Following today’s second rest day, the Tour de France resumes tomorrow with six stages remaining and one of the tightest battles for the overall that has been seen in years.
You have to go back to 2008 for the last time the General Classification was tighter than this with 15 stages raced.
Back then, Franck Shleck held the race lead, with eventual winner Carlos Sastre in sixth place, 49 seconds behind. Bernhard Kohl and Cadel Evans were respectively 7 and 8 seconds off the lead, with Denis Menchov fourth, 38 seconds behind Schleck, and Christian Vande Velde one second further back in fifth.
With three big mountain stages immediately after the second rest day and a 53-kilometre time trial on the penultimate day, the characteristics of the race were very different compared to this year.
The coming days see two stages in the Alps, on Wednesday and Thursday, the second of those featuring an unprecedented summit finish on the Izoard.
It’s not impossible that on one of those, we’ll see a ‘Hail Mary’ attack similar to Andy Schleck’s on the Galibier stage in 2011 that put him within 15 seconds of race leader Thomas Voeckler with three stages remaining.
He’d get into yellow on the following day’s final mountain stage to Alpe d’Huez, but it was Cadel Evans who took the race lead on the penultimate stage, a 42.5-kilometre individual time trial in and around Grenoble.
This year’s Stage 20 individual time trial is unusually short – 24 kilometres – but includes a climb to the Notre Dame de la Garde basilica above Marseille. If Chris Froome takes to the start line in the yellow jersey, barring mishap, a fourth overall victory should be his.
If he has getting on for a minute’s deficit to rivals, however, the biggest prize in cycling will be in the balance.
But with three riders within half a minute of him, two more within 1 minute 20 seconds, and Simon Yates 2 minutes 2 seconds behind, the fight for the podium positions – and the yellow jersey itself – is perhaps the most open in years.
Here’s a look at the prospects of the riders currently occupying the podium positions have been saying on today’s second rest day.
Race leader Chris Froome of Team Sky
Yesterday’s mechanical, at a time when AG2R-La Mondiale were on the attack, could not have come at a worse time for Froome and may well have been the decisive moment of this year’s race.
Fail to get across to the GC group and running out of team mates, the defending champion could have suffered a fatal blow to his hopes of a fourth title.
But get back he did, and in the end only Dan Martin of Quick Step Floors was able to take any time among the riders towards the top of the overall standings.
As he showed on the Ventoux last year and again on the way to Le Puy en Verlay yesterday, Froome has incredible reserves of determination when faced with adversity.
Indeed, team principal Sir Dave Brailsford excluded Cycling News reporter Barry Ryan in no uncertain terms that he was not welcome – “You’ve been writing shit about me” are his reported words.
The pressure is certainly on, and we’ve seen before that Froome can be vulnerable in the final week. Here's what Froome said:
I've got to focus on what I'm doing now and not worry about the other guys trying to take that jersey from me.
I had a mechanical issue on Saturday and I actually thought that was my race over, there and then.
But I had amazing support from my team-mates and Michal (Kwiatkowski) gave me a wheel. I got going and we're still in yellow.
Astana’s Fabio Aru, second on GC
Aru’s handicap is that he is the most easily isolated of the riders in the top three, given he has lost both Dario Cataldo and an in-form Jakob Fuglsang to injury.
But on Stage 5 to La Planche des Belles Filles, he proved capable of an attack that left his rivals in his wake to take the overall lead, and was back in yellow on Thursday as Froome cracked on the punishing final ramp to the finish at Peyragudes.
Froome had the jersey back following Saturday’s stage to Rodez, and retains an advantage of 18 seconds over the Italian champion, a past Vuelta a Espana winner.
When he won the Spanish Grand Tour in 2015, however, it was Aru’s consistency in the mountains compared to that of his rivals that saw him prevail – he didn’t win a single stage.
That’s a luxury he’s unlikely to have at this race, and you’d feel that only a long-range attack on one of the two mountain stages will see him on the top step of the podium come next Sunday.
This is going to be a very tough final week and so not everything is lost.
There aren’t just a few seconds difference now between me and Froome, but there aren’t so many either.
So the Tour is still wide open.
Romain Bardet of AG2R-La Mondiale, third overall
Winner at Peyragudes last Thursday, Bardet’s AG2R-La Mondiale outfit are arguably the best drilled left in the race, and a full complement of support riders could boost his hopes of becoming the first French winner of the race since Bernard Hinault in 1985.
What’s clear too, is that they’ve done their homework – easier in their case than for many other teams since this year’s stages in the Jura mountains and the Alps are pretty much in their backyard, and yesterday’s one in the Auvergne was on Bardet’s home roads.
If he’s to win the overall though, Bardet is going to need a cushion over Froome ahead of that time trial next Saturday – and with two stages left to gain time, we’d expect him to try and get over the Galibier first on Wednesday then go all out on the descent.
The Tour de France is about patience, this ability not to give up. We must take the opportunities even if there is little chance that it will work. If we don’t try it ... we need to remain calm and continue to try to impose our race at key moments.
I’m not thinking at all about the time trial, I’m think of the upcoming mountain stages. I’m really focus on stages in the Alps, I'll run them as two classics. There is no calculation to be made.
This is my best start of the Tour de France to date, so everything is possible. The important thing is that I feel I am making progress from year to year. I feel stronger than last year but that does not mean I will be on the highest step in Paris, or even second.
For many, Rigoberto Uran – a strong climber and time triallist, and fourth overall, just 29 seconds from Froome – could be the person to break into the podium.
Add in the pair around a minute and a quarter off the lead, Dan Martin of Quick Step Floors and Team Sky’s Mikel Landa, who seems set to head to pastures new next season and may therefore be tempted to take any opportunity that comes his way, and we could be heading into a dramatic final week.
And let’s not forget Orica-Scott’s Simon Yates, currently in the best young rider’s white jersey his team mate and twin brother won last year – he’s 2 minutes 2 seconds from Froome, and will have an eye on the podium himself.
Bring it on.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.