If in future you ever want to explain to a non-cycling fan how echelon riding works, point them towards a Youtube video of stage 11 of the 2016 Tour de France. The ride into Montpellier on stage 11 was characterised by what was emphatically textbook echelon attacking, as the strong winds whipped in and the G.C. teams took the reins. From 70km to go and onwards, the favourites worked hard on the front and riders were spat out the back, forced to ride in the strangely elegant diagonal strings that echelon riding is all about. With 57km to go, Froome himself was taking turns on the front of the peloton, which just goes to show you how frantic things got.
Kittel, Sagan, and Cavendish took the intermediate sprint (in that order), shortly after a series of crashes broke out in the pack; Van Garderen came down hard, and Majka took a terrible tumble. But that was the last action Kittel and Cav would see today. As the headwinds continued to stretch out the pack, Tinkoff obviously had a plan with 14km to go, and they shot off the front. It was Maciej Bodnar and Peter Sagan going full-speed into the wind, and Chris Froome clearly liked the move’s odds because he leaped across with Geraint Thomas, who barely caught the back of the group. It was then a four-man TT to the line, World Champ and Green Jersey riding with his domestique, Yellow Jersey with his domestique, and a peloton behind them with a sorry looking Nairo Quintana losing ground.
The gap crept down, but the sprint teams couldn’t control it completely, and Peter Sagan took his second stage win as well as a handsome handful of points for the sprint contest. But Chris Froome came in second in the sprint behind the green jersey. (That’s a great sentence to write.) He took around 4 seconds on his nearest rivals, as well as the bonus 6 seconds for second place. He now leads the second placed rider Adam Yates by 28 seconds.
Worryingly, at the time of writing the weather forecast predicts more gale-force winds — in fact, some sources estimate +100kmph winds at the summit of Ventoux. That, for the A.S.O., is an unacceptable danger, and there is talk of ending the ‘Queen’ stage of this year’s Tour de France early . This will come as a big blow to some riders, but as a great relief to others. We are currently reading that the new finish line might be set at Chalet Reynard, conveniently included on the stage profile [edit: it has now been shortened]. This means that the climb will be 6km shorter, but that most of the worst gradients will still be included. We can therefore assume that the selection for stage winners will remain the same, but that there might be less dramatic time gaps than previously anticipated (this will potentially play into the hands of riders such as Adam Yates). Without further ado, we bring to you our Bastille Day special roundup of the riders to watch on Ventoux.
The first thing to say is that we’re looking only at the pure climbers. This is not to say that a break won’t make it, but it’s not a strong likelihood. All breaks that have made it so far have launched from or benefitted from big climbs, and all there is before Ventoux is the strange cat 4-then-cat 3 double climb in the run up to the foothills. It’s likely to be taken quickly by the peloton, as indeed are all of the 150km up to the foot of Ventoux. This stage will be all about the final climb, and any breakaway that wants to last will have to miraculously produce at least a five minute gap before then, or so we think.
We’re looking, then, at a similar group to the one that arrived on Arcalis: Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Richie Porte, Dan Martin, and Adam Yates. It will be a huge challenge to Martin’s ongoing retraining, from a one-day man to a big tour rider, and we’re looking forward to cheering him on. Richie Porte should be able to competently grind his way up to the top in the lead group, and we’d be very surprised if he’s not at least fighting for top 5 here. Of this selection, Froome and Quintana are the towering giants here. Froome is apparently on the form of his life, but let’s emphasise apparently. He’s won two stages, but both by power time trial-style tactics. On the one climb so far, he was able to match the most stinging attacks, but couldn’t open up a gap of his own on his rivals. He was beaten to the line by Adam Yates, who may well suffer on Ventoux, but that he was beaten doesn’t bode well for Froome. The question, then, might not be whether Quintana beats Froome, but by how much. The Colombian has ridden a mostly excellent, though highly restrained Tour de France so far. It was only the crosswinds on stage 11 that caught him by surprise, and he has otherwise shown every sign of a man waiting, waiting, waiting. Will he pounce on Ventoux? We’d not bet against him. With the significantly shorter climb to Chalet Reynard looking likely, he may have to go early to shake off Froome.
If Quintana does go early, that will spell bad news for the category of climbers who could themselves attack early and grind up the climb. These include the key Bastille Day attackers from France, Thibaut Pinot, Warren Barguil, Romain Bardet, and Pierre Rolland. Unfortunately, Barguil and Rolland in particular have suffered through some of the recent climb days, where you might have otherwise expected them to excel. Bardet has played a more consistent game, but we doubt he has the explosive power to finish first on Ventoux — expect him instead to look to stay with the leaders and hold on to a high overall finish. This leaves our French favourite to be Pinot, who has also rode a mixed Tour de France, but whom would love to be the French victor, and who needs to ride hard to defend his KOM jersey. If Pinot isn’t sick or injured at the foot of Ventoux, there’s a 100% chance he’ll attack, and his best plan would be to go early.
Another rider targeting the KOM points has been Rafal Majka, and you can expect him to go long tomorrow. It will be interesting to see how Tinkoff play this; will they put Roman Kreuziger in a break, or save him for lead-out duties?Will Majka go for an early attack, or will he hold back a little something for the long climb? In some respects, his best plan might simply be to mark Pinot’s wheel, if the Frenchman looks like he’s riding well, and to try to follow his every move into the final kilometres. Quintana’s lieutenant Alejandro Valverde would usually be one to watch here, but he’s genuinely been riding with some degree of loyalty recently, and so might rule himself out. He’s also better at the sharper, punchier climbers, and though Ventoux is steep, it favours a more consistent climbing style. For this reason, we don’t think Joaquim Rodriguez has the best chance here, either.
Who does that leave? Well, neither Fabio Aru nor Vincenzo Nibali have been on the form of their lives recently, but they should both be up amongst the favourites here. Aru knows that he has to go big on Ventoux or else shelve his Tour de France ambitions for another year, so expect Astana to keep their best assets around him on the climb and to try to guide him up to the front of affairs. We think it’s far too much to ask him to win this, though. Finally, could Tom Dumoulin or even Steve Cummings time trial away on this one? Though Dumoulin’s performance on Arcalis, as well as in the Vuelta last year, suggests it’s possible, Ventoux might be just too hard for either. But we fully expect to see at least Dumoulin having a go, and he’ll ride with the favourites as long as he can.
Decision time, then. Well, as you have to look at either Froome or Quintana, we’re going with the latter; Nairo Quintana has everything it takes to win, and to win emphatically, on a tall mountain finish. Froome has proven a certain kind of form, but we just haven’t seen enough from him on the mountains to show that he can dominate as he did in previous years. Quintana has shown nothing at all, but at this point we feel it’s worth betting on the man with the cards still held to his chest. For an outsider, though he’s barely outside, we’re going with Thibaut Pinot.