Gladiators

by John Eustice

Alaphillippe at the Tour de France

Finally, the big dogs are coming out to hunt: no more the little rabbits unleashed from their Sky-controlled cages as we’ve been seeing since July 19th and l’Alpe d’Huez. This stage, and the final, yet short, Time Trial are what remain of this Tour de France for anyone trying to make the final podium. Yes, the stage from Lourdes to Laruns on Friday is long and hard, but things should be settled by then. It’s today that the Tour is truly in play.  The three-hour effort (3h 45’ for the desperate sprinters trying to make the 25% time limit and the Champs-Elysées) with two of the hours uphill, will reward the racers capable of creating the enormous levels of wattage that such a condensed stage requires. What’s more, the riders who succeed today will be ones with the technical ability to ride uphill at very high speeds, no diesels and grinders need apply!

I love to examine the technical qualities and differences between racers, find that it adds an entire level of added enjoyment to watching our sport. With that, I’m going to make some analyses of various contenders, both for this most-anticipated stage win and of course the chase for the Yellow Jersey.

Dan Martin is everyone’s favorite scrappy Irishman. One can easily imagine him in a 1923 Welterweight bout at Madison Square Garden, covered in blood yet refusing to go down. His attack on the final climb before Carcassonne was criticized as being impetuous and undisciplined but I’ve a different take on it. I believe he was preparing for today by blowing open and expanding his system, taking himself to a higher level before what were in essence, two days of rest. Martin was amazing on that Pic de Nore climb, looking almost as though he was on rollers with a 100 rpm+ cadence flowing brilliantly from his high- forward position on the Colnago. Martin has the speed for a race like today’s, a second stage win would complete his Tour and make up for the disappointing luck that’s crushed his GC hopes.

The Movistar trio of Mikel Landa (6th @ 0:3:42), Nairo Quintana (8th @ 0:04:23) and Alejandro Valverde (11th @ 0:09:36) may, at this point, be satisfied with bringing home the Team competition. But, in the Tour de Suisse, both Quintana and Landa, on separate stages, put out the same sort of attacks that we saw Martin do on Sunday, again, as tests of their capabilities. Landa has been diminished since his crash, and Quintana seeming almost reluctant to show himself. The Colombian’s style is a bit grindy, I’ve never seen him really fly up a climb embodying, as he does, his country’s traditional deep endurance racing qualities. Does he, in fact, have speed? Today will tell.  Valverde, who blew things open with his long yet perhaps ill-advised attack in the Alps, certainly has the capabilities to explode the race and the team needs stage win – something! – to come out of this Tour. Watch him.

The invisible men, Primoz Roglic (4th @ 0:02:38) and Steven Kruijswijk (7th @ 0:03:57) of NLottoNL-Jumbo need to finally come out of the shadows and show themselves. The entire peloton seems to be afraid of the Slovenian as he lurks, shiv in hand, well within striking distance, ready to plunge it in. Both men have speed – Roglic was amazing on the climb to Mende – and are expertly guided by the staff of what is in fact the former Rabbobank organization. They’ve been waiting the entire Tour for this stage.

Romain Bardet (5th @ 0:03:21) was popped on l’Alpe d’Huez and only made it back up to the front when Froome, Thomas and Dumoulin started playing games with 400m to go. I’m not certain that he has the sheer power needed to make any sort of difference today being more of a traditional French endurance rider. He is well coached, however, and as we saw on the road to Roubaix he’s blessed with tremendous character. But his team, wallowing in 9th in the Teams classification, is not strong, so the young Auvergnais is pretty much on his own. Teammate Pierre LaTour could lend a hand… However, LaTour is leading the Young Rider Classification and will not be inclined toward any sacrifice at all of his own chances. That situation could make for an interesting dynamic to look for out on the roads today.

Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Tom Dumoulin are the show and today they fight to the death. Froome is the fastest climber in the world – when he hits those little gears and engages the egg-beater there’s no one who can stay with him. If and when he decides to attack, he has complete advantage over Thomas as the Welshman cannot accelerate like that. Froome can easily manipulate Thomas into a defensive posture by “jumping first” which will force Thomas into defense and onto Dumoulin’s wheel. Team orders and standard team tactics would make him to stay there and watch Froome, and his Yellow Jersey, sail away into the distance. His reaction to that moment is what we’ve all been waiting to see for two and a half weeks.  Both Dumoulin and Thomas are powerful, big gear climbers, unused to sudden fluctuations in speed. They’ll both ride today as a one and a half hour time trial simply get to the top of the col du Portet as fast as they possibly can in the hopes that it all works out. They have, in fact, two time trials on their agenda, today and Saturday. And as they are both expert in the discipline, with Dumoulin the current World Champion, their approaches can certainly succeed and provide a fascinating contrast to the speedier climbers.

Finally, we are in the third week. Both Froome and Dumoulin have a Giro in their legs. Team Sky, while imperial, has been on the front of this race for what seems forever. They are all human, even Froome, after all. There’s no place to hide on a day like today, no long valleys to gather teammates or make strategic alliances to save a race. The riders are all terrified, the pain will be the worst of the entire race and the sprinters and flatlanders will suffer as much as the top climbers just to stay in the Tour. It’s the stuff of gladiators and I hope all the fans at home have some compassion for what the peloton is about to endure.


John EusticeJohn Eustice, is the organizer of the Thompson Bucks County Classic in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and a long-time cycling analyst who has contributed to ESPN, ABC Sports, Time Magazine, and CNN among others. The Bucks County native resides in New York City. He was a pioneer on the European racing circuit and is a two-time United States Professional Champion.