Thomas Leads, Froome Follows

It’s been all change at Le Tour. Last week it was the flatlands of the Vendée and the cobbles of Roubaix. This week it’s been the drama of 3 stages in the Alps which sees Britain’s Geraint Thomas in a clear lead, ahead of ostensible team leader Chris Froome. Will it be the same story when the race reaches Paris on 29th July? Who will be left to challenge the Team Sky duo, now that Nibali has joined Porte on the sidelines, Uran has had to quit the race and Quintana has lost too much time to be a credible challenger? Even Bardet and Dumoulin look to be playing for places.

Dutch Duo Serve Up Spectacular Appetiser in La Course

The Alpine dramas were preceded by a truly epic race for La Course, the women’s race, this year run as a 1-day event over much of the same route as the men’s race from Annecy to Le-Grand Bornand and featuring the last 2  category 1 climbs. The selection was made on the concluding Col de la Colombière and it was Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen who took a 10 second lead over the top, ahead of her compatriot and recent Giro Donna winner Annamiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott). The gap changed little on the long descent and Van der Breggen looked sure to hold on in the uphill run to the line, but she faltered in the closing metres, allowing van Vleuten one last chance to use her time-trialing skills to reel her in for a famous victory. The pair were 1-22 clear of 3rd-placed Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio.

The 4th Musketeer?

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Julian Alaphilippe wins at Le Grand Bornand, his 1st stage victory in Le Tour

The men’s race was won in emphatic style by Julian Alaphilippe (Quick Step Floors) who went clear with over 30kms to go, claiming his first Tour stage victory (to add to his win in this April’s Flèche Wallonne) and securing a lead in the King of the Mountains jersey which he will take to the Pyrenees. Alaphilippe looks like a Musketeer, especially if you imagine him wearing a floppy felt hat with a big white feather instead of a casquette, something which D’Artagnan would have no doubt tossed aside with a Gallic shrug of disdain. With his active, attacking style he rides like a Musketeer too, or how I imagine a Musketeer would have ridden if the bicycle had been invented 200 years earlier. He had been one of the first riders to get into a break which eventually swelled to 21 and included none other than the wearer of the maillot jaune, Greg van Avermaet. The Belgian’s determination to go down fighting before the bigger climbs even extended to him taking 1st place in the Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprint, which was decided on the gravel road that crossed the Plateau de Gilères, at the point where events of 1944 were being re-enacted in period costume (though this presumably did not include the Nazis’ slaughter of Resistance fighters). Van Avermaet led over the imaginary line, just ahead of Tony Gallopin (Ag2R) and Jon Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida)

Fortuneo’s Fortunes Improve

Shortly after the “Sprint” Direct Energie’s Rein Taaramae came to the front in a badly- judged tactical blunder, that, if it had been better-timed, would have seen him become the 6th member of his team to score points in the competition. After dominating proceedings in the 1st week, Direct Energie have since failed to score a single point and it was fellow Pro-Continental “Wild Card” team Fortuneo-Samsic who clawed back some of their deficit to Direct Energie and Wanty Groupe-Goubert on stage 11.

This was yet another frustrating example of the prestigious Armchairtifosi.com competition being subject to the vagaries of live TV. I had designated the sprint point to be halfway up the Col du Pre (half-distance of the stage) but, at that moment, the cameras had switched back to the peloton where Valverde was launching an attack. When they went back to the break the 3 riders from Fortuneo were massed at the front, à la Team Sky, with Elie Gesbert leading Amael Moinard and Warren Barguil – the commentators wrongly assumed it had something to do with protecting Barguil in his bid for KoM points, but we know differently; Fortuneo moved up to 2nd in the team standings for my competition.

So to today’s dramatic stage to Alpe d’Huez which saw the likeable Geraint Thomas, who always manages to give the impression of being a bloke who just enjoys being out on his bike, extend his overall lead in gutsy style. He became the first-ever rider to win at the Alpe in yellow and he deserves the chance to become GB’s 3rd individual TdF winner, a prospect which would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago. With Wiggins’s win in  2012, and Froome’s 4-timer, it is only Vincenzo Nibali (2014) who has broken the recent  British domination of the race, so it was particularly galling to see him crash out after a collision with a police motorbike in the last 4km. How he was able to chase back to within 20s of Froome, Thomas et al, when he was later diagnosed to have suffered a cracked vertebra is, frankly, mind-boggling, especially when considered alongside the play-acting antics of the footballers at the World Cup.

Rolland Takes the Points at Les Lacets

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Les Lacets de Montvernier –  can you look at this picture and not imagine riding up it?

The Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprint on stage 12 honoured the inclusion of the spectacular Lacets de Montvernier, the stunningly scenic 3.4km climb that threads its way up a mountain in the middle of nowhere and looks like a theme-park ride. It was Pierre Rolland (EF Drapac-Cannondale), former lieutenant to Tommy Voeckler at Europcar (now Direct Energie) and one-time next-great-hope of French cycling, who led the way. He was clear of Alaphilippe, one of the current hopes (with Bardet and the side-lined Pinot) who have been saddled with that title, and all that goes with it as France struggles to find the next winner of its own great race; Les Bleus have lifted the World Cup twice since Bernard Hinault’s 5th and final Tour win in 1985.

ARMCHAIRTIFOSI.COM INTERMEDIATE SPRINTS STANDINGS AFTER STAGE 12

1st-SYLVAIN CHAVANEL(FR)(Direct Energie) 6 pts; 2nd-Yoann Offredo(FR)(WAnty Groupe-Goubert) 5pts;  eq.3rd- Jerome Cousin(FR) and Fabien Grellier(FR) (both Direct Energie) 4 pts; 7 riders equal 5th on 3 pts

TEAMS – DIRECT ENERGIE 18pts; 2nd-Fortuneo Samsic 12pts; 3rd- Wanty Groupe- Goubert 11 pts; 4th-Quick Step Floors 5 pts

Kruijswijk gets close at Alpe d’Huez…but not close enough

Today’s dramatic stage that finished atop Alpe d’Huez saw a fantastic win for Britain’s Geraint Thomas, the first rider to win this stage in the maillot jaune. He extended his overall lead and left the question as to who is really leading Team Sky unanswered. It may not be answered until after next week’s stages in the Pyrenees and the time trial.

The iconic climb to the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez, with its 21 hairpin bends, was first included in the Tour in 1952, when the stage was won by the legendary Fausto Coppi. The fastest (possibly chemically-enhanced) ascent of the climb was by Marco Pantani, who clocked 37m 35s in 1997.

 

 

Think of Coppi and Pantani and you think of Bianchi – the oldest bike brand in the world and, with their distinctive celeste frames, perhaps the most easily recognisable. Today Bianchi supply bikes to the Dutch-based Lotto N.L.-Jumbo team who scored two stage wins last week thanks to their sprint sensation Dylan van Groenewegen. He was forced to abandon the race after sustaining injuries in Sunday’s stage over the cobbles to Roubaix, his badly broken Bianchi a sorry sight to anyone with aesthetic sensibilities.

For much of today’s stage, it looked as if there would be another rider winning on the Italian brand, as Lotto’s team leader, Steven Kruisjwijk struck out from the original breakaway group with fully 60km to go. He took a 6 minute lead onto the Alpe – Kruijswijk is a proper climber, whose prowess in the mountains saw him leading the2016 Giro d’Italia until the final weekend, and for more than half the 15km climb it looked like it would be not only enough for him to win the stage, but also take the overall lead from Thomas. It was not to be. Kruijswijk began to tire as Bernal led Thomas and Froome back after attacks by Bardet and Quintana, and he was caught with just over 3 km to go. An honourable defeat and at least he had the honour of leading through “Dutch Corner”, the bend near the church where the Dutch fans congregate (rumours are that some of them arrive and start on the Heineken in April) to noisily greet their heroes, though it has been 29 years since  a Dutch rider won at the Alpe.