ALPE D’HUEZ, France (VN) — Alliances might exist only on the road, but a perfect storm of shared interests between Movistar and Sky all but doomed Alberto Contador’s dreams of winning the 2013 Tour de France on Thursday.
Sky and Movistar both wanted to eliminate the Saxo-Tinkoff tandem of Contador and Roman Kreuziger in stage 18’s double-climb finale. The two teams ganged up on the Saxo pair, with Nairo Quintana (Movistar) climbing into third overall, and Chris Froome (Sky) extending his overall lead over Contador to 5:11.
Contador was cooked, and his dreams of winning a third Tour may have been as well.
“Today was a good day to try to win the Tour, but the legs just didn’t respond,” said a despondent Contador. “The team was very good, but as soon as the attacks started, unlike other occasions, I preferred to go at my own pace because the climb was very long. In the end, we ended up crossing the line inside what was acceptable for the sensations I had on the bike today.”
If it was gloom and doom at the Saxo camp, over at Sky and Movistar, there was a sense of jubilation.
Froome dodge a bullet when he suffered a sugar bonk in the final five kilometers. Officials handed him a 20-second penalty for an illegal feed, but the Kenya-born Brit tightened his grip on yellow.
“If that’s my bad day, I will take it,” Froome said. “It was an important stage. We have two more hard days of this Tour, but now we have more time.”
Movistar saw its Tour rookie Quintana push closer to a podium spot in Paris by climbing into third after leading the GC favorites across the line in fourth.
Quintana denied there was a deal between the two teams when asked by VeloNews.
“There was not a pact,” he said. “Every team rode in their own interests. Today we both stood to gain by riding together. I have moved up to third overall. We are pleased about that.”
There were plenty of reasons Sky and Movistar would work together. Formal alliances are rare, but race conditions can certainly create ideal conditions to cook something up between teams.
That was certainly the case in Thursday’s double-climb up the Alpe. Froome went hard with 10km to go, drawing out Quintana. As he did on Mont Ventoux on Sunday, Froome urged the pint-sized Colombian to work with him. With Omega Phama-Quick Step’s Michal Kwiatkowski in trouble, Quintana could all but seal the best young rider competition and move into podium position in the GC. With two dangerous days in the mountains remaining, Froome wanted as large a cushion as possible to the unpredictable Contador.
Beyond race strategy, there are links between the two teams.
It’s not implausible that Sky sport director Nicolas Portal, who used to race at the Movistar franchise under Caisse d’Epargne, might have had a few words with his former colleagues to hatch a common strategy. David Lopez, one of Sky’s top climbers, who led up the entire first passage up the Alpe, switched from Movistar to Sky in 2013. Vasili Kiryienka, who missed the time cut in the Pyrénées, is another former Movistar rider.
Froome didn’t seem the least bit annoyed to see Contador, his chief rival and a growing annoyance for his relentless attacks, get popped when Movistar helped Sky rev up the chase of a splintered breakaway on the second passage up the Alpe.
Contador’s surge clear on the Col du Sarenne descent seemed to be a warning shot from Saxo, but Kreuziger and then Contador popped on the final charge up l’Alpe d’Huez.
“Yeah, it was interesting to see Kreuziger and Contador off the front on the descent of the Col du Sarenne. It’s still a long way to the finish,” Froome said. “That move could possibly have cost them a lot of energy that they seemed not to have in the final.”
Contador, however, insisted the move down the Sarenne was not necessarily an attack.
“I wouldn’t really call it an attack. It was more to be in front of the group on the descent, so we could descend more calmly, without taking risks,” said Contador. “Yes, we got a little time, but we knew we would have needed more people with us and no one came up, so the smartest thing was to stop and wait for the group, because Movistar was organized from behind.”
Sky and Movistar will likely keep working together over the next two days. Two final brutal climbing stages across the Alps will provide more opportunities for Quintana to win a stage and take back the 21 seconds standing between him and Contador’s slender grip on second place.
Froome, of course, is looking to close the door for good on any serious challenge to his yellow jersey.
“Movistar have ridden a good race with Quintana,” Froome said. “I see him keeping his place in Paris.”
But if Quintana starts getting too close to Froome, one can be sure that any warm feeling between Movistar and Sky will quickly melt into enmity.
The last thing Sky wants is to give Quintana too much rope.