Tour de France 2016 so far: Chris Froome shows new moves but race remains open

Cycling - Tour de France cycling race -Stage 9 from Vielha Val d'Aran, Spain to Andorre Arcalis, Andorra

Given that all Chris Froome’s stage wins in the Tour de France prior to this year had come either in uphill finishes or time trials, there were grounds for claiming that the double Tour de France winner was a cyclist with a relatively limited register based on sheer power on mountain tops and against the watch.

Chris Froome is not a machine

But Froome’s opportunistic move at the top of the Col de Peyresourde to take the stage win at Luchon and the yellow jersey showed that he is capable of far more than merely burning the opposition off his wheel when the road gets steep. The attack caught Nairo Quintana, Fabio Aru et al by surprise, and the Sky leader’s use of a slightly higher gear to help him gain time on the final descent was a clever bit of forward thinking. Given that the peloton knows to expect attacks from Froome when a stage finishes on a mountain top, being able to improvise in this way could prove valuable.

This is an open Tour so far

At the equivalent stage in his two successful Tours in 2013 and 2015, as the race left the Pyrenees Froome had opened a decisive gap and had a team-mate in close support – Geraint Thomas last year, Richie Porte in 2013. After four mountain stages, 10 men are within 61 seconds of Froome, while Fabio Aru and Porte are not out of the picture, at 1min 23sec and 2min 10sec respectively. Although some will take heart from the fact that Froome was unable to open decisive gaps uphill at Luchon and Arcalís, this does not mean that he or Sky are weaker than in previous years, merely that the race has not yet been tested to the point of rupture. The first mountain top finish that is steep enough for Froome to eliminate the opposition in his usual style does not come until Mont Ventoux on Thursday. If there are half a dozen within reach of him after that – spanning, say, two minutes – it could be game on in the Alps.

Mark Cavendish is not in decline

Prior to the start of this Tour, the statistics were not in Mark Cavendish’s favour: the Manxman had taken just two pure bunch sprints in three Tours. Marcel Kittel was back in form; André Greipel had enjoyed a dominant Tour in 2015, beating Cavendish consistently. Cavendish had announced four objectives for this year: a stage in the Tour and if possible the yellow jersey, a medal in Rio, and rainbow jerseys on the track and road. On the evidence of the Tour’s first eight days, he has not bitten off more than he can chew. As for why he has regained the form of his best years, his new team, Dimension Data, is new to the WorldTour, so there was more space for Cavendish to ride as he wanted and to bring in his own men around him. Add a return to track training, with the structure that brings, plus that indefinable factor for any sprinter: the release of stress after a major win which means that regained confidence leads to more victories.

There are openings for riders prepared to race

Top level professional cycling is highly structured, for various reasons – the use of earphones, the allocation of WorldTour points, the sheer importance of television time – which tends to discourage individual initiative. Steve Cummings’s second stage win in two Tours proves that there is still room in cycling for riders who don’t necessarily fit into the template that most teams try to impose on their racers, who can plan for themselves, and who can think and ride tactically. Cummings is a classic sporting case-study: an athlete lacking in confidence who struggled to find his niche, who eventually flourishes when one manager – in this case MTN-Qhubeka’s Brian Smith – gives him licence to be himself. The lesson of his success – five WorldTour wins in 12 months – is that if managers are prepared to break the mould and give individuals the space to do their own thing, that can pay rich dividends. It just takes courageous management with a willingness to think outside the box.

The new British generation is on the way

After a record-breaking first week on Tour for Great Britain – with five stage wins out of a possible eight – there may be more to come. The new sprint revelation Dan McLay and the best young rider at Luchon – Adam Yates – are part of a younger group of up and coming British cyclists, distinct from the likes of Mark Cavendish, Ian Stannard, Geraint Thomas, Peter Kennaugh, who can be said to have now reached maturity. McLay and Yates are not the only talented prospects; as well as the other Yates twin, Simon, the next generation includes Owain Doull, who will turn professional with Team Sky after Rio, and US-based Tao Geoghegan-Hart, or the Spanish-based climber Hugh Carthy. Unlike the previous batch of riders who form the core of Team Sky, this group has one thing in common: none has come through British Cycling’s under-23 academy.

Powered by article was written by William Fotheringham in Andorra, for The Guardian on Monday 11th July 2016 12.22 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010