The Tour started in Germany on a soaking wet Saturday just over a week ago. Since then we’ve had nine stages, including one of the two time trials and a contender for the Queen stage. As the peloton prepare for an extremely well-earned rest day, here’s one man’s rundown of the salient points to date, and a brief look at the week ahead.
Far too many good riders are already out of the Tour
Unfortunately, there can only be one place to start this midrace review, and it is with the bad news. It is a rare week in a Grand Tour that doesn’t see bad luck, crashes and riders dropping out, and rarer still in the first week of the Tour, where the peloton is too big, too fast, and too nervous for the roads onto which the riders are packed. Still, I can’t offhand think of a week where we lost more star riders.
I’ve been thinking, and writing, about Richie in the buildup to the Tour, and I talked about the need for him to overcome bad luck, pointing out that finishing GTs requires a combination of luck and skill. Still, I didn’t think we’d see anything as dramatic or distressing as his departure from the race. I watched it with my wife, on a grainy feed with train wifi, and even without good definition the descent of Mont du Chat was terrifying. We’d seen it in the Dauphine and it again caused chaos.
Porte just ran out of road on the inside of a hairpin, and bowled sideways across the road, his bike dropping down the slope. He took out Dan Martin as he fell. The good news is that he was moving, and that Martin got up and finished the stage (having lost a little time). The bad news is everything else, beginning with him being loaded into an ambulance on a stretcher and sporting a neck brace. Medical details are still emerging, but I know I speak for all of us when I say heal fast and fully, Richie. You have to think that ASO will look more carefully at descents as they add climbs to future schedules, and be grateful that there wasn’t water on the road.
Alejandro Valverde and Ion Izagirre
Valverde was also a podium pick of mine and also crashed out, in his case slipping out of a wet corner in the opening time trial. He slid backwards into a crash barrier and suffered season-ending injuries to his leg and back. Another victim of the Dusseldorf stage was Izagirre, getting his first meaningful chance to lead a GT squad having moved from Movistar to Bahrain. Bad luck for both riders, who had a parcours to suit but never got to show it.
Geraint Thomas and Bobo Gesink
Before Porte fell so badly, stage 9 had already claimed Thomas, a key lieutenant of Froome and fighting back from a crash early in the Giro, and Gesink, who’d finished 2nd on stage 8 and was looking back to the form that saw him win a Vuelta stage in 2016. Others would be caught up in falls on the greasy roads, but most were able to finish in some form or other.
Arnaud Demare, Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan
Demare looked in excellent form until about stage 7, and was not far behind Kittel in the tussel for green, before he picked up a bug. He struggled to sprint on stage 7 and finished well behind the grupetto on stage 9, outside the time limit. Cavendish was involved in a stage 4 crash and reinjured his shoulder, forcing him out just as he appeared to be regaining form after a bout of glandular fever earlier in the season. Sagan, meanwhile, is out because… well, he’s out. Let’s not go through all that again.
Froome looks like the best climber in the field…
After a very strong opening TT, finishing 6th behind his star-crossed team-mate Thomas, Froome rode into yellow by finishing 3rd on the stage 5 climb to La Planche des Belles Filles, and maintained it through the brutal climbs of the Jura on stage 9. He’s clearly on decent form and it’ll be a very good rider indeed who can take enough time from him in the remaining hills to both take yellow and hold it through the second time trial. He dealt with a mechanical on the last climb, during which Aru attacked him, and was active attacking the elite group all the way up to the summit.
... but not by very much.
However, Froome’s attacks didn’t shake the entire field from his wheel. Aru was briefly dropped but fought back to the main group. He’d previously won a stage at the summit of the Plank of the Beautiful Girls. Also sticking in the elite group were Dan Martin (until he was taken out by a falling Porte, after which he continued to ride very strongly), Romain Bardet, Jakob Fuglsang (maintaining more of his Dauphine form than I anticipated) and Rigoberto Uran. Froome hasn’t got this Tour wrapped up yet and certainly doesn’t have the cushion to allow him to deal with a bad day or with an ill-timed mechanical issue.
Surprise – there aren’t any surprises!
Obviously, there are some names missing thanks to injuries, but of those who remain in the field the classification looks broadly as you’d expect. There are, however, a few surprise names.
Rigoberto Uran Uran is, once again, so good they named him twice. It has been a while since he featured on a list of contenders and I confess to having ignored him in the build-up to this Tour. Having won stage 9 (by a hair) he’s moved up to fourth overall and is less than a minute behind Froome.
George Bennett has always been a good climber and a better time trialler. Still, his 10th in last year’s Vuelta was his best GT performance, and he began this Tour with a poor ride, finishing 1.37 back in 162nd place. At that stage, I wouldn’t have expected him to enjoy the rest day in the top 10, but that’s where he’s sitting at the moment.
Is it a surprise that Contador and Quintana have lost ground in this Tour? I suppose it depends who you listen to. We’ve not been optimistic about their chances in the overall on this site, reckoning that Quintana’s Giro and Contador’s age would take them out of the list of the very best in the field. That appears to be the case, as both dropped out fairly tamely on stages 5 and 9, and are now 2.13 and 5.15 back respectively on Froome. Too far to add to their list of GT victories. Both crashed, but neither can blame that for their current GC positions.
If you did listen to me however, you might have been sweet on Rafal Majka’s chances. If so, you were in for a very nasty surprise on stage 9 when he lost over half an hour – suffering from the effects of one of the many falls - and dropped from 10th to 43rd overall, putting the finishing touches to a week for Bora that can only be described as dreadful. It is too soon to know if he’ll start stage 10 after a day to rest up.
Yates looks pretty safe in white
Not too much has been heard from the young guns of this tour, at least so far. Still, Simon Yates has climbed well, and stayed within his limits. He’s in 7th overall, 2.02 back, and has almost three minutes in hand over Meintjes, his nearest rival, and just over three minutes on Latour. You’d expect him to be more comfortable on the less extreme gradients of the Pyrennes and Alps than in the Jura, so it’ll take a marked improvement from a rival to dislodge him.
Kittel is the fastest man here
There was an element of doubt over who would be dominant in the various flat stages, but that doubt is gone now. There have been chaotic sprints and orderly ones, flat ones and hilly ones, wet ones and dry ones – and Kittel has won three of them. There are plenty more to come, and you would expect him to add to his tally of wins, and be heavy favourite in the unofficial sprinter’s world championships on the Champs-Elysees, particularly given that fewer will be riding in opposition to him than we expected at the start.
Of greater interest is whether he can hold onto green. Demare and Sagan have gone home, which increases his chances, but Michael Matthews fought and scrapped for 20 points midway through stage 9 to get within 52 points of the big German. It’d be a surprise if he could close that gap but it has been a goal all season and he’ll never have a clearer opening. Something to watch through the next few days.
After Monday’s rest day, we have two flattish stages on Tuesday and Wednesday, with Kittel looking to extend his lead in the points competition and the GC contenders looking to stay out of trouble. Thursday sees the road angling upwards as we reach the Pyrennes, with a mountaintop finish on the 2nd category climb to Peyragudes. Stage 13, on Friday, is a short (100km) mountain stage with three cat one climbs and then a 25km mostly downhill finish into Foix. The weekend sees two puncheurs stages through the Massif before the second rest day.
Can we expect to learn much in the stages between the rest days? I suspect not. Stage 12 will see some shuffling in GC, probably minor, and there will be the usual excitement over stage wins and points (both green and spotty). However, in the grand scheme of things these will not be decisive Pyrenean stages and we must wait for the Alps, and for the TT in Marseille, for the remaining vital moments. Except, of course, this is cycling, and as week oe has proved, you never know what might happen.