NANTES, France (VN) — No one could believe it. Team Sky, seen as the pillar of the peloton, was not only showing cracks, it was crumbling.
Aggression from Garmin-Sharp and Movistar blew up the peloton in the opening 30km of Sunday’s five-climb, 168.5km ninth stage. Peter Kennaugh crashed. Richie Porte lagged. Vasili Kiryienka missed the time cut. The yellow jersey was completely isolated. Chris Froome’s maillot jaune had suddenly become very lonely.
A day after steamrolling the peloton, Team Sky was the one being steamrolled.
“That was one of the hardest days ever on a bicycle,” Froome said. “We are human, they can’t be there every day. It’s not a surprise. [On Saturday] my teammates did a lot of work to put me into the yellow jersey.”
Reactions were fast and varied. Some saw Froome as more vulnerable than ever. Others regretted a lost chance to attack him. Everyone agreed the Tour de France is just starting, and very far from over, as many had thought just 24 hours before.
“Yesterday, everyone was saying the race was over, but we know bike racing is unpredictable,” Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford said. “Yesterday was one of our best days and today was one of our worst.”
The opening nine stages of the 2013 Tour have confirmed that the varied, challenging course is going to be in sharp contrast to last year’s Sky march across France in what was a victory lap for Bradley Wiggins.
When the dust settled after the first touch with the mountains, Team Sky was shown to be not as strong as last year.
Froome survived Sunday’s potentially disastrous scenario of being isolated, but the team lost Richie Porte as a second GC option and lost Kiryienka altogether; he was one of its most important engines.
Porte’s plummet from legitimate podium threat in second to 33rd changes the dynamic dramatically at Sky.
His bad day means that Sky will only have Froome for the GC, and rivals can focus all their attacks on one man.
And many see Sky as vulnerable to more aggression in the Tour’s second half.
First among them is Mick Rogers, the Australian who rode with Wiggins last year but left the team to join Saxo-Tinkoff and ride in support of Alberto Contador.
“They’ve tried the same tactic as we were doing as last year, but the team isn’t as strong as what it was,” Rogers said. “They have to rethink the situation. Everyone has a bad day, it’s a matter of when. The race is by far from over. It will toss and turn a lot; we will see lots of changes before we’re through.”
Movistar was the top beneficiary on GC as Garmin drilled it early to break up the peloton. The original plan was to put Daniel Martin into a breakaway. That didn’t happen, but the high tempo quickly put Sky into the red.
Movistar quickly piled on, putting five blue jerseys in the front group to drive the wedge for Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana.
Many wondered why Movistar and the other GC rivals didn’t take turns attacking Froome. Only Nairo Quintana dared, taking four short digs, but Froome quickly marked his wheel.
Movistar team boss Eusebio Unzue said several factors came into play over La Hourquette d’Anzican with 30km to go.
“It was still very far from the finish to attack, and there was a strong headwind, so it wasn’t opportune to attack,” Unzue said. “When Porte was coming back, we took a big dig to eliminate him, and that cost us later in the stage.
“We have to be happy with the stage, because we isolated Froome, and we eliminated Porte.”
Going into Monday’s rest day, the peloton will reflect on where things stand.
Despite Froome’s promising 1:25 lead, the GC picture is far from settled. Movistar has three riders in the top 10, while Belkin and Saxo-Tinkoff have two each.
The question is whether the race is now for the podium or for the yellow jersey.
Brailsford takes confidence by carrying the yellow jersey out of the Pyrénées. With the first of two individual time trials waiting Wednesday, Sky can expect to take more gains on their GC rivals before turning into the final week of climbing in the Alps.
“Take away the ride [Sunday], we can be content,” Brailsford said. “We’ve got the yellow jersey. We’ve got a TT coming up. We’ve got a couple of stages where we’ll manage, and then we’ll be back in the mountains.”
The question will be how much more time Froome can take on the Spanish climbers.
Contador remains a danger in sixth at 1:51 back, but he was unable or unwilling to attack Sunday when Froome was isolated. Team officials said they were happy to see Contador riding more comfortably with the bunch, and said the stage finale wasn’t ideal for attacks.
“The most important is that we come out of the mountains feeling better. I have a lot better sensations than I did [Saturday], which were terrible, so that’s a good sign and I hope to become better,” Contador said. “There is a lot of racing ahead of us. Between now and Paris, there is a lot of room to move.”
Saxo-Tinkoff sport director Philippe Mauduit, content to see Contador get through the stage following his rough ride Saturday, agreed that this Tour should go down to the wire.
“This Tour is all about measuring efforts. We are not playing PlayStation. The riders are human,” he said. “Everyone can have a bad day. We do not know when it is going to happen.”
Garmin-Sharp stage-winner Martin echoed the same theme, adding that Sky’s rivals missed an opportunity, while conceding that perhaps no one had the legs to take advantage of it.
“They missed a chance to attack. We have seen a weaker Sky,” Martin said. “I was surprised to see Froome isolated like that, and I was surprised to see that the other GC riders didn’t attack him.”
The next major measuring stick is the 33km individual time trial between Avranches to Le Mont-Saint-Michel on Wednesday.
Froome will be looking to take important gains across the top 10. On paper, the most dangerous time trialists are Contador; Jakob Fulgsang (Astana), now 13th; and perhaps Quintana. Yet Contador face-planted during the Dauphiné time trial, losing nearly three minutes in a morale-crushing performance for the Spaniard.
The undulating, flatter course will favor Froome against all of his chief rivals. After delivering a knockout punch Saturday, Froome is hoping to put his rivals to bed Wednesday, and ride defensively into the Alps.
The Pyrénées revealed that Froome is the man to beat. The Pyrénées also revealed that everyone should expect the unexpected. Heat, tactics, and fatigue will continue to accumulate as the peloton pedals toward Mont Ventoux and the Alps.
The buzz around the peloton is that on this demanding, brutal Tour course, having bad days seems all but inevitable.
The peloton’s already seen Porte and last year’s white jersey Tejay van Garderen (BMC) fade out of contention after suffering through crisis moments.
Managing that prospect will become one of the key characteristics of this Tour.
Martin said the demands of the course, coupled with the elements, should make for some highly unpredictable racing.
“I think everyone is going to have a bad day during this race,” Martin said. “Whoever has the least bad day is going to win in Paris.”