This year’s team time trial was unusual both in its 28km length and in that it came after a week of gruelling racing. It’s more common to see a team time trial as a prologue stage in grand tours, and of a much shorter length and with less climbing. With that in mind, there must have been some nervous general classification riders today, and it was a fine opportunity for the lesser climbers to take time on their rivals before the first week of the big peaks.
The first team to hit the course was Orica-Greenedge, who might have been amongst the favourites — as they often are in this discipline — had they not lost three riders already. Some of those who did ride were still carrying injuries, including Michael Matthews, who would have otherwise been a favourite for the past week’s sprints. Due to this, Orica were never going to put in a winning performance. They nevertheless put on a spirited display and survived to fight for later stage wins, but were already minutes off the winning pace by the first checkpoint.
Early starters Lampre-Merida posted the first solid time of the day at 33.33. This lasted until IAM finished their run, taking 10 seconds from Lampre as they went. Astana, who were desperate to make up overall time for Vincenzo Nibali, started off badly by losing two riders to their strong pace over the first third of the course. They chipped only a second off IAM’s time at the first check, had 10 seconds in hand by the second, but lost a handful once again by the finish. At the end of their run they held only a 3 second lead, with all the favourites to come.
Movistar played the old ‘negative split’ game, coming in fourth at check one, moving into first by check two. On a short climb their stronger climbers, including Quintana, shot off ahead, sundering their group. The slackers were left to wave frantically at the team car behind them, until someone realised they needed to get on the radio to slow the Quintana group down for the benefit of the group. A poor display of tactics from such an established team. They did, however, bring it back together in time to take a healthy lead at the finish: 32.19, which was 31 seconds faster than Astana in second.
The main event of the day was underway, the trials of Tinkoff-Saxo, BMC, and Sky. Tinkoff took the first checkpoint from Movistar, but this was quickly swept in turn up by BMC. Sky then matched BMC’s time, and the tension began to mount. At the second split Movistar’s negative-split technique paid off, as Tinkoff were now 13 seconds behind the time set by Quintana’s team. However, BMC were playing the same game, and helped themselves to a 4 second advantage at check 2. And then, five minutes late, Sky snatched one more second and took the top spot. It was a thrilling display.
The fading Tinkoff-Saxo came in behind Movistar at the end, and the race for the stage win was left to BMC and Sky. BMC fought hard on the final climb, with Van Garderen gritting his teeth in determination, but they only managed a 5 second lead over Movistar at the finish. With Sky still boasting a six-man unit leading into the final kilometres, things were looking good for the yellow part of Chris Froome’s wardrobe. Regrettably, Nicholas Roche began to suffer within the final kilometre. With Froome himself offering his slipstream to Roche, in an attempt to tow him to the line, valuable time slipped away and Sky came in just one second behind BMC. But, with Froome still holding a 12 second buffer over Van Garderen, he will be climbing mountains in yellow next week.
It is also worth noting that, whilst they did not contend for the stage win, Etixx-Quickstep rode a strong one today and have given security to Rigoberto Uran’s current standing in the general classification. I have high hopes he can take more time, and possibly a stage, in the remaining weeks of the tour. Froome and Tejay have now increased their over all leads, with Sagan falling into fourth place behind another BMC rider, Greg Van Avermaet. Contador is over a minute behind Froome, and has his work cut out for him ahead of the mountainous stages next week. With a rest day ahead, Contador, Quintana, and Nibali will have plenty to ruminate on before the road starts going uphill. For now, Van Garderen can celebrate, and Froome can relax.