The first day in big mountains is always a day of reckoning in the Tour de France. There is nowhere to hide when the a climb takes more than 30 minutes to ascend, and not even the riders themselves know how their legs will fare until they’re actually on the early ramps of these major mountain passes. You can be pretty much guaranteed that a yellow jersey contender will fall out of contention on the first big climbing day, and Stage 13 of the 2014 Tour de France was no exception.
Richie Porte didn’t come to the Tour this year with the idea that he’d be the leader for Team Sky. He was there to help Chris Froome win the yellow jersey, just as he’d done for Froome in 2013 and Brad Wiggins in 2012. When Froome crashed out in the first week, the mantle of team leader passed to Porte, who looked to step into the role quite well. Going into Stage 13 he was in second overall behind Vincenzo Nibali. Then, on the final climb to Chamrousse, he lost almost nine minutes in the span of 13 kilometers. He may rebound for a stage win later in the Tour, but his race for the final podium is over.
On the other end of the spectrum, Team BMC’s Tejay Van Garderen found the rhythm he has apparently been looking for and stormed up the final climb. He wasn’t able to hold the wheels of Nibali or Alejandro Valverde, but with Porte going backward he moved up into 5th overall at the end of the stage. More important, he seems to have recovered well from hitting the deck five times in the first week of racing.
As Van Garderen gets better, the minute he lost during Stage 7 might turn out to be very significant. In retrospect, maybe BMC should have had their two riders from the front group drop back on that day and wait for Van Garderen to minimize his losses. Had he made it back to the yellow jersey group on that day and nothing changed between then and now, he’d be in third place overall right now, less than a minute behind Valverde.
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Van Garderen’s scenario is a great example of why riders push to gain time at every opportunity. Nibali didn’t necessarily need to drop Valverde today. He’s already in the yellow jersey. He could have just followed wheels, but instead he attacked and padded his lead by another 50 seconds. That’s called insurance. Insurance against a flat tire, a crash, even a bonk that could leave him powerless in the final kilometers of a big summit finish.
The bigger your lead, the more conservative you can be. But to get to that point you have to take risks. It’s kind of like retirement planning. Your investment strategy in the early years is riskier because you’re pursuing big gains and you have time to change your strategy if you make a mistake. As you get older and closer to the finish line of your career, your investment strategy is less risky because you have more to lose and no time to correct your mistakes. Vincenzo Nibali attacked to win three stages so far of this year’s Tour de France, and he’s amassed a lead of nearly 4 minutes over his nearest challenger. He’s still in the risk-taking phase of his investment strategy, however. The lead he has is not big enough to be unassailable; he cannot afford to be conservative yet.
The challengers to Nibali’s yellow jersey appear to be working on the right strategy to potentially beat Nibali. Today both Katusha and Movistar drove the pace, and by the final 15 kilometers of the stage Nibali was isolated. Of course, that was partly because Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang – Nibali’s best teammate for the climbs – crashed on the descent before the final climb. Isolating Nibali and putting him under pressure is what the opposition needs to continue doing. It didn’t work today, and Nibali wisely used offense as the best defense by attacking. But in the long run, the way to defeat Nibali may be by wearing down his team and continually making him respond to attacks on his own.
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