Scott Mercier: Catching up on the Tour as it enters the homestretch
The peloton’s effort to unseat Team Sky and Chris Froome’s dominance looks unlikely to materialize for the 105th edition of the Tour de France. However, Froome’s chance to join five-time winners Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx and Miguel Indurain faces an unexpected challenge from within Team Sky itself. The Welshman, Geraint Thomas, Sky’s Plan B in case Froome was unable to start, has won two consecutive stages as of Thursday on the famed Alpe d’Huez to take a lead of nearly two minutes on Froome. Thomas is the lone general classification rider who has yet to lose time due to a crash or mechanical failure.
The opening stages of the Tour lived up to the hype and offered some exciting racing. A late crash on Stage 1 saw time gaps among many of the favorites with Froome, Richie Porte and Nairo Quintana caught out and losing time. The cobbles of Stage 9 did not produce the fireworks and time gaps many expected, but Aspen local Tejay van Garderen saw his chances of a high placing evaporate with a crash and three flats that cost him over five minutes. Tejay’s race has turned into a nightmare with his team captain, Porte, crashing out with a broken collar bone on Stage 9. Tejay has managed to get into breakaways on two of the alpine stages, but his legs have failed him as the roads kicked up and he has lost significant time each day and is now completely out of contention.
Most of the sprinters have been eliminated, as well, with Fernando Gaviria, Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish, Michael Mathews and Andre Greipel all out of the race. Peter Sagan is all but assured of a record-tying sixth green jersey.
Tom Dumoulin is the last remaining threat to Team Sky. Dumoulin is riding surprisingly well after his second-place finish in the Giro d’Italia. Were it not for an untimely flat that cost him nearly a minute on Stage 6, Tom would be within striking distance of the yellow jersey. He has shown that he does not fear the strength and depth of Team Sky and has attacked multiple times in the past few days. He is clearly riding for the win. He is also the reigning time trial world champion. The lone individual time trial in this year’s Tour is a 31-kilometer effort on the penultimate stage. If he can manage to claw back a few seconds before then, things could get interesting.
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Vincenzo Nibali, who was in fourth place, left the race Thursday after running into a motorcycle that had stopped right in front of him. A crazy fan had a smoke machine and the riders could not see through the smoke. Nibali remounted his bike and chased nearly back to the leaders with a broken back. However, it is too dangerous for him to continue.
Froome, however, is still the man to beat. He won the Giro d’Italia in May with an audacious 50-mile solo attack in the mountains. His rivals were unable to put him away early in the race and he got stronger and more confident with each day. His teammate Thomas may currently have the yellow jersey and nearly two minutes in hand, but Thomas will not chase Froome if he goes on the attack. A win for Froome would cement his place as the greatest Grand Tour rider in the history of cycling, while Thomas, who is riding his ninth Tour, must surely be hoping that the matches Froome burnt to win the Giro cause him to fade during the last week. He has always been relegated to a support role and leading the Tour is new for him.
A final shoutout must go to Lawson Craddock, the tough Texan riding for the EF Education First team. On Stage 1, he crashed and bloodied his face and broke his shoulder. Yet he refused to quit and is still in the race. He gives new meaning to passion, humility and grit. Let’s hope he not only survives to Paris but can find the legs to get into a breakaway or two.
Scott Mercier represented Team USA at the 1992 Olympic Games and had a five-year professional career with Saturn Cycling and The U.S. Postal Services teams. He currently works as a financial advisor in Aspen and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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