Chris Froome of Team Sky leads the Tour de France by a somewhat comfortable 3.37 over Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, who as I type is looking likely to add to his misery after an ill-timed flat tire on stage 13. After last year's experience with Team Sky towing Bradley Wiggins to an easy victory, one in which Froome was never challenged by anything more threatening than his teammate's wife's twitter account, fans of the Tour can be forgiven for worrying if we have another dull one on our hands. Mind you, the Tour is never dull, if you follow the myriad sub-plots, but the yellow jersey is king, and we prefer if it's king of the action, too.
Last Sunday, something funny happened on the way to another Sky-controlled Tour: Team Garmin-Sharp came out firing on a mountain stage in the Pyrenees which ended in a long descent, and which didn't seem to invite much action. Garmin hammered the pack right away up the Col du Portet-d'Aspet, and within a short distance Sky had paid the price for its dominance of the previous day, its riders dropping one by one from the front group, leaving Froome to fend for himself all day. Sky's #2 rider, Richie Porte, who was placed second overall after an excellent ride on stage 8, blew a gasket and dropped 15 minutes. Vasil Kiryienka missed the time cut. Peter Kennaugh crashed.
Lucky for Froome, though he spent the day nervously in the company of Team Movistar, Belkin and Garmin riders (plus the other favorites), he did manage to stay there. His rivals had the chance to attack him and cause Froome to do all of his own chasing work, but they neglected the capitalize, thanks to a 30km downhill to the finish and a strong headwind which made attacking extra-difficult. An opportunity lost, perhaps, but a message sent as well.
The question now is whether the others can isolate Froome again. On the one hand, Sky will be ready next time for some early shenangans, but ultimately it comes down to whether they have the legs to keep more than Froome up front. If they fail again, there's one thing you can count on: plenty of attacks. Stage 9 may have been unsuited to attacking, but stages 15, 18, 19 and 20 will be quite ideal for attacking, with uphill finishes and long alpine climbs where any split could mean big gaps.
Thankfully, for those of us not simply rooting for Sky, Froome's rivals come in pairs. Team Movistar have Valverde (2nd) and Colombian Nairo Quintana (8th), the latter being everyone's pick to do something huge on the massive uphills to come. Belkin are next, with Bauke Mollema (3rd) and Laurens ten Dam (6th), plus Robert Gesink, often their grand tour leader, sitting further back (32nd) but available to help in the climbs. Saxo-Tinkoff have former double-winner Alberto Contador looking unimpressive but nonetheless sitting fourth, and his teammate Roman Kreuziger 5th. Garmin-Sharp have Sunday's stage winner Dan Martin and young Andrew Talansky further back, but ready to make trouble.
The dilemma facing Froome now is whether he alone can control two riders from any one team, who can take turns launching attacks and force Froome to chase them both. Worse, with Froome leading and with the experience of 2012, it's likely all of those teams will be "united" in the view that they need to break Froome for anything good to happen. So in reality, it's not one rider Froome has to control, or two, but really all of the top ten. By himself? We shall see, but if that comes about, he's going to have a difficult task. If that happens, Froome will either be the strongest guy on the day and turn the tables on his rivals by setting a pace that they can't follow, or he will see his lead threatened.
Three and a half minutes ain't much, by the way. Not on a stage like the Alpe d'Huez double rep madness coming next Friday. Not on a place like Mont Ventoux, on the menu for this weekend. A rider on a bad day can lose a dozen minutes in a hurry. Nothing makes Froome immune to such threats. Stay tuned ... we're just getting started.