Stage 17: La Mure to Serre-Chevalier (183km)
Team Sunweb got their tactics spot on overnight as not only did Matthews take the stage win after his team essentially rode a TTT for most of the stage, but they also managed to distance Marcel Kittel on the first climb, thereby closing the gap in the Green jersey classification to just 29 points. Matthews now has the chance to close that gap even further over the next two stages in the Alps, leaving a fascinating battle ahead on the streets of Paris.
Elsewhere on the stage, crosswinds caused havoc within the peloton with Dan Martin & Louis Meintjes the big losers on the day and only the efforts of Belgian champion, Oliver Naesen, stopped Bardet from shipping time as he was initially distanced as the echelons were forming. Bardet was later quoted as saying “Naesen saved my life” – keeping him in the hunt for the Maillot Jaune.
The breakaway got away initially with Cummings, Kung & Benoot all present and The Wolf was hopeful but once Matthews went on the attack, Quick Step chose to chase it down and from there the break stood no chance. In hindsight, Quick Step destroyed themselves from within as most of the team had to wait with Kittel in a futile attempt to pace him back to the group, leaving Dan Martin utterly exposed in the peloton.
The race has reached the Alps and the next two days will be for the mountains goats in the peloton as the riders face the Croix de Fer, Telegraphe, Galibier, Vars & the Col d’Izoard across a brutal looking 360km of racing. These stage will offer the last chances to put time into the top GC contenders before the final TT on stage 20 and the likes of Bardet, Aru & Uran will all be looking to isolate and pressurise Chris Froome and his Sky team.
First up is Stage 17, the Queen stage some might argue and the stage in which the GC standings will get a mssive shake up. The question being, will Froome crack? With 4 categorised climbs, ending with the double-header of the Telegraphe & the Galibier, two of the most iconic climbs in France, the riders face a massive task of endurance and willpower. Given the state of the race, we should see the first attacks on the slopes of the Croix de Fer, a 24km climb at 5.2%, as Froome’s rivals know that they’ll need a decent time gap to take into the individual time trial on Stage 20. Once over the top, a 30km descent lies ahead before the riders face the daunting back-to-back challenge of the Telegraphe (12km at 7.1%) and then the iconic Galibier (17.7km at 6.9%).
The Wolf will be looking at AG2R to put the hammer down on the descent of the the Croix de Fer and is expecting Froome to be under pressure for the whole day. The defending champion has shown chinks in his armour in the Tour this year and pre-race, The Wolf predicted that we would see the end of his dominance in the race and tonight will show why. If Froome becomes isloated, he panics and this has been evident on both Monday morning and earlier on the steep sections of Stage 12. This is the stage in which Froome cracks and Bardet, Aru & Uran will be there to take full advantage. In fact, The Wolf can see Landa ignoring all team orders tomorrrow from Sky and riding away from his team leader on the final climbs of Telegraphe & Galibier.
With almost 60km of downhill racing, expect to see AG2R taking the race to Team Sky in what should be an epic battle amongst the GC riders….
Romain Bardet – $8.50
1985 – The last French winner of Le Grand Boucle in Bernard Hinault. The French public have yearned for another winner for over 30 years now and in Bardet, they have a man that is ready to take the mantle. Runner up last year and sitting just 23 seconds behind Froome right now he knows that he needs to put time into the defending champion over the next two days and the terrain is absolutely perfect for him to do so. Of the GC riders, he has been the most attacking and his form is clearly there to mount a challenge on yellow. His team will risk everything to put him in with a position to win and he’ll be targeting the Galibier climb and following descent to distance himself from his rivals. The Wolf can see him taking his second stage win of the race.
Mikel Landa – $15
If The Wolf is right and Froome cracks tonight, Landa will propel himself into a major GC contender. Rumours are circling that he doesn’t quite fit in at Team Sky and he’ll be signing with another team for next season. He has shown that he has the legs to keep pace with the best in the race and also has the ability to ‘go rogue’ and not listen to any team orders. If Froome shows weakness on any of the slopes then Landa will be primed to attack.
The Wolf is expecting to see a GC battle right to the finish line but there is still the chance that a breakaway might survive. It’s unlikely given the smal time gaps at the top of the standings but Wolfy will include a couple of breakaway picks at long odds to keep things interesting. Emanuel Buchmann ($126) is first up and the young German has been quiet so far in the race, sticking close with the GC boys. By nature he is an attacking rider and Bora might give him free reign here to go for the stage win either from a break or a late attack on the Galibier. Darwin Atapuma ($151) has strangely been invisible so far but maybe he’s just been waiting for this stage to go on the attack. He loves the steep ramps and last year finished 2nd on Stage 20 of the Giro on a similar looking parcours.