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Talking Points from Stage 12: Is This a Bike Race?

Froome Thomas Alpe Stage 12 2018 TDF JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images

Before getting into any actual analysis give me about a hundred words to gush about the last four kilometres of that stage. It was magnificent. I can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of times I’ve seen GC contenders race each other to a standstill like that and it was riveting to watch. Mix that in with the inter-team dynamics, what had gone before in the stage and the unbelievable ride from Dumoulin and you have one of the classic stages. It might have been even better if Egan Bernal wasn’t such a prodigy, but you can’t have everything.

So obviously Froome versus Thomas is the story of the day, but I think the story is far more “Froome is weak” than “Thomas is strong.” Being surprised by Thomas’ performance today seems illogical to me — he had an equally good one yesterday and not a whole lot changed between then and now. Being surprised by Froome’s performance, on the other hand, is entirely reasonable. The way Thomas rode before the final three kilometres or so made my heart sink a little — I assumed he was on a slightly worse day and expected to be less strong than Froome, as instead of attacking when he ran out of team-mates, he went to the front and started riding tempo. That wouldn’t last long, however, as Nibali’s collision with a moto broke the race and sent Froome up the road.

Now, I think it’s going underestimated, but Dumoulin’s catch of Froome is in my opinion a huge moment in Tour de France history. This is one of the most successful riders in the history of the Tour de France making his big attack to win the race on Alpe d’Huez and for the first time, his big attack wasn’t enough. I was convinced he’d ride to the top by himself for a minute, but Dumoulin is clearly on it this July. At the same time, Froome is clearly missing that one per cent needed to shake off his competitors. He was missing it last year, as well. Then, it wasn’t necessary. This year, it is. It looked like he possessed it on La Rosière, but when he needed it today it deserted him.

So has anything changed in Froome versus Thomas? Well, a lot more people are taking Thomas seriously, apparently. That’s a little odd — did everyone think he’d crack on the Alpe specifically? If you were a Thomas skeptic yesterday, I don’t see why you wouldn’t be one today. Then again, I don’t see why you would be one at all. Froome is still ostensibly Sky’s leader, but at the minute it does not look like he’ll be able to ride Thomas off his wheel. Will the Welshman have a bad day? There’s no real reason to assume so, and for Sky to do anything to give Froome priority over Thomas will be a risk they do not need to take. Make no mistake, Thomas is the favourite for this race. All he has to do is stay with Froome, who is not totally himself. I have to assume he will at some point start to view Froome as a rival and be less willing to work for him. That clearly hasn’t happened quite yet.

Can Dumoulin win? I’m worried that he won’t be able to get rid of the Sky duo. He was very impressive on L’Alpe but was that his Oropa? He has shown a degree of inconsistency on the climbs in Grand Tours, but he needs to find a minute somewhere on them. He is as likely to have a bad day as Thomas, as good as he looked today. At the same time, we must ask if Bardet had his bad day yesterday. We saw much better climbing from the Frenchman. As for Quintana, he is totally beaten. I’d say “maybe next year” if I meant it.

Steven Kruijswijk was battling and of course very impressive, but I could never get excited about his move. As I said, this was not a stage designed for long-range GC attacks. That fifteen kilometres in the valley cost the Dutchman dearly as Sky merely spent what was expendable to them. Kudos to him for lighting up the race, but he was clearly on such a good day that if he’d ridden conservatively he might have stayed with the lead group all the way to the top of the climb.

Kruijswijk Alpe d’Huez Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

A quick word on the fans: That it was widely assumed that Nibali crashed into a fan speaks to all the outrage about fans on the course. I would say that all this outrage doesn’t strike me as warranted. The mountain was much more sparsely populated than in recent years. Yes, a flare had something to do with the crash which clearly is not a positive thing, but does that even need a comment? Flares are bad. Obviously. But crazy fans will always be a thing and they can’t be stopped without ruining the atmosphere. Anyway, they could have been worse. If they’re your primary takeaway from that stage, you’re doing something wrong.

The people going home today also must be mentioned — Groenewegen, Greipel and Gaviria are the big names, meaning that five of the biggest six sprinters have gone home in the last two days. Is this a problem? No, of course it’s not, barring the facts that the sprints will resemble such stages in the Vuelta. The time limits haven’t changed and the only one of those names that is surprising is Gaviria. The others had all crashed or were off form. Any talk of changing the time limits, which were no huge problem last year, doesn’t strike me as sensible. Viewing it as a sign that the mountain stages are too hard makes even less sense — these were no more extreme than any.

Final word goes to Bernal. I heard a lot of “was the Tour too much for him” after he dropped off yesterday but that was a monster ride from him, taking minutes out of Kruijswijk and dropping bona fide GC contenders. The sooner he is fulfilling his potential by actually challenging for success rather than driving on the front, the better.