Sunday 25 February 2018

'Tour de France is never over until you cross the line in Paris'

Chris Froome was in the wars again during yesterday's stage in the tour Photo: Reuters
Chris Froome was in the wars again during yesterday's stage in the tour Photo: Reuters

Nicolas Roche

Although Chris Froome has held yellow on this Tour since early last week, I fully expected him to face a bigger challenge to hold onto his overall lead when the race hit the mountains again this week.

While it's made things a hell of a lot easier for the team to control things in this last week, the fact that last year's runner-up Nairo Quintana hasn't looked anywhere near his old self and that most of the other pre-race favourites have fallen by the wayside a little has made the race less exciting for everybody watching.

Although I'm not riding the Tour this year and have spent the last few days at a self-imposed pre-Olympic altitude training camp in Livigno, from what I've seen so far on TV my teammates haven't looked to be in real trouble at any stage of the race.

The tactic of not using our Dutch climber Wout Poels to ride on the front of the peloton in the first week or so has obviously paid off and he has been exceptional at getting Froomey to the line without losing time on the past couple of mountain stages.

Even though Froomey won Thursday's mountain time trial and went into yesterday's stage with a comforting cushion of 3'52" over nearest rival Bauke Mollema, yesterday proved that the Tour is never over until you cross the finish line in Paris.

Punctures, mechanicals and crashes are all part and parcel of the sport and as plenty of riders found out yesterday, even with just two days to go, you can't count your chickens before they're hatched. One or the other at the wrong moment can still ruin three weeks of hard work.

Froomey - even though a wet white line on the road saw his front wheel slide out from under him and cause him to hit the deck with about 12km to go, was one of the luckier ones on yesterday's stage. Having slid through the bend on his back and shoulder he will obviously be sore today but he was quickly handed a bike by Geraint Thomas and was able to make his way back to the front by the finish and lost no time.

Mollema though wasn't so fortunate.

On his way to a podium spot at the Tour, a career best result for the Dutchman, he had a disaster of a day yesterday, crashing on the final descent and finding himself unable to regain contact with the group of overall contenders he'd been in on the way to the summit finish, losing four minutes and tumbling down the overall classification from second to tenth.

Adam Yates of Orica BikeExchange has had a great ride so far but the young English rider also lost his podium spot on the final climb yesterday with both Quintana and young French stage winner Romain Bardet leapfrogging him in the classification.

For me it was lovely to see Bardet win yesterday as he began his professional career as a teammate of mine at Ag2r a few years ago.

A really nice guy, Romain is a good friend of mine now and a stage win at the Tour last year and some solid performances since have seen him earn the mantle of France's new Tour hope.

As well as taking another stage win yesterday he now moves up to second overall and is really giving the home crowd something to cheer about at this Tour.

For us Irish, it's been great to see my cousin Dan Martin attacking this Tour in the last few days. He's shown that he's not afraid to have a go on the climbs and the fact that he has been closely marked over the last week, even though is a few minutes down shows how serious a threat the big names feel Dan is in the mountains.

Although he dropped down the standings to 10th after Thursday's mountain time trial, he put in another aggressive ride yesterday to finish seventh on the stage and is now up to ninth overall. Hopefully he can recover in time for one more push in the mountains on today's last big day and hold onto that top ten place in Paris tomorrow.

While most people see Dan battling with the big names at the front of the race, another Irish rider has been battling his heart out since day one... well day two to be exact.

Sam Bennett went into this Tour de France with a real chance of emulating his home-town hero Sean Kelly and winning one of the sprint stages but a crash in the last few hundred metres of stage one saw those dreams slowly fade away.

Despite needing surgery on a hand wound that night and then finding out he had a broken finger midway through the Tour, Sam has battled on. He's currently last man overall, over four hours behind race leader Froomey, but Sam has spent a week or so on antibiotics.

He's ridden every single one of the Tour's biggest climbs without being able to get out of the saddle. He's descended in the rain using just two fingers to brake and in the middle of all that he managed to finish 12th on the only sprint stage he contested, despite admitting to feeling nervous back among the 60kph elbows and nudges.

Today will be another tough day for Sam Bennett, but tomorrow could be a different story.

Hopefully then he will get another chance to sprint on the Champs-Élysées.

Irish Independent

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