It was billed as the Tour de France to end all Tours but as soon as Chris Froome took the yellow jersey following his daredevil descent into Bagnéres-de-Luchon on stage eight, the race as a spectacle followed a similarly downward spiral.
Alberto Contador was looking for one last Tour victory before he rides into the sunset, Nairo Quintana’s quest for revenge from three years ago was a thrilling subplot, while French favourite Romain Bardet looked ripe to end his country’s 31-year wait for a winner.
There was Irishman Dan Martin seeking to emulate his uncle Stephen Roche’s landmark victory 29 years ago and there were the likes of young pretenders Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) and former teammate Richie Porte (BMC) all waiting for their chance to shine.
Then the waiting game began for them and us — for Team Sky to show some tiny deficiency, a weak link in their armour, some hint or sign that there existed an area which could be exposed.
We suggested Froome was vulnerable in the crosswinds. There were mutterings he’d struggle on the descents. There were talks of coalitions being formed to draw him out from behind his army of domestiques.
And then we waited some more before we watched that devastating and nerveless display of descending on stage eight. The way he dropped off the Col du Peyrsourde en route to stage victory in Luchon with one of the finest exhibitions of riding.
He managed to take a miserly 13 seconds lead; the message he sent out was of far greater consequence. Each and every challenger would need to find a Plan B.
Four days later, on what should have been a routine stage across the south-west of the country from Carcassone to Montpellier, Froome flexed his muscle again.
A sprint finish had been expected but howling crosswinds battered the peloton and when world champion Peter Sagan attacked out of the pack with 12km left, Froome immediately latched onto his wheel.
Sagan had a teammate and so did Froome and in one of the most beautiful coalitions in the race, they worked like Trojans all the way to the line.
Froome didn’t care about the stage, he had eyes on the bigger prize.
Together, the quartet pulled more than 20 seconds clear and with bonus seconds applied, Froome led the general classification by 28 seconds.
With the gap widening, the questions began to grow too.
Again, it wasn’t much (time) but who was doing the ambushing and who was forming what they call ‘coalitions of the willing’? The man in yellow.
He could descend and he could ride the crosswinds, but few knew anything about his running ability until a day later on a stage that will live long in Tour memory.
After crashing into the back of a motorbike and breaking his bike, Froome was forced to run up the savagely steep Mont Ventoux to the finish.
He could have panicked because those closest to him on GC were riding into the distance and could have taken the jersey. Instead, he picked himself up and started jogging, calling into his radio for a replacement bike.
Froome lost 1:21 when the first results flashed on screen which saw him drop to sixth in the overall standings but he was reinstated an hour later.
It was another blow to his rivals — and the followers of the race who just yearned for something, anything to change the flow of it. We were onto Plan D. Desperation.
That’s pretty much how it’s been since then; stage after stage, Froome constricting his rivals one after another.
Fans called for attacks, the French media used the word ‘Ataque!’ more than once in their daily coverage but the truth is, nobody could.
In contrast, not once did we hear those closest to him overall publicly say they would try and attack him, because they couldn’t.
Of those who tried hardest, Dan Martin risked losing his brilliant ninth overall but conceded on Saturday: “In the end I couldn’t do any more than hang on, it was not attacking on Friday or Saturday, it was just conserving my place.”
For sure, it was a forgettable three weeks, with Team Sky effectively doing a nine-man team time-trial at a tempo nobody could match.
Oleg Tinkov, outgoing Russian team owner of Tinkoff, summed it up best when he said: “I’m waiting for the end of the Froome-age to get back in the peloton. I’ll come back one day to win the Tour but it will not happen as long as Chris Froome is there.”
And the sad thing is he’s just 31…
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