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This is Definitely a Bike Race

Andrew and I wanted to write the same article. So instead we’ve teamed up to bring you another email thread.

Thomas Dumoulin Alpe d’Huez Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Conor: I’m going to start this off with a statement which sounds controversial but shouldn’t really be: Chris Froome is by no means in prime position to win this Tour de France. Why is this? Well there are two schools of thought as far as this race goes, and everybody fits in to one of them:

No. 1: You think Geraint Thomas will not crack

No. 2: You think Geraint Thomas will crack.

If you are a subscriber to school of thought number one, with all the daffodils and dragons that it entails, of course you don’t think that Froome is in prime position to win — Thomas has so far been Froome’s equal or better in the mountains.

If you, on the other hand, do think Thomas will have a bad day (and I’ll get into the likelihood of that in a moment) then let me show you the current GC, where he currently leads Dumoulin by a mere eleven seconds.

If you, on the other hand, do think Thomas will have a bad day (and I’ll get into the likelihood of that in a moment) then let me show you this table:

GC Top Six

Name Time Difference Time Difference to Froome Subjective TT Ranking
Name Time Difference Time Difference to Froome Subjective TT Ranking
Geraint Thomas 00:00 -00:01:39 4
Chris Froome 01:39 00:00 3
Tom Dumoulin 01:50 00:11 1
Primoz Roglic 02:38 00:59 2
Romain Bardet 03:21 01:42 6
Mikel Landa 03:42 02:03 5

Based on all historical and intuitive knowledge, Dumoulin is going to beat Froome in the time-trial. I think Froome’s going to need a minute on him to be confident of victory. It’s also an easy number to work with, so let’s go with it. Froome needs to find fifty seconds on Dumoulin in the mountains, which he has not shown himself able to do — in fact, Dumoulin was his total equal on Alpe d’Huez and through most of the Giro (stage nineteen was an anomaly, of course it was an anomaly and it’s not relevant as far as I’m concerned). So what can Sky possibly do to regain this time on Dumoulin? An audacious attack? A spiked musette? Or maybe, maybe they could just give the reins to their guy who already has such a lead that he will be unassailable in the time-trial. In 1985, Greg LeMond (2nd) was up the road with Stephen Roche (3rd) with Bernard Hinault in yellow, of course on LeMond’s team, back in the peloton. Now, if Froome got up the road with Dumoulin with Thomas fighting back on, Froome should under all circumstances ride in the interests of Thomas. First and second for the team, to paraphrase Paul Köchli (a DS with whom I don’t ever remember disagreeing, I wish he were still around) is better than first and third. I don’t think that can be argued against. Unless Thomas totally cracks, it is on Sky to focus on him. It makes most logical sense, to prevent a Dumoulin win. How likely is such a win, do you believe?

Andrew: I assume, Conor, that you’ve got an auto-correct problem. You’ve said “Geraint Thomas will crack” and I think you meant “crash”.

I’m being snide and this deserves more serious consideration than that (though we shouldn’t rule out someone crashing, and G has form).

I’m a hell of a lot less confident than I was a week ago that Thomas is going to ship a lot of time somewhere. Still, there’s plenty of days left when he could do so and it is still a distinct possibility. I’d have stage 17 as likeliest, followed in order by 16, 20, and 19. Before the Alps I would have said it was a probability, so he’s making progress. This is the best Thomas has ever looked. He’s avoided bad luck and racing incidents, and he’s come in with great preparation. Most importantly of all, unlike Froome or Doom, he hasn’t got the Giro in his legs. However, he’s also never, ever done this before. I know people keep talking about his jour sans in 2015, but it really is worth mentioning here. He was fourth going into the stage, and he didn’t lose a little bit, he lost 22 minutes. Peter Sagan beat himh on a day with four mountains and a summit finish. Still, I’ve covered all that and it isn’t your question. You want to know what I think about Tom Dumoulin.

I think he’s also got an excellent chance of winning the Tour. If Thomas cracks, and Doom doesn’t, 11 seconds (or thereabouts, after the mountains) means he’ll probably TT past Froome. However. There are two schools of thoughts – I read a similar theory somewhere recently.

No. 1: You think Tom Dumoulin will not crack.
No. 2: You think Tom Dumoulin will crack.
I don’t think he’ll crack. I don’t know that he’ll be able to stick with Froome in the mountains, though. He’s not many weeks removed from shipping over three minutes to him on a demanding mountain stage towards the end of a grand tour, and, unlike Froome, he’s never ridden two competitive grand tours in a season before. I could easily see him losing 49 seconds in the mountains, yeah. Also, why does Froome necessarily need a minute’s advantage for the time trial? On perfect form for each of them, sure, Doom is the better time trialler – he’s the best around at the moment – but Froome is no slouch. Again, form and recovery plays in to performance on the day. It wouldn’t stagger me if Froome won stage 20 overall, or at least beat G and Doom.

I messaged you after your preview pieces to say I enjoyed them, and to say I have no idea who’ll win the Tour. Well, it is the second rest day, and I’m none the wiser (though I’ll rule out Richie Porte. Sorry). The bookies, as I write this, have Froome as favourite at 5/6. Thomas is 6/4 and Dumoulin is 9/2. Me, I’d have Doom much shorter. I’d have Froome longer, too. I don’t think we’re miles apart on this. To make the maths easier, I’d say Froome wins 39 of the 100 theoretical runnings of this Tour, Thomas 29, Doom 29, Roglic 2 and Bardet 1. How would you split it?

Conor: Andrew, I think you know that speculating about a rider crashing is a waste of time. Speculating about a rider cracking is only slightly better, if I’m being honest, but it’s not like we have any choice. Constantly talking about something can be tedious, but when it’s something relevant the tedium disappears. Examining Thomas’ crack in 2015 is something we have to do. It was dramatic, it was devastating and more importantly, it was telegraphed. First, Thomas lost two minutes on La Pierre-Saint-Martin. That’s fair enough and I’m willing to ignore it, as I just went back over that stage and he’d done a long pull in the front. Then he lost a lot of time on Mende, the same finish we just saw on Saturday. A few days later, he would give up over a minute on Pra-Loup. That crack on stage nineteen was as predictable as it was extraordinary. That was not the same Thomas as is riding now. That was very much a proto-Thomas, one who lost time in the mountains in the warm-up races and couldn’t ride on the front for as long as this, more formed version, easy winner of the Dauphiné and man who has not shown any weakness on the climbs so far. If I’ll be honest, I think he lost his rhythm on Alpe d’Huez after the Nibali and it affected him for a couple of minutes, but he rode through that and found it again. I will make a prediction — if Thomas cracks badly, it will not be out of nowhere, but out of nowhere is from where it would so far have to come. My worry is that Thomas does not believe in himself, with all the statements about how Froome is still the leader and that he’s surprised to be in this situation. In 2015, he gave interviews about how he knew a bad day was coming. Lack of confidence in himself could bring such about once again.

Yeah, no. One thing of which we can be pretty sure, I believe, is that Dumoulin isn’t going to break completely. What we can maybe plan for is for what I’ll call a Piancavallo Performance, à la stage nineteen of the 2017 Giro, on which Dumoulin had a bad day and suffered to time-trial his way to a seventy second loss to Quintana. That...that is totally possible. As for the time-trial, I am not saying Froome will lose if he has less than a minute on Dumoulin. But if he does, that’s when losing becomes a real, real possibility. For time-trials at the end of a Grand Tour I tend to subscribe to the theory that the playing field is leveled by the nineteen days of racing that went previously to the point where whoever has the most left will have a good chance regardless of hitherto-known powers of time-trialling. If Dumoulin has much left in the tank, he can take a lot of time. If Froome or Thomas have, they’re unlikely to lose much if any.

As for the predictions, I think you’re way off.

Sixty to Thomas.

Twenty-two to Dumoulin.

Seventeen to Froome.

One to Roglic.

Andrew: My predictions probably are way off, but if anything I think I’ve underestimated Roglic, which means you’ve doubled the mistake. He crushes the time trial and takes a minute somewhere else more than once in a hundred runnings... but I digress.

Thomas is looking better than ever - this is the finished product, I agree. The way he rode on Saturday was wildly impressive because that is exactly the sort of climb where he’d have shipped thirty seconds. To go from being, if not careless, unable or unwilling to burn matches on “lesser” stages, to being the boss on days like the ride to Mende or the Mur de Bretagne was wildly impressive. You’re right to draw the comparison with Saturday. Has his confidence turned as fast as his form? I don’t know.

I would draw the Yates comparison, though. Not because they’re the same rider, or at the same stage of the career, but because of how well these guys can hide things. There was no weakness visible in him until he suddenly lost twenty-odd seconds on Pratonevos, and then, suddenly, he was done. He must have been huring before. He must have felt an effort we didn’t see in the ITT, and there was just nothing left. These guys ride so close to the edge that it really is margins. You said “if Thomas cracks badly, it will not be out of nowhere, but out of nowhere is from where it would so far have to come” and that’s true, visually, but it might all be happening internally. Equally, there were a couple of moments on Saturday when I thought Froome might get gapped. I’m sure those two were watching each other closely on the rest day.

I guess the reason I have the top three more tightly grouped than you is that I think a big gap (big enough that the time differences to date) is coming. No, we can’t speculate about which rider will crash, or crack, with any accuracy, but it is fair to say that two weeks at the top for G, and five for the other two, increases the chances for all three.

So here’s a different question: what do we need to see? When will we know? Obviously the time trial is key (and, by the way, your top draft pick was right - this is an ITT that demands following) but where will you be looking for clues? I’m starting to think that Tuesday’s stage might be more useful than we think, just in setting the pecking order for Wednesday. Wednesday, of course, is massive, as they’ll be gridded and going hard from the start.

Conor: What must we see? I think we must see shakiness tomorrow. If Thomas, Dumoulin or Froome is going to lose a lot of time on stage seventeen, I think we first have to see them look weak on stage sixteen. It’s a good stage for Dumoulin to have a go, clearly he is not struggling on the descents and after losing Moscon Sky may show a chink in the armour. If Thomas gets through that stage unflustered I will fully expect him to do the same on stage seventeen. Froome’s statements that he will help Thomas strike me as very odd — he looked close enough to being gapped sure enough, but that’s his way. Even on some of his greatest days in the Tour, he has looked like being gapped by his own team mates. The time-trial will decide, but at the minute, Thomas looks like his strength will decide the race. At the minute, that is unshakeable.

Andrew: Yeah... if we come out of Tuesday’s stage with no cracks and no sign that cracks are coming, I’ll begin to believe in Geraint.

Gianni Moscon? Do you have any thoughts on him? I struggle with this, because it looked frustrated/innocuous and I want to want to cut him some slack, but I don’t want to. I can’t believe he’s got away with behaving like this for so long and I hope they throw the book at him.

Conor: I genuinely think he’s more likely to take time than lose it in the last week. Let’s leave it at that, agreeing to disagree. As for Moscon, I’m struggling to care. Clearly not a delightful individual but he’s a bloody good cyclist who’ll almost certainly always have a contract waiting for him.