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What Froome Has Left to Prove

It ain't over til the Alps say it's over.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

After a series of dominant performances by Sky's Chris Froome which have left most fans of the Tour de France muttering darkly into their coffee about how this sucker is over, today was something a bit different. Today was silver lining day.

Today was a day when Froome did not look like he was in total control. Granted, nobody else seemed to be either, but I said this was about silver linings, not tectonic shifts. The point is, the other contenders, the guys we are counting on to make this Tour even remotely suspenseful, stopped getting their heads handed to them. That raises an important question: will they resume getting their heads handed to them by Sky and Froome next week in the Alps? The answer is, I don't know. But I can think of some reasons to hold out hope that they will not.

If this article has one take-home message, it's that climbs in the Pyrénées are categorically different from climbs in the Alps, so when the results in one domain start to show a particular pattern to them, you shouldn't automatically assume that pattern will replicate itself in the other. Maybe it will; maybe the people involved are more or less the same in both experiences. But there is some evidence that that's not the case in 2015.

The Alps Aren't The Pyrénées

I'm going to call on people who have actually ridden there (I'm looking at you Will J) to help us fully appreciate the differences, but they are typically stated as follows:

  • The Pyrénées are comparatively lower in altitude;
  • The Pyrénéan climbs tend toward shorter, stabbier ascents;
  • The Alps climbs tend to be longer and steadier;
  • The Pyrénées reward punchier climbers while the Alps reward guys who can hammer out a steady rhythm.

That about right?

Chris Froome Might Not Be as Good in the Alps as the Pyrénées

Let's start by mentioning what I didn't say -- he might be as good or better in the Alps, for all we know. Data is pretty thin. But so far it consists of the following.

  • In the 2013 Tour, Froome won the Ax-3-Domaines stage (1400 meters) and matched wheels the next day, emerging from the Pyrénées with a nice comfy lead. Nairo Quintana, for example, was 2.02 back, and nearly seven minutes back by the time the Tour arrived in the Alps.
  • In between the Pyrénées and the Alps, Froome won the stage to Mont Ventoux (1900 meters), by 29" over a newly-liberated Quintana and gobs of time over everyone else.
  • Froome proceeded to give back a couple minutes in the Alps to the Colombian Tour debutant in the Alps, and finished 7th, 25th and 3rd on the three Alps stages. Most of the guys beating him were people he didn't care about (sporting-wise; I'm sure he cares a lot for his fellow man). But Quintana and Purito Rodriguez both got up the road from Froome.
  • This year Froome was again dominant in the Pyrénées, winning the stage to La Pierre-Saint-Martin (1600 meters).

The counterarguments to the idea that Froome isn't as good in the Alps, based on this data, are numerous enough: Froome had a big lead that he defended with relative ease; Froome has won two editions of the Daupiné, including stage wins. But there is no substitute for the Tour when it comes to measuring quality, and there is no denying that he has yet to dominate in the Alps the way he's completely owned the Pyrénées.

Nairo Quintana Might Be Better in the Alps

The corollary to "Froome isn't as good" isn't necessarily "Quintana is therefore better," but in this case we have seen Quintana soar to the sport's highest heights in the Alps, so yeah, maybe he's better there.

  • In 2013, Quintana finished ninth to Ax-3-Domaines, dropping 1.45 to Froome. Sure, he was still working for Valverde then, and the next day he matched wheels, but...
  • This past week Quintana got beat by Froome to La Pierre-Saint-Martin. And Richie Porte too.
  • Quintana's lone Alps campaign was nothing short of brilliant, with a fourth on the double-Alpe d'Huez stage (1850 meters) (behind escapees Christophe Riblon, Tejay van Garderen and Moreno Moser) and won the final high mountain stage to Semnoz (1655m).

That's it. No other data, and plenty of ways to interpret it. But it stands to reason that Quintana might like the Alps more. First, while the altitudes aren't radically different, they do differ. Froome was born a flatlander, with English genes. Yes, I know he moved his training base out of Nairobi years ago and has, like all pro cyclists, spent enough time training at altitude to do the job. That's a non-data point. But Quintana is a special case, hailing from Combita, Colombia, where the valleys are over 2800 meters up, beyond the highest roads in Europe. He lived his entire childhood in what most of us would consider extreme altitude conditions. He can do this.

I'll again ask for help from you guys for clues as to whose riding style fits better where. One more thing, Quintana came on slowly and steadily over that 2013 Tour, and did the same last year in his successful assault on the Giro d'Italia. He told El Tiempo that he felt good today, which is an improvement over Tuesday.

This thing ain't over.