As far back as when the route was first announced, and as recently as 24 hours ago, stage 13 of the 2017 Tour de France looked like an ideal moment for riders aiming to win the yellow jersey to ambush Chris Froome.
With three category one climbs crammed into just 101km of racing, its profile resembles the kind of short, explosive stages that have in recent years proven so conducive to aggressive racing and the kind of anarchic early attacks that can put race leaders under serious pressure.
Froome usually holds the overall lead at this point at the Tour, and did indeed look set to be still wearing yellow heading into stage 13. However, after a steep uphill sprint on stage 12 that saw the defending champion lose time, Fabio Aru (Astana) now leads the overall, and the dynamics of the race have shifted intriguingly.
Instead, could it be that Sky will adopt the role of aggressors?
The team knows how effective such tactics can be having been on the receiving end of them in the past. At last year’s Vuelta, on a similarly short (120km) stage that also featured three climbs, they were caught napping when Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana attacked at the very beginning, distancing all of Sky’s riders and all but ending Froome’s bid for GC.
Now that Sky are not obliged to defend the jersey, it could make sense to attack it instead. Given the team’s strength, they look the best equipped to launch a Formigal-style ambush on 13.
If the likes of Michal Kwiatkowski, Mikel Nieve and Mikel Landa – all of whom have looked in such good shape setting the tempo at the front of the peloton – can attack Astana early and get up the road, Aru could very easily be isolated, and find himself forced to chase the attack on his own.
Astana do not look in a good way at the moment, especially now Jakob Fuglsang looks set to join other key mountain domestique Dario Cataldo in abandoning the race. They appear to be there for the taking.
Playing even more in Sky’s favour is the fact that Mikel Landa remains a threat on GC. Having been careful not to shelve too much time, the Spaniard is only 2-55 behind Aru, and therefore will cause panic among Astana if he were to attack.
There are question marks concerning his loyalty to the team (he’s been linked with a move away for next season), so letting him off the leash to attack the peloton may serve the dual purpose of keeping him happy and executing a tactical plan.
Of course, with a time trial still to come, Froome may still view himself as the de facto leader of the race, and therefore stick to the defensive tactics that have served him so well over the years. Much depends on his condition. Was Thursday just an off-day, exacerbated by the kind of short, steep finish that does not suit him as well as the longer climbs? Possibly.
But what if the problem is more terminal, and Froome simply doesn’t have the form of previous Tours? If that is the case, then Sky’s usual tactic of pacing everyone to the finish will not work, as the likes of Aru, Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) will, sensing blood, attack him in the finale.
If this is indeed the case, Froome may have to think more outside of the box, and use the one advantage he clearly does still hold over his rivals – his vastly superior team.
Stage thirteen from Saint-Girons to Foix could be the setting for a very different kind of Sky performance.