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The Strategy of Going Long

Is Nairo Quintana playing a waiting game? Will it work?

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The first rest day is naturally the time to take stock of how the various GC candidates' plans for winning the 2016 Tour de France, and with the Pyrenean chapter basically concluded, we have a little something to go on. Sunday was a stalemate, but Saturday we saw the unexpected dash down the mountainside from Sky's Chris Froome, leaving a surprised Nairo Quintana of Movistar 13 seconds back, and giving Froome a bonus that moved him into first overall by 23" over his Colombian rival. Much chatter commenced about this move, generally faulting Quintana and going so far as to suggest he be flogged by his DS with some sort of benign but symbolic object for his foolishness.

Froome and his team, meanwhile, have comfortably settled themselves into the catbird seat, a familiar position where they can spend the rest day being lauded for their excellence. This, then, is a post about exactly how excellent they really are. I'm not a Sky fan, since they represent the dominant paradigm and I'm still not over how boring the 2012 race was. But I do respect them and Froome, and will do my best to not be such a massive Nairo fanboy assess things going forward in an objective manner.

Do We Care About Week 1?

At the risk of repeating myself, from my Case for Quintana piece pre-Tour, the key development is the contrasting approaches of Froome and Quintana, the former preferring to make some moves early, or even empty his handbag of courage, while the latter sits with the maddening impassivity of the Buddha. The carping at Quintana this year is not much different from last year, when he shipped almost two minutes to Froome early on through a less excusable level of mishap, and wound up losing by 1.12 after his big third week surge. I said earlier that he has more to gain in week three than was available last year, and therefore liked his chances of using the same strategy to great effect this time, if nothing else changed.

Froome, meanwhile, did burn a few matches on Saturday, and then talked about waiting to pounce on a Quintana attack (that never came) Sunday. Does this indicate that he is still on a first-week-exploitation plan? And if so, how's it going?

The answer is, we won't really know til the end of the month, in hindsight. But certainly Sky weren't completely changing tactics and targeting week 3 primarily. I'm sure they would say they are all in for the whole race, and just expect to pick up time where it's available. If that's week 1, because Quintana is riding conservatively, then so be it. Did they target the Pyrenees the way Froome did last year, or the way Froome did in 2013 winning on stage 8 at Ax-3-Domaines, or the way Sky did in 2012 when Froome (!) won at Les Planches des Belles Filles on stage 7 and set up Bradley Wiggins in yellow just as he was about to crush the stage 9 time trial and end the entire race? Maybe, but the lack of attacks on yesterday's MTF suggested they weren't quite as aggressively targeting the second weekend.

Let's assume that's the case, that they took it relatively easy... and still got yellow plus 23". And there's a time trial coming, where Froome could gain -- what? A minute or more? -- on the Colombian. That would put Quintana on his heels once again, entering a final phase of the race against a battle-tested champion who just needs to stick to his wheel. And who didn't burn most of his matches in the Pyrenees.

On the other hand, maybe Froome's history of success in the Pyrenees and Quintana's success in the Alps says more about their natural habitats and that Quintana's advantage will resume a week from now. If he's only shipped those 23 seconds, and can pare them down on Mont Ventoux enough so the time trial won't hurt too much, then it's Quintana who would theoretically be sitting pretty. Unless Froome can improve on what he did in the Alps last year, he will need more than a minute in hand to expect to hold off a rampaging Quintana the likes of which we saw in 2015.

So is this how it's playing out? Is Quintana sitting patiently by the river, like Sun Tzu advises, waiting for the bodies of his enemies to float by? I don't know, but I love that analogy too much not to use it. And I love the idea that Quintana, mistake or no Saturday, is sticking to a long term plan, because that's the best way for him to win. Last year he was careless, he didn't take advantage of early opportunities, he didn't do enough. This time... maybe he will.

Heart and Head of a Champion

One truism we can use here, borrowed from other sports as well, is that champions don't just casually step out of the way to make space for their challengers. You have to knock them off their pedestal, with extreme prejudice. Chris Froome is a champion of the Tour, rides like one, carries himself like one, and has the accolades and support that all scream out his status.

So how does Quintana deal with all that? By knowing who he is, what he has, and how to make the absolute best of it. Froome opined that Quintana looked strong over the weekend, which suggests that he could have attacked or put Froome under pressure. Maybe in hindsight that will seem like another early mistake.

But I don't know how much time was available on the road to Andorra. It wasn't terribly hard, and Froome was in fine form, so perhaps there was no real point in attacking. Beating Froome will require Quintana to resist the temptation to burn matches when it's not time to gain much. Yesterday he showed discipline, knowing that he can't win in week one but he can certainly lose by spending too much effort.

The biggest hurdles are this week's Ventoux - ITT duo on Thursday and Friday. Quintana needs to see if he can hurt Froome on the Giant of Provence, then see if he can stay close the next day. This is incredibly tricky decision-making, more so than any point in last year's Tour save for the final few days. The best you can say is that after these two beasts, there are two modest stages and a rest day to recover. So the potential for drama is high.

From there, Quintana needs to unleash hell in the quartet of Alps events, beginning with the Finhaut-Emosson high-altitude MTF, his specialty, and ending with the Joux-Plane finish. Quintana needs the discipline to know when to empty his tank, to gain the most bang for his buck. When can he take off and really bury the defending champion? Because that's what it will take. Chipping away at the Brit won't get it done. Nudging him off the throne ain't happening. Quintana won't have it for himself unless he can figure out when and how to administer a two-handed shove.

Oh, and the Teams

Lots of electrons have been spent on how great Team Sky are, but I would like to pick that apart a bit. Much of this is based on their ability to keep five riders around Froome until very late into a mountain stage. That's certainly a good thing, but how much does it mean? Does it mean that Quintana is uncomfortable because his guys aren't on the front? Only if you think he'd rather Movistar set a different pace, presumably a slower one. Any evidence of that? None that I see. I'm sure there is some advantage to Froome from that, but I question how much.

It would mean a lot if Sky had a rider who was threatening for the podium, but Sergio Henao is the only person under three minutes back of Quintana, but has never in his life been mentioned as a potential podium guy at the Tour. Maybe we are about to learn differently. But otherwise, any Sky attacks not involving Froome can be pretty safely ignored.

IMHO the meaningful teamwork will be done when the big moves are happening. If Froome has a teammate and they are attacking Quintana in tandem, that's an advantage. A big one. But having five guys around him in the valley absolutely doesn't mean he'll have five guys around him in the last 5km of Ventoux. This isn't US Postal circa 2001. It's much more likely that the real moves will leave Froome on his own, or with just Henao, or maybe Poels. Quintana, for his part, will probably be able to count on Valverde or perhaps Dani Moreno or an Izagirre, or Winner Anacona. We shall see. Valverde has a very good history in the Alps, as opposed to the sharper Dolomites or Pyrenees. If he is there with Quintana when the race is won or lost, does Froome really have the better team? Did all that effort and expense and firepower really add up to anything?

OK, that's all for now. This is a great chess match, and so far I don't see any of the favorites playing checkers.