During a first week of crashes, several misfortunes and a great deal of thrilling action, Chris Froome will enter the mountain stages of the 2015 Tour de France with a 12 second lead over BMC rider Tejay van Garderen after a team time trial on Sunday which tested the resolve of many of the riders over the last two kilometres.
The mountain action begins in the Pyrenees on Tuesday after a rest day on Monday, but Sunday’s team time trial through the undulating Brittany landscape became significant for the main contenders in the overall classification as they sought to maintain contact or even gain time on the current wearer of the yellow jersey, that being Team Sky’s Froome.
Sunday’s 28km team trial began in Vannes and featured two testing climbs before the final two kilometres ascent up the Cote de Cadoudal at Plumelec. As per the rules of this discipline, the time for the team is calculated when the fifth member crosses the finishing line and with an average gradient of 6%, that final climb reduced most teams to five of their maximum nine riders at the end of the stage. There were several pained expressions at the end of the gruelling 30+ minutes riding as the surviving fifth person tried to maintain contact with his fellow team members over those punishing final few hundred metres.
At the end of the day, pre-stage favourites BMC claimed victory by just a second from Team Sky with Nairo Quintana’s Movistar team a further four seconds adrift. The big losers of the day were Vincenzo Nibali’s Astana team which appeared to struggle on the final climb with last year’s winner now 2:39 behind Froome who holds a 12 second lead from Van Garderen prior to this week’s mountain stages. Nibali had lost 10 seconds to Froome at the end of the previous stage finish on the Mur de Bretagne and his hopes of retaining the Tour de France title will now depend on whether he possesses the form of last July when he launched repeated attacks as the gradients steepened.
With three summit finishes in the Pyrenees this week, the riders will appreciate the rest day but they will also be aware that just two minutes separate the top ten cyclists in the overall classification, although it is expected that the time gaps will be that much greater by the weekend.
It is also envisaged that after such a tough opening nine days of the Tour, there could already be some very tired legs among the peleton and stamina could be the deciding issue especially with the Alps tackled in the third week.
Chris Froome may be enjoying a slender lead at the moment and has displayed some aggressive form during the opening stages, but are the likes of Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana reserving their energy for these later stages when the southern French heat will also be a factor.