and the usually formidable Movistar have suffered a nightmare race with Alejandro Valverde abandoning and Nairo Quintana misfiring.
The large breakaway on Sunday’s stage fifteen was packed full of riders from these teams. Expect this pattern to continue with increasing desperation throughout the final week.
A substantial GC reshuffle
The personnel of the top ten is unlikely to change much from now until the end of the race, but the order in which they will ultimately be ranked is anyone’s guess.
With less than 30 seconds separating the top four, and just over two minutes separating the top seven, this has been one of the closest Tours de France in years. The situation is reminiscent of 2008, when the rider who ultimately won the race – Carlos Sastre – entered the final week placed sixth on GC at 49 seconds.
The Alps will likely shake things up and open up bigger gaps, but there’s also a good chance that the final time-trial, despite being only 22.5km, could have a significant final say on the ultimate make-up of the top ten.
The superiority of Chris Froome and to a lesser extent Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) against the clock, as well as the potential for Fabio Aru (Astana), Romain Bardet, Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors), Mikel Landa (Sky) and Simon Yates (Orica-Scott) to capitulate in a discipline they are all uncomfortable in, means we could be in for some very late drama.