• What if Sky had played their cards with a different strategy in mind? (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Totally isolated from his teammates on the first climb of the day, Fuglsang gone, the race and potentially the yellow jersey disappearing up the road - things couldn't have been much worse for Fabio Aru at the start of Stage 13. He finished the day in yellow, how he did so is perplexing.
By
Jamie Finch-Penninger

15 Jul 2017 - 8:01 AM 

Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) and Mikel Landa (Team Sky) attacked together on the first climb of the day, the Col de Latrape, in what would become the main move of the day. Landa's deficit to yellow at the start of the day was two minutes and 55 seconds, Contador's was above seven minutes. 

Next, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) attacks. Again, he's over four minutes down, potentially a threat but when you have three other guys within a minute of your lead they are going to take precedence for Aru to think about when defending his jersey. Importantly, Michael Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) covers the move.

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Aru at this point is completely isolated, his team scattered to the winds, Dauphine winner Jakob Fuglsang off the back of the race and soon to abandon. So, other teams take up the chase, lesser teams like Lotto NL-Jumbo, UAE Team Emirates, AG2R La Mondiale and Cannondale-Drapac all spent plenty of time driving the yellow jersey group.

That is a fairly commonplace occurrence in the Tour de France. There's simply too much to lose for each team in the battle for the podium positions and they can't afford to let riders like Landa, Contador and Quintana leapfrog their leaders.

Unquestionably, the most dangerous man up the road was Landa, a man who has finished third overall in the Giro d'Italia in the past and has looked strong so far in the mountains so far in this year's Tour. He also has the distinction of winning arguably the hardest stage of any Grand Tour in modern memory, Stage 11 of the 2015 Vuelta a Espana, which took in a sadistic route around Andorra. Clearly he's got pedigree, perhaps the clearest example of this is that he sits second only to Froome in Sky's ridiculously talented team. Landa was poised to become a valuable second prong in Sky's tilt to win yellow...or maybe not.

The race got too hard for almost all of the domestiques when the main bunch hit the bottom of the final climb, the Mur de Perguere. Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) went to the front, ramped up the pace and the race was down to just the top contenders. That is where things got a bit strange.

Kwiatkowski dropped back from his position at the front of the race, seemingly not in difficulty and about to bridge to the front pair of Landa and Contador along with Quintana and eventual stage-winner Warren Barguil (Team Sunweb). If he had done so and then worked with the group to extend their lead, it would have been Landa in yellow in Foix. Kwiatkowski has been one of the strongest riders in the race to date and he had an armchair ride up to Landa's group. Put him as part of the working group of riders and the advantage would have increased. Instead his job was to decrease Landa's lead.

He went back to the Froome group, where three-time Tour de France champion was doing some attacking. Maybe the thought was for Froome to get clear and have Kwiatkowski help him consolidate his advantage. That may have been a sound strategy, except that's really not what transpired. In effect, Kwiatkowski was the man that did the most work on the front of the group, saving Aru from shouldering a burden that really should have been his.

Aru was clearly unwilling to go to the front and pull hard turns as he knew that if he did, the others would simply sit on him and then attack when they sensed weakness, so instead he focused on shutting down attacks. That saw a stop-start approach to the chase and a gap that had shrunk to a minute and a half for the leaders, including Landa, was ballooning rapidly back out to two minutes.

Attacks continued, with Uran getting away briefly and getting chased down by Kwiatkowski. Martin went away, followed and joined by Simon Yates, again Kwiatkowski was the one working to chase them down, but they stayed away to the finish and the eventual gap to Landa's group was just under two minutes. The question remains, why did Sky do the chasing?

Yates and Martin were far enough down not to worry about and if the aim of the game is to win the race, surely you should be forcing Aru to work and then attacking him? Or if he refuses, simply sit back and let Landa ride into yellow.

It seems clear that Sky weren't a fan of putting Landa in the Maillot  Jaune. If they were allocating your resources in a way that gave them the best chance of getting the yellow jersey, Kwiatkowski would have been up the front of the race trying to put Landa in yellow rather than chasing him down. Froome would have sat on Aru and said if you want to keep yellow, you'll have to work for it. Then he could attack Aru, maybe even form a brief alliance with a rider like Bardet, Uran or Martin, rather than trying to chase them down.

So, why don't Team Sky want Landa in yellow? It is possible that Sky are afraid of Quintana? Despite his earlier weakness during this edition of the Tour, he did a very good job to hunt down Landa and he has terrorised Froome in the final weeks of past Tours de France. In addition, he's a lot better time-triallist than Landa, he may even make up the over a minute deficit that he had to the Spaniard on Stage 20 in Marseille. It seems unlikely however, given his poor showings in recent stages, where he just hasn't been able to go with key accelerations with the big hitters.

What is more likely is that Team Sky is all about Froome. Nicholas Portal, sports director for Team Sky, was seen remonstrating with Landa after the Stage 12 finish, where Landa left Froome in the final metres to ride to the line. In practice, there was little that Landa could have done to help, the climb was simply too steep for any aerodynamic advantage to be had from pacing his team leader. But Landa still got a dressing down and then on the very next stage, the team chose not to put him in yellow when it was well within their power.

This may be one of those moments we look back on at the end of a race and wonder 'what if'. Rumours abound about where Mikel Landa will find himself riding in 2018. Judging on Stage 13, a sensible choice would be well away from Team Sky.

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