Sunday, 7 July 2013

Sky Team Vanishes

7 July 2013

Well now, that was a treat. A very good day's racing, some lovely scenery, a few smallish surprises, and the sense that we simply cannot read things as simply as many people did yesterday. One small surprise was for the pessimists, the “Tour is over” brigade. I have to admit that not a whole heck of lot has changed in terms of GC. A close look could tell us that in spite of all the quite exciting racing, nothing much has changed. So one can still say “the Tour is over”. But for those hoping for for surprises (like me), for changes, today was a superb day. Those looking for attacks HAD to be happy with today as well. Today's main characteristic was that several teams, Movistar, Saxo and Garmin had a plan. For all of them it is mostly an “anti-Sky plan”. And in a straightforward way, their plans worked … except for Froome. Froome actually managed to stay comfortably in the first group, and at the end, personally responded to the three attacks that Quintana made on the last climb, as well as at least one other serious attack made by Movistar. He showed massive class and quality under fire, with NONE of his teammates to help him out. The attacks began with Garmin, and ended with Dan Martin winning the stage. A poetic recompense. This anti-Sky alliance of necessity will carry on for the entire race. It is not a solid alliance and might not even be spoken. But if anyone is to take the yellow jersey from Froome, they have to beat him and his team. They can either wait for Froome to fail or they can attack. They beat his team today, but not Froome himself. I truly enjoy that the other teams are making plans and that the plans involve attacking from early on. A really good day.

It is also clear that Contador is not dead yet either. There were times, yesterday and today, when I thought that the workers for Contador and Valverde were riding more strongly than their leaders. But in both cases, assuming they can keep reasonably close, we now have to see how well the leaders do in the TWO individual time trials to come, and how everyone is riding during the final few days in the Alps and on Ventoux. But it is delightful that we might have to wait, that it is not over, that Sky is beatable. Although I must admit the crowing on French TV about Sky being beatable, making mistakes and so forth is getting a little annoying. Maybe I will listen to the English broadcast, to get another extreme view. But the truth is clear. When not a single rider from a team accompanies their leader over four climbs, not even the second place rider, then there is a problem. So far, no one I have read suggests they know why. If I find out something about why ALL the Sky riders disappeared within the first hour, I shall tell you. I just have no idea.

Richie Porte, who attacked at the end of Saturday's stage and gained time on everyone, was wasted today. He got dropped early on, tried for a long time to get back to the first big group, but failed. Simply gave up. And the thing about Sky is that NO ONE helps them, ever. This stems from the two year old dislike for the Sky Team, built on jealousy, annoyance, and dislike of critical braggarts. I hope they try a little bit to find a few friends somehow, as they might need them. It was quite sad seeing Richie trying to get back, and failing.

My young guy Thibaut Pinot was another tragedy. I hope he pulls himself together, but after his disastrous descending yesterday, it is a bold move that he turned up today. I don't quite understand how he can be on a professional cycling team, be the (very young) GC leader of the team, and no one figured out that he can't descend. How can that be? It is getting to be a bloc for him. Sadly, Madiot is very old school (and should have fixed this problem), so I doubt he will even suggest any psychological help for Thibaut. In my view if he does not sort himself out and deal effectively with his fears of descending, he might as well give up cycling. How can a climber do much in the GC unless he can at least follow wheels down a hill. Thibaut can't even do that. He must be very very upset.

Looks like the only rider interested in the KOM is going to be Rolland. He has already pretty much lost his chance for the GC, so he can focus on the spotted jersey. If no one makes any moves in the Alps it will be his. No contest. No interest. Still, three more mountain top finishes, so much to be won and lost. Where is my mountain man Kessiakoff? On the other hand, Romain Bardet, the young French climber for AG2R is getting noticed by people who don't already know him. He seems to be able to keep up with almost anyone. He might be one of the revelations of theTour, especially if he finishes higher than any French rider.

I won't go on about it, and to fully appreciate it you have to have been there before you see it on the screen, but France is totally, outstandingly, lovely. At least so far. You can just imagine how much “the Tour advert” is worth for “France Tourism” as a whole. You just want to visit where they ride. And since I had been on most of the route of the Tour only a few weeks ago, watching it on TV was even better, adding extra layers of appreciation and wonder.

Hobby horse. Quintana CAN descend well. He takes the right line on the curves. He looks easy on his bike. His only negative feature is that he is so light. All he needs is to follow one rider who is a little heavier, and he is fine, like Valverde, or anyone heavier. One day we will see, as this Nairo guy is a time triallist AND a climber. It might take him a couple of years, but he will be a winner. Clearly when he attacked this year, Froome could follow. It made exciting TV, but Quintana gets older and stronger, he will be wonderful to watch. Imagine a well-financed Colombian team with Quintana, Betancur, Uran, Henao, plus one or two others.

I was pleased Dan Martin won the stage, he and fuglsang were the last attackers. So far, he is not considered worth a response, everyone just let him go on the last climb. Soon he will be watched carefully. Dan was the only rider, other than Mikel Nieve, who made any kind of semi-significant improvement in the to fifteen. True, Porte dropped out of the top fifteen (but he will be back), as did Andrew Talansky (who might not be back). But in fact, not a lot changed, and certainly none of the other riders gained or lost much time or placing.

KOM is a contest that only interests one person so far, Pierre Rolland, and he is slowly getting a gap. He is followed fairly closely by riders who are obviously better climbers than he is, but who are going for the GC and therefore won't be likely to make attacks to get mountain points from early on in the stage. The genuine climbers are mainly interested in taking time out of rivals on the last climb or two to rise in the GC. Example, Froome is second in the KOM, simply because he rides hard on mountaintop finishes. Froome might win the jersey without trying.

Another of the revelations of the Tour, although he too was already revealed, will be Michal Kwiatowski, the Polish champion, who is not far back after two mountain stages. Didn't really think he could climb that well.

Why was Froome not at the jersey ceremony on time?
Can Andy Schleck really mix it with the best again?
Does the collapse of Sky indicate they are normal and undoped? How could an entire team, the best team, all be dropped on the first climb? Very odd.
Even worse, Kiryienka was a Sky rider who was eliminated today? How could that happen so early?

Today was a day for spectators, riders, teams and commentators for whom hope springs eternal. That hope is that this Tour will be uncertain, surprising and with plenty of good racing.

                                                       The bus

EBH warming down

Porte warming down

Media stretching for 150 metres along half the road after the finish.

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