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Talking Points from Stage 17: Not Disappointed, Not Surprised

I’m back with one of these not-quite-reviews.

Thomas Dumoulin Col de Portet 2018 Tour stage 17 Chris Graythen/Getty Images

So, barring extraordinary circumstances, Geraint Thomas is going to win the Tour de France. That’s the current situation and I don’t hear many voices in opposition to that reading of it — the fact that it’s been the situation for five or six days now is basically irrelevant to how the race now stands, which is that Thomas is the leader of Team Sky with a two-minute buffer over everyone else in the GC with just one comparatively tame mountain stage plus a time-trial to go. Once again, he was entirely convincing. When Froome got on Roglic’s wheel at the bottom of the final climb, Thomas didn’t panic, merely sitting on Dumoulin’s wheel, second in the group. That was the most vulnerable he would look all day. Once the attacks began again towards the top of the mountain, Thomas was alive to each one, never allowing a gap to even be formed. The only time one was formed, in fact, came when Thomas himself decided to launch as the air grew thin and the finish-line loomed. He found fifteen seconds on Dumoulin and Roglic in very little distance. Yet again, he proves he’s the strongest man at this race. What I want to know is this: how do we, as cycling fans, feel about this? I think a fifth Froome win in six years would have gone down like my self-esteem if I had to wear Adam Yates’ sunglasses, and if I’d told you before the race that he would not win I believe you would feel we had departed from the Sky hegemony. However, we haven’t, instead entering a sort of halfway house — Froome didn’t win...but Sky are more dominant than ever. Personally, I can’t dislike Thomas. I was supporting Porte at this race if only because I wanted to be right, but once he left I had no real allegiance. Thomas is a rider I am happy for, if not one I can outright support.

Dumoulin and Roglic tried, let no man say they didn’t. Roglic’s move early in the climb was a canny one and it did succeed in temporarily dislodging much of Sky’s support, even if he is no match for Dumoulin in a mountain time-trial. He’s having a fantastic first run at a Grand Tour’s general classification, however. A podium is a possibility.
As for Dumoulin, well, what can I say. There are few sadder sights in cycling than seeing Dumoulin forced to attack in the mountains. It is not his forte, in an ideal world he would win bike races by always being behind his rivals and twice this year he has found himself in the position of needing to attack and gain a lot of time in order to win a Grand Tour. The first occasion of this was stage twenty of the Giro, something I revisited only this week. The second came today. Now, I don’t think I was the only one who did not think he was a man who looked in the form of his life today, so to see him summon up the last of his energy to squeeze out a doomed attack was quite a shame to watch. He should win the time-trial. It should not be enough.

Now I get to the stage winner. I’ve been harsh on Quintana for most of this Tour and don’t think I’m about to stop now: yes, it was an impressive win. It’s not his first of such. However, it does not make him a credible GC threat much more than it does Dan Martin. Both of them made a clever move to get ahead of the politics of the GC group and Quintana was clearly on a good day, but the fact remains that both of them were simply let away by those with greater concerns. Does it rescue his Tour? It shouldn’t, not for a man who came here wanting to win it. So yes — good ride, Nairo. But I’m pretty sure the word “consistent” is somewhere in the definition of the term “GC contender.”

This is just a quick aside because I think the pettiness is hilarious:

Oh, and while it’s not hilarious that Peter Sagan crashed, and even less hilarious that he skipped the podium to head to hospital, I can’t pretend it wouldn’t be amusing if the fight for the green jersey began again without him — Alaphilippe and Kristoff could almost be sheepish about it. As of now, however, he seems set to start tomorrow. He climbed tremendously today, by the way, which bodes well for worlds.

Perhaps he was helped by the brevity of the stage? Is brevity the soul of grit? Well, to an extent. I like short stages — the stage to Foix last year, to Aramon Formigal in the 2016 Vuelta or even the La Rosière stage this year. Those look to me like the optimum lengths of stages. I’m going to give two sentences to the grid start because that’s all it deserves: whoever expected anything different to what happened can’t have seen a bike race before — if Roglic, Landa or Bardet had wanted to attack, they would have been free to move to the front if the stage had just started normally. All talk of putting huge gaps between the groups seems to me like a gimmick too far — this is a bike race, too much fiddling with it turns it into a game of Pro Cycling Manager.

Prudhomme Grid Start Bagneres de Luchon Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Have I said too much about Egan Bernal already? Maybe. I don’t care. He is absolutely brilliant. After riding on the front all mountain, it seemed like he had the ability to stay with Dumoulin and Roglic. He certainly was much stronger than Froome, and it is Froome with whom I will end this piece — he has far from disgraced himself, far from ridden below what his level should be. I’ll remind you how Contador managed in the year of his Giro-Tour double attempt, how Quintana rode last year. The fact that Dumoulin looks able to manage second place in both baffles me in what is either a brilliant or a terrible strategy of form management, depending on how you look at it. I’ll repeat, in a slightly calmer tone, what I wrote in my preview yesterday — nobody has done the Giro-Tour double since Marco Pantani. Even with an extra week, even with a thinned-down Tour field, even with a rider with such an ability as Froome, it looks once again undoable. Which is fine, it’s even expected. Froome’s finding that out. He’s paying the price.