Sky's latest show of strength 'demoralises' Froome rivals
Published 18/07/2016 | 02:30
It's not over yet. There's many a slip twixt Col and Alpe, and all that. And if there is one thing this edition of the Tour de France has proved, it is the potential for hors-piste factors affecting events on the road.
But even Chris Froome admitted yesterday that his opponents must be feeling "demoralised" by the way he and Team Sky are dominating the race.
Yesterday's 15th stage from Bourg-en-Bresse provided yet another example, as if one were needed, of Sky's extraordinary strength in depth.
On what was one of the hardest days of this Tour, featuring six categorised climbs including the hors catégorie Col du Grand Colombier, Froome's rivals remained mainly passive.
They did not have much choice in the matter. Sky rode on the front of the bunch all day, bossing things while the 30-man breakaway up the road scrapped for a stage which the Colombian Jarlinson Pantano (IAM Cycling) eventually won.
Pantano outsprinted Tinkoff's Rafal Majka for the first Grand Tour stage victory of his career.
Froome crossed the finish line safely in a much-reduced peloton to retain his overall lead.
Ireland's Dan Martin finished in the same group to retain his ninth place overall, five minutes and three seconds behind Froome.
Sam Bennett of Bora-Argon 18 finished 29 minutes down in 117th place and he remains the lantern rouge.
Fabio Aru (Astana), over five minutes down on Froome in the general classification, belatedly tried an attack on the final climb of the day, the Lacets du Grand Colombier.
Then Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and finally Romain Bardet (AG2R) tried their luck. But Sky rode a fierce tempo up the climb, reeling them all in, with Dutchman Wout Poels particularly prominent.
Poels is expected to be key for Froome during this final week of the race, as is Mikel Landa, as Sky continue to juggle their heavy artillery to best effect.
Mikel Nieve, Sergio Henao and Geraint Thomas are also on hand, having already put in plenty of work over the last two weeks.
All of them could expect to be leaders in their own right at another team, something Froome acknowledged in his press conference afterwards.
"That's one of the things I said coming into this race, I really am in such a privileged position to have such a strong team around me," he said.
"Possibly the strongest team that Team Sky has ever entered into the Tour. Guys who would be leaders in other teams.
"You mentioned Wout Poels. He's not just any other rider. He won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, one of the biggest classics.
"Of course it must be quite demoralising for other people to have to think of attacking, knowing that this calibre of rider will be chasing, riding behind at a tempo that will neutralise their attacks.
"Aru, Valverde had a go and apart from that Romain Bardet gave it a try over the top," he added. "But I had the feeling everyone was at the limit and no-one had the legs to make a big difference."
It will certainly take something pretty extraordinary to unseat Froome now.
With five stages to go until Paris on Sunday, the Briton's nearest challenger is Trek-Segafredo's Bauke Mollema at 1min 47sec. Next comes Adam Yates at 2min 45sec. Neither rider was expected to challenge Froome at this Tour.
The man who was, Nairo Quintana (Movistar), is either keeping his powder extremely dry or has not got the legs this year.
Mollema's best grand tour finish is a fourth place at the Vuelta a España back in 2011.
As for Yates, he is only 23 and in uncharted territory being in contention this deep into a grand tour.
Nor was his team Orica-BikeExchange picked with the intention of giving him assistance in the mountains.
Yates looks strong, though, and with the four stages after tomorrow's rest day in Switzerland all coming in the Alps - one of them an uphill time trial - it will be fascinating to see if he can hang on, or even attack Froome.
But here is the final demoralising aspect for the rest of the field: Froome himself.
Even before you factor in his all-star support team, he is clearly the strongest rider in this race, showing well in all aspects of his racing.
Last week's events on Mont Ventoux, when he ran up the road after a crash caused by fans blocking a TV motorbike, were controversial.
There was more grumbling yesterday from rivals who felt Froome should not have been awarded the same time as Mollema on that climb, with Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué arguing that it set an awkward precedent.
"There are crashes every day, but in cycling you fall and you get up," he said. "How does exceptionality apply? Does it depend on who is in the crash?"
But the truth is, such incidents are probably his - and the rest of the field's - only hopes of stopping Froome and his powerful supporting cast from claiming a third title in Paris on Sunday. © Daily Telegraph, London.