Some people lost hope the day Chris Froome put over a minute into all his rivals on the stage finish atop Ax 3 Domaines. For some, despair did not creep in until he did the same in yesterday's time trial. But regardless of the timing, there is a great fear that torpor is about to settle over the the general classification race with Froome simply stronger than his competitors and already with a sizable lead.
We have speculated about the meaning of Sky's weakness on Stage 9, coming a mere day after they shredded the peloton on the first day in the mountains. Does it mean Froome will be vulnerable? Little happened on that day despite the shellacking Sky recieved. Richie Porte plummeted out of second place overall - where he would still be after a strong time trial performance yesterday - but no other time gaps emerged. Sky lost the ability to play the two-leaders card, but was that really a credible threat? Sky picks one rider and works for them rather reliably, all according to plan. Last year Froome was not even given the leeway to properly chase a stage win that could have been his when Bradley Wiggins was far enough ahead of his other rivals to comfortably maintain his lead, so would Porte ever be sent up the road as a decoy?
But I digress from the real point that people made about Sunday's thrilling stage, which is that Froome could be isolated, even if he was stronger than all the others at the moment. Might Movistar and Saxo - Tinkoff be able to create this favorable situation again, this time on a stage where the a long shallow descent coupled with a headwind does not discourage real attacks? Only then could we see how vulnerable Froome really is, or how composed he can be.
Hopes of such a scenario are one thing that keeps us - or me - tuned into the GC race, but are they likely, and can riders profit from them? In more succinct form, what are the chances we could see the GC overturned or a true battle emerge?
Five stages remain in which the GC race will be decided, and they are clustered together from this Sunday's finish atop Mont Ventoux to the penultimate stage's finish on top of a new climb for the Tour in Annecy - Semnoz. Among these stages are three summit finishes, a climb laden time trial, and a finish immediately after the descent of the Category 1 climb of the Col de la Croix Fry. How can the other contenders use these stages to distance themselves from Froome, and when is it unlikely to pay dividends?
Action begins on Sunday with the longest stage in this year's Tour, a winding trip to Bédoin for an ascent of one of the most mythical climbs in all of cycling, Mont Ventoux. Ventoux is often referred to as the geant de Provence, a moniker stemming from the way it mythically protrudes into the sky and overshadows all around it with no other peaks in sight. Though many battles have taken place on its slopes and no unworthy winner ever emerges on the geant, it is a stage that Froome's immediate rivals will have a hard time turning to their favor. With no other climbs in sight, Sky is practically guaranteed to have all of its ducks in a row at the base of the Ventoux and set a stiffling pace for at least the bottom two thirds of the climb. Among the riders who could challenge Froome, Nairo Quintana is the most likely to take time out of Froome on the steep and often wind-blasted ascent, but the Colombian climber now sits more than five minutes in arrears of Froome. Should he gain a minute here, it will be of little consequence considering what is to come. Perhaps an on-form Alberto Contador could do damage here as well, but, lacking form, he will likely be hoping his legs let him follow Froome rather than attack him by Sunday.
Two days later, riders will reach for their skinsuits and aero helmets in preparation for the Stage 17 time trial, a 32km test that features two Category 2 climbs between 6 and 7 kilometers long with average gradients in the neighborhood of 6%. Froome may have a harder time increasing his cushion here than he did on the flat course yesterday, but neither climb is severe enough to favor the climbers who so long to take time from him. Some reshuffling will occur in the lower GC placings, but little should change from the status quo at the beginning of the stage.
The only real chance to unhitch Froome in a manner sufficient to threaten his strangehold on first or even threaten it comes in the next three days where the Tour pays homage to the Alps in spectacular fashion. These stages have what is necessary to put Froome under pressure - multiple hard climbs and technical descents. This three day frenzy starts off with the much hyped double ascent of the Alpe d'Huez on Stage 18. Between the ascents is the short climb of the Col de Sarenne and a descent that is, by all accounts, technical and that favors the brave (or reckless). The Alpe is tough enough, climbing at over 8% average for 13 kilometers - enough to garner a Hors Categorie rating. To do it twice is tough, but it is the Sarenne and its descent - which finishes 10 kilometers from the base of the second ascent of l'Alpe - that provide the main opportunities to attack Froome.
There is virtually no recovery between the first ascent of the Alpe and the 3 kilometer climb of the Sarenne, which should pay dividends for attacking on the first ascent as any of Froome's support riders dispatched on the first ascent should not catch back on before the descent of the Sarenne. And if 30 seconds can be pried open on the descent, or even more, then a rider has the opportunity to take that gap all the way to the line up the final ascent. But how much time can be gained here, and by whom? The stage before the first ascent of the Alpe is not too tough, so taking the race to Sky from the first climb as Movistar did on Stage 9 is not feasible. Instead, we will have to see a climber who can pry open a gap on the Alpe or Sarenne and who is willing to take risks on the descent. If his legs arrive in time, Alberto Contador is certainly one to try an early move here, especially sitting almost four minutes behind Froome at the moment and likely to lose more time in the second time trial. Alejandro Valverde is a second name that comes to mind, though they will have to work together to really do damage here. Maybe a minute is on tap, and that is assuming Froome is a cautious descender - an quality that has not been tested yet.
If Froome shows weakness on the descent of the Sarenne, he will likely face more trouble on the next day. Stage 19 finishes a mere seven kilometers from the summit of the Col de la Croix Fry, a relatively moderate climb that stays in the range of 7% for the majority of its ascent. But the gradient here is not sufficient to distance Froome much, and neither is much time available on the descent. Instead, we are talking about chipping away at his advantage, taking 30 seconds at a time. That is, unless Froome can be isolated and put under pressure enough to forget something as vital as taking in enough calories and fluids. In the 2000 Tour de France, Lance Armstrong had a hunger flat on the final climb of the Col du Joux Plan, the result of insufficient food intake during the stage as his team frenetically chased an attacking Marco Pantani over numerous cols. Only a day as hard as that - a day like Sunday's stage over five rated climbs, including four Category 1 ascents - would be enough to crack Froome in such a way. Stage 19 provides an opportunity, though the hardest climbs - the HC Col du Glandon and Col de la Madeline - come early in the stage. The stage profile truthfully reads "breakaway" rather than "all out war", but stranger things have happened.
The final chance to take time out of Froome is on the summit finish atop Annecy - Semnoz on Stage 20, a 10.7 kilometer climb averaging 8.5%. However, there is much flat ground between the penultimate climb of the day and the final ascent, which plays more into the hands of Froome - assuming he has a strong team - than his opponents. To gain time here, one must straightforwardly out climb the Sky rider, a feat which so far seems unlikely. Thirty seconds or a minute might be gained here, especially if fatigue is cumulative and Froome suffers it more than a rider on ascendent form, but the odds of this happening seem improbably low.
Can Froome's opponents use these opportunities to put four minutes into him? Or, if the Stage 17 time trial adds to his lead, five? It's not likely - not at all. To do so would require the perfect combination of weakness and strength, guile and luck. At the same time, it's not unfathomable that Froome could crack and we could see another winner of the Tour de France. Much will be told by how racing pans out on Stage 18 - if it is aggressive and gaps open, we have a true race on our hands. With the kind of racing it will take to unseat Froome, it seems as if Alberto Contador and maybe Alejandro Valverde who hold the tool kit to crack Froome, and one is short on legs and the other on aggression at the moment.
In the opportunity that Froome seems unassailable, there is an intriguing fight brewing for the remaining podium positions and the white jersey of the best young rider. Alejandro Valverde is separated from sixth placed Laurens Ten Dam by less than a minute and two of the best pure climbers in the race - Quintana and Joaquim Rodríguez - are less than two and a half minutes from the podium. Michal Kwiatkowski currently holds a narrow 34 second lead in the maillot blanc over the superior climber Quintana. We could see a less than inspiring battle if riders resort to holding Froome's wheel as long as possible, or we could see attacking for podium spots. How this shapes the overall race will be interesting to watch - what will happen if Quintana goes up the road one col out as he did on Stage 8? Will Sky give him leash now that he is so far in arrears, or is he still considered a threat? Questions such as these will define how the lower battles play out.