They may have the defending champ and four-time winner, but even Team Sky had a Plan B.
Six days from Paris, team management probably didn't expect him to be going so well, because all things being equal, Geraint Thomas will end up winning the race, which, unless your name's Chris Froome, wouldn't be the end of the world for them. (Granted, with the Pyrenees looming and a bastard of a time trial, the current leaderboard is unlikely to be the final leaderboard.)
Out of the current top 10 on GC, only one has a team centred around a singular leader and a singular purpose.
Out of the teams oriented towards a high place on GC, EF Education First-Drapac, AG2R La Mondiale, Bahrain-Merida, Mitchelton-Scott, and the BMC Racing Team chose only to have a Plan A. At the start of the final week, only AG2R and Mitchelton-Scott still have their leaders in Romain Bardet and Adam Yates.
Rigoberto Uran (DNS Stage 12), Vincenzo Nibali (DNS Stage 13) and Richie Porte (DNF Stage 9) have left the building; since their departures, EF Education First-Drapac, Bahrain-Merida and BMC Racing have all looked rather rudderless. When a team loses their leader midway into the world's biggest bike race, amidst turmoil, stress and uncertainty, it's much harder having to construct a new plan than devise an alternative, or alternatives, beforehand.
Take BMC Racing post Porte's Stage 9 exit, for example.
As good a rider as Greg Van Avermaet is, his strategy henceforth has been, Go in as many moves as I can and see what happens, regardless of how he feels or whether the stage suits him. It's the equivalent of playing darts blindfolded. After Stage 14 to Mende, he admitted that, "In the end, I knew already that I didn't have the legs to go for the victory or a nice result. I have good legs but they are not so fresh anymore." Despite this, he didn't seem much interested in helping out team-mates Damiano Caruso and Stefan Küng, whose destinations for 2019 are as yet unknown. (Since the July 16 announcement that CCC will take over title sponsorship from BMC Racing, only Van Avermaet's name has been confirmed.)
What did he do the next day? He went in another long escape!
What happened? He finished nowhere, two-and-a-half minutes behind stage winner Magnus Cort of the Astana Pro Team.
"I think the final climb was just a little bit too hard again, and with the energy I have already spent this week, it was hard to keep up with the good guys," Van Avermaet said in Carcassonne, at the end of Stage 15. "I think I am in good shape but you also have to have a parcours that fits your style, and with the energy I have had to spend, maybe I missed something in the end to really go for the win."
With a team choosing a singularly focused approach, surely they prepared themselves - above all, their number one guy - for such a scenario?
The parcours was not the issue. Van Avermaet's palmarès tells you he can win on virtually any terrain. What's missing is the lucidity to save his legs for a particular occasion, and have the support mechanisms to prosecute said objective.
Similarly, EF Education First-Drapac put Daniel Martínez in the move on Stages 14 and 15, which, unsurprisingly, produced a near-identical outcome to BMC Racing.
Contrast this with the Astana Pro Team modus operandi: They came to the Tour with a GC leader in Jakob Fuglsang but also earmarked two stage-winning opportunities that wouldn't compromise Fuglsang's GC ambitions, and prepared as such. "Before the Tour we already focused on Stage 14 and 15, and to win them both is what we hoped for," revealed their sports director Lars Michaelsen in Carcassonne.
As things turned out, Astana took both scalps: Omar Fraile was victorious on the stage to Mende and the Danish duo of Cort and Michael Valgren worked in perfect harmony to allow the former to triumph in Carcassonne. "Everything was just perfect today and our sports director Lars Michaelsen had great confidence in me winning this stage," Cort said following his win. "Many days ago we already discussed this stage and he told me it could suit me really well."
While AG2R La Mondiale and Mitchelton-Scott still have their leaders, there's something amiss.
So far Romain Bardet, fifth overall at 3'21" to Thomas, hasn't looked like someone that's going to come close to taking the title - although the 27-year-old came good on Stage 12 to Alpe d'Huez, finishing in the front group of four after losing a minute the previous day at La Rosière. Made for les montagnes, I won't write him off completely but with the impending time trial his perennial Achilles Heel, he'll be very lucky to make his third TdF podium in as many years.
As for Adam Yates, underwhelming is the first word that comes to mind. To date, he's shown none of that spark that carried him to fourth overall and best young rider at the 2016 Tour; he lost his GC battle on Stage 11 to La Rosière and conceded almost half an hour to his compatriot Thomas. It has been reported he suffered heat stress in the Alps - "a mistake in hydration," the team called it. Okay, it has been a warm one, but then again this is France in July and with a team choosing a singularly focused approach, surely they prepared themselves - above all, their number one guy - for such a scenario?
They have until Sunday to salvage a stage win. Easier said than done...
Many times throughout the course of this year's coverage, Tour commentator and triple green jersey champion Robbie McEwen said he felt that Caleb Ewan - you know, the one Mitchelton-Scott left at home - would have won a stage, given his career trajectory and that established giants Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel were forced to make way for Fernando Gaviria, Dylan Groenewegen and Peter Sagan. In a blunt retort, sport director Matt White says he would've sent the same team if he had his time over again. Then again he would say that, since it was his largely his decision to keep Caleb at bay - which almost certainly will see him join Lotto-Soudal in 2019; a rumour strengthened on the back of confirmation that André Greipel, after eight years with his incumbent, will be leaving by season's end.
It's interesting that out of the current top 10 on GC, only one rider - Bardet - had a team centred around a singular leader and singular purpose.
All other GC-leaderboard squads have either multiple GC leaders - namely, Team Sky with Froome and Thomas, LottoNl-Jumbo with Primoz Roglic and Steven Kruijswijk, and Movistar with Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde - or multiple leaders with GC and stage- or jersey-winning objectives: Team Sunweb with Tom Dumoulin and Michael Matthews; LottoNl-Jumbo again with Roglic/Kruijswijk and Groenewegen; Astana Pro Team with Fuglsang and Fraile/Cort/Valgren; and UAE Team Emirates with Daniel Martin and Alexander Kristoff.
Teams may be down to eight riders each but with form, luck and circumstance playing significant roles in their fortunes, there is still room for GC-oriented teams to field either a co-leader, a sprinter, or a stage-hunting specialist, and to plan and prepare accordingly.