Team Sky keep a tight stranglehold, Astana meanwhile… well, Fabio Aru was a one-man-show for his first day in the yellow jersey on stage 13.
“I think Astana really had no control at all in that bike race,” said George Bennett in Foix. The New Zealander had been one of the 10 men who were able to ride with the yellow jersey for the opening 12 stages of the 2017 Tour.
He has been able to observe how different teams manage their resources and although he slipped out of the top 10 after losing contact with Aru’s group on the final climb, he regrets not seizing an opportunity earlier in the race.
“After 10km of climbing it was down to just Aru and people saw the opportunity and…"
In 2014, when Astana won the title with Vincenzo Nibali, there was a solid collective, riders capable of setting the tempo of the peloton day after day for almost three weeks.
In 2017, when Astana became the first team to inherit the yellow jersey from the might of Team Sky, is seems a little lost, incapable of finding the troops to support the leader.
Bennett drifted off the back of the elite selection that included the usual GC candidates: Fabio Aru (Astana) and Chris Froome (Sky) – of course – as well as Romain Bardet (AG2R), Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac), Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors), Simon Yates (Orica-Scott), Louis Meintjes (UAE Team Emirates).
Usually, there’s also Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), Mikel Landa (Sky) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in that pose, but on Friday – when there was a short stage and a trio of high passes on the itinerary – these three were on the attack.
The Kiwi says he found himself again and was about to ride back into the slipstream of the yellow jersey’s group but then Froome accelerated and that was the end of his time in the top 10.
He finished 22nd in stage 13, 4min 8sec behind the winner, Warren Barguil (Sunweb), and a little over two minutes behind Aru, Froome et al.
“When Froomey attacks at a million watts, there’s not much you can do about it,” said Bennett of that moment when the gap just grew too much for him to close. “You can have all the support in the world and it won’t matter.
“I was just coming back to that group actually – I was just off the yellow jersey’s group – when Froomey went and… pfff, man! It was just such a fast race.”
Throw in one or two short mountain stages and the action gets even more animated.
The 13th stage had a little bit of everything. An attack by a former champion, an impressive acquisition of climbing points by the King of the Mountains, team-mates of Froome joining the escape groups and, of course, a French win on the 14th of July.
What was also different is that there wasn’t a long line of Sky riders setting a furious pace at the front of the peloton.
So what was the vibe like? Did it impact how the race was ridden?
“Yeah, it’s definitely a harder race,” said Dan Martin. The Irishman moved up to sixth on GC; he even won nine seconds over Froome with his late bid to eke out whatever advantage he could. And he recognised the difference of race control in the Sky vs Astana approach.
“It’s a different ‘hard’ because it’s so tactically aggressive but all you have to do now is look at the GC and see how it’s going to go because I think that Landa is a bit closer to the other guys as well," he said. “It’s going to be different now, the other teams are not going to give him as much distance either.”
Louis Meintjes is another rider who could assess the change between Sky at the front and Astana having the yellow jersey.
“It was a little bit different,” said the South African who is ranked ninth overall. “A lot of the guys are really close to the same level. Everyone is strong enough to stay together but no one is really strong enough to ride away, so… yeah, that’s what it ended up being.”
Well, there were a few differences to the yellow jersey group in stage 13. Some were further up the road than what they’ve been allowed when Sky was in command. But few would argue that the race was more interesting when there was less control.