Last Chances for Tour Glory

Today is the last day in the Pyrenees. A killer 200km stage with the climbs of the Aspin, the Tourmalet and the Aubisque, racking up 4,800M of climbing. In theory all Geraint Thomas has to do is sit on the wheel of Tom Dumoulin to seal victory – it’s virtually impossible to see anyone else bursting into the picture, and it’s equally unlikely that Dumoulin will be able to beat Thomas by the 2 minutes he trails by in tomorrow’s 31km time trial. So, the affable Welshman is all set to become GB’s 3rd TdF winner, finally able to receive the plaudits after nearly 3 weeks of media speculation as to whether it was him or Froome who was leading Sky, even though Thomas was leading the race.

Will Grellier hold onto Narrow Advantage?

The situation in the Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprints Competition is similarly poised. Fabien Grellier holds a 1 pt advantage over Direct Energie team-mate Sylvain Chavanel going into today’s stage – the halfway point will be somewhere up the slopes of the Tourmalet, so the break (possibly with the obligatory Direct Energie member) may still be clear. There will be no points for the T.T., so there will only be Sunday’s jaunt to Paris (with points awarded on one of the passages de ligne on the Champs Elysee). Direct Energie have all but settled the team competition – mathematically Fortuneo or Wanty could still win, but they will need to bag maximum points on both days to overhaul the leaders.

Crashes, Protesting Farmers and Tear-Gas – all in a day’s work for the Peloton

Tuesday’s stage which wound its way into the Pyrenees from Carcassonne was notable for the crashes of Philippe Gilbert and Adam Yates while leading, another stage win for the swashbuckling Julian Alaphilippe, a total stalemate amongst the GC hopes and the annual protest by French farmers, this year enlivened by the indiscriminate use of tear gas. Gilbert (who finished the stage with a cracked patella), Yates and Alaphilippe had all been part of a huge group that had built an unassailable lead and fought out the official (and Armchair) intermediate sprint at Saint-Girons, with Cofidis’s Christophe Laporte gaining his team’s 1st points since the Vendee, ahead of Edvald Boasson-Hagen and former yellow jersey wearer, Greg van Avermaet.

A Short, Sharp, Shock in the Pyrenees

Wednesday saw the “short, sharp shock” of the 65km mountain stage that culminated with the climb of the Col de Portet, Quintana’s long-range attack, Dan Martin’s gallant efforts to chase him down and the eventual eclipse of Chris Froome as Thomas made more gains. It also featured my moment of the race as Julian Alaphilippe, who was dropping back from the lead, passed a similarly toiling Adam Yates and patted him on the back – it had been Alaphilippe who had ridden past the sprawling Yates on the downhill run to Tuesday’s finish, and he had looked to slow up to see if his rival was going to get back onto his wheel. Alaphilippe had picked up a couple of “Armchair” points at the halfway mark, behind Team UAE’s Croatian Kristjan Durasek, and just ahead of Astana’s Estonian super-domestique Tanel Kangert, shortly before he struck out on a lone bid for glory.

Boudat Becomes 6th Direct Energie Rider to Collect Points

Yesterday was a day off for the GC men and a chance for the sprinters who had survived the mountains to go for glory in Pau – victory went to Arnaud Demare, recording only his 3rd win of the year, but as the previous wins were stages of the Tour de Suisse and the Paris-Nice, he clearly goes well on the big days (he’s also a winner of the Milan – San Remo). A group of 5 riders had gone clear early, maximising TV coverage for their sponsors and fighting out the Armchairtifosi points at the sleepy town of Aire-sur-Ardor before being swallowed up by the peloton.  Victory went to Wanty’s Guillaume van Keirsbulck (moving up to 4 pts) ahead of Thomas Boudat, a 6th individual points scorer from Direct Energie’s 8 man team, and Aussie veteran and former Paris-Roubaix hero Matt Heyman (Mitchelton-Scott) who kept fellow Monument winner Niki Terpstra out of the points.

A bad Weekend to go on Holiday

Dear readers, wherever you are, you will have to wait until next week before finding out the final winner of my competition as I am off to Amsterdam for the weekend and will have to record Sunday’s stage. This is the 2nd year running that I have gone on holiday for the last weekend of the Tour – last year I rented a villa in the south of France; when we arrived the owner was there, watching the Marseilles TT on TV – I should point out to Dave Brailsford that this friendly Frenchman did not feel the need to throw cups of urine at the screen whenever the cameras showed Chris Froome’s efforts.

All to Play For as the Pyrenees Beckon

So, no cycling today – just the ITV highlights programme as Ned and crew savour the rest-day delights of Carcassonne and the survivors get ready for the final week. Since the race left the Alps the GC men haven’t had much to do. Roglic clawed back a few seconds on the finishing ramp to Mende, and yesterday Dan Martin attempted to undo the damage done to his chances after a late puncture on Saturday, only to be recaptured by the Sky train. The rest of the week will be somewhat more animated. The next three days in the Pyrenees are crucial for Geraint Thomas to hold on to, or even extend, his not insubstantial lead, ahead of the time trial on Saturday where Tom Dumoulin can be expected to blast back into contention, if he hasn’t already. Not that Thomas is a bad time trialist. Then there’s Froome. Everything is still to play for.

The same could be said of the Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprints Competition – or, at least the individual rankings, as Direct Energie seem to have “done a Sagan” and settled the Teams competition with a week to go.

Points for De Gendt

On Friday stage 13 tumbled down from Bourg D’Oisans and rolled past the chateaux and vineyards of the Massif Central to finish at Valence in the Ardeche. With most of the top-drawer sprinters eliminated or abandoning in the Alps, Peter Sagan didn’t look unduly troubled as he swept past Demare and held off Kristoff and Degenkolb in a drag race to the line.  A bunch sprint had looked inevitable long before the peloton had reeled in the last survivor of the day’s 4 man break. Surprisingly that last survivor was Michael Schar (BMC) and not the man who had instigated the break hours before, Lotto Soudal’s Thomas De Gendt. It was equally surprising that it had taken 13 stages for De Gendt to get in a break as he has already collected stage wins in this year’s Tours of Romandie and Catalunya, spending more time alone than Greta Garbo. De Gendt won a Tour stage in 2016 but he will always be remembered for his epic solo win at the Passo dello Stelvio in the 2012 Giro d’Italia, when he took 3rd overall. Back then he looked like being that rare beast – a genuine Belgian Grand Tour contender – but he has since settled into the role of a freewheeling (forgive the pun) knight errant; even his name makes him sound like he belongs in the pages of Medieval history not the modern professional peloton (one day I’ll write a blog post, or a Ph.D. thesis, on the similarities between the Age of Chivalry and the code of the peloton. You have been warned). On the road to Valence the Belgian took his share  of KoM points, plus the official intermediate sprint, and he rolled across the Armchairtifosi line in the little town of Beauvoir-en-Royans ahead of Schar and E.F. Drapac’s Kiwi Tom Scully.

Direct Energie Save Energy?

On Saturday’s stage to Mende a group of 31 riders (the best placed of whom was 39 minutes behind Thomas) was allowed a huge lead – Direct Energie got 5 of their team into the escape but somehow managed to avoid scoring any points as Spanish National Champion Gorka Izaguirre (Bahrain Merida) led Jesper Stuyven (Trek Segafredo) and Tom Jelte Slagter (Dimension Data) over the imaginary line, halfway up the delightfully named 4th cat climb of the Col du Pont Sans Eau. Izaguirre added 3 more points to the solitary one picked up by his team-mate and brother Jon before the Alps – brought to the race with the aim of helping Vincenzo Nibali in the Mountains, their leader’s untimely departure has left them free to try for stage wins, and Jon came close on Sunday, when 2nd in the 3 up sprint to Magnus Cort Neilsen.

Grellier Deposes Chavanel at the Top of the Rankings

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New Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprints Leader Fabien Grellier (Direct Energie)

Sunday’s stage from Millau to Carcassonne was a fantastic advert for cycling – as far as the overall picture goes it was a complete irrelevance, as another big break of riders with no GC hopes  went clear, but it produced a brilliant race like a one-day classic, with lone breaks and counter-attacks  before Neilsen predictably outsprinted Izagirre and Bauke Mollema. The Armchairtifosi.com points were awarded with 50km to go, as the break began the ascent of the 1st Cat Pic de Nore, a climb which, incredibly, had never before featured in a TdF stage. The riders had just passed through the feed zone in the town of Mazamet, birthplace of 90s French legend Laurent Jalabert (after whom the climb to Mende on Saturday is named). It was all change on the leader board as Direct Energie’s Fabien Grellier got the 3 points to move ahead of team-mate Sylvain Chavanel. Grellier had gone clear with Trek’s Julien Bernard, son of another 90s French hero Jean-Francois Bernard, while another of Bahrain’s newly-underemployed climbers Domenico Pozzovivo led the rest of the break in 3rd place.  23 year old Grellier has spent the whole of his pro career at Direct Energie – his best placing so far was 2nd in the Fleche du Sud in 2015; like Geraint Thomas, he will have a nervous 3 days in his quest to hold on to a jersey and, also like Thomas, the most likely rider to wrest it from his back will be a team-mate.

ARMCHAIRTIFOSI.COM INTERMEDIATE SPRINTS COMPETITION – Standings after 15 stages

1st- FABIEN GRELLIER (FR)(Direct Energie) 7pts; 2nd-Sylvain Chavanel (FR)(Direct Energie) 6 pts; 3rd- Yoann Offredo(FR)(Wanty Groupe- Goubert) 5pts; 4th-Jerome Cousin(FR)(direct Energie) 4 pts

TEAMS  – DIRECT ENERGIE 21pts; 2nd-Fortuneo Samsic 12pts; 3rd-Wanty Groupe- Goubert 11pts

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