As Alex Ferguson sort of once said: “Cycling, Bloody Hell!”
Or as Johnny Rotten didn’t quite say once either: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been treated?”
What an epic weekend! The Pyrenees were meant to play second fiddle to the Alps this year; only two stages and none of the hoo-ha of Mt Ventoux or Alpe d’Huez. I’ll tell you what though – if this is second fiddle then we are in for some virtuoso stuff come next weekend.
The late part of last week played out more to the expected plan. Cav gets his win on Stage 5. Greipel hits home first for Stage 6 and then Cannondale and Sagan beast Stage 7 and he looks to have green pretty much wrapped up within the first week.
He is also single handedly rocking the foundations of the cycling world by sporting a goatee beard and making it look reasonably cool. With all the trips up to the podium he will be making in the next couple of weeks the Floyd Landis facial hair debacle of 2006 will be gradually erased and by the time we get to Paris thankfully only Sagan and Pantani’s hirsute efforts will remain in the collective memory.
Well, we learnt quite a few new things on Saturday. We were supposed to learn who was the real leader of BMC. Instead we learnt that they don’t have one, nevermind choosing between two. We were supposed to learn if Contador had brought any fight to France. Instead we learnt that Alberto climbs sitting down when he is really feeling the pinch and that Saxobank possibly have a Froome-Wiggins 2012 problem with him and Kreuziger. We were supposed to learn if Quintana could disappear into the distance on the last climb and whether Froome would be able to respond. Instead we saw Quintana disappear into the distance on the first climb – the monstrous Col de Pailheres – but then be reeled in and surpassed by not only Froome but Richie Porte as well. Froome stormed into yellow destroying all in his wake, and all those pundits who had hedged their bets by saying that Porte might be the only guy who could stay close to him (hands up, I’m guilty here…) sat back feeling pretty smug. The conspiracy theorists went up in arms about dodgy power outputs, the purists bemoaned another boring procession to Paris and everyone started thinking about how Froome could possibly top Wiggo’s acceptance speech and how would Sky would deal with a new team leader problem in 2014.
Clearly Movistar did not read this particular version of the script. It’s interesting to note though that, initially at least, Garmin did. Dan Martin, stage winner on an absolutely riveting day of racing, only afterwards seemed to accept that he (or someone else also a couple of minutes down) might stand a chance at influencing the overall. In their minds on Sunday morning the race was already sewn up: Sky were impregnable and stage wins were the only thing left for anyone else… Movistar though, having been criticised by Porte for being a touch naive the day before in sending out Quintana alone too early, got their entire team away straight out of the blocks on a day of five mega climbs and the infamous Sky Train was decimated within 40km. Pete Kennaugh, the rookie revelation of the day before, was unceremoniously dumped off the road and down into a ditch. Lopez and Siutsou (hailed as a major loss to the climbing firepower when he crashed out early last year) disappeared without a trace; Kiryenko, normally the go-to guy for extended periods of hard riding sank further and eventually, unthinkably, missed the cut. Then, equally inexplicably, Porte began pedalling squares; quickly losing a minute on the first of the five climbs and we were treated to the sight of that most rare of birds: a Team Sky leader alone.
Commentators started going apoplectic, saying that black is white, the world is flat, Froome is doomed without any teammates. And so it looked for a while. Movistar thundered on, all ferocious pace and great numbers. But, even as Porte and the other Sky men fell further and further back, Froome found himself in the familiar position of sitting in the wheels of a strong team who were driving a hard pace. The only difference was it wasn’t his own team. We kept waiting for the testing attacks that must surely come: Quintana, Valverde, Quintana again. As each climb progressed we waited with baited breath, waiting for the first of many leaps. Surely, they had to batter the exposed Froome again and again. And with a long downhill finish, surely the first had to come soon. The many against the few. Make him respond. Surely..? Surely not… When it finally came, after Movistar had reeled in Rolland, Hesjedal and last of the other breakaway riders, after they had let Froome follow them up 4 climbs, it was too little too late. On the last ascent Quintana jabbed, and jabbed again. He did the same twice more and each time Froome quickened his cadence and quickly (painfully but quickly) span up to him and snuffed out the attack. Jab, jab, jab, jab. And then nothing. Where was the knockout blow after all the ‘softening up’? Movistar’s tactics made for an epic stage today but they fluffed their closing lines. Eventually Martin sprang away and, in beating Fuglsang in the sprint, made good where his teammate Hesjedal couldn’t but Froome and Brailsford probably only couldn’t believe what didn’t happen. Froome said later, when asked to explain what happened to his team, that they are only human and after their work yesterday they just couldn’t respond today. Similarly Movistar couldn’t finish the job they started and, with the exception of Porte’s plummet from second to thirty-third, nothing changed on GC despite it being the most thrilling days racing for many a year.
Two other things to mention.
Great to see Andy Schleck holding his own at the head of affairs. Great going uphill again, still awful going down. It’s good to have you back Andy.
Sobering scenes also today. Even as Pete Kennaugh took his tumble out of sight down off the road, Christian Prudhomme was paying his respects at the Fabio Casartelli memorial on the Col de Port d’Aspet. Rest up tomorrow Pete, Froomey is not going to want to be alone again next weekend.