LE PUY-EN-VELAY, France — The race is the star this year. The 2017 Tour de France is roaming vaguely counterclockwise like a child’s coiled Slinky toy propelled by its own physics, with standings that contract, stretch out and then contract again on alternate days. The top riders are having at each other like a pack of neighborhood boys vying for alpha status.
It is a gift for everyone who thought the biggest bike race in the world had been reduced to dry tactical algorithms.
Monday is the Tour’s second rest day, which is a good thing not only for the peloton but also for spectators blue in the face from holding their collective breath. Seven men from six different teams and countries are within two minutes of one another. Defending champion Chris Froome has been dancing on the precipice. French rider Romain Bardet has a legitimate shot to win something more than a moral victory. Dan Martin has positioned himself for a run at breaking a 30-year podium drought for Ireland.
Under normal circumstances, Thursday’s lone remaining summit finish on the Col d’Izoard would sort things out enough to make the hierarchy obvious before Saturday’s individual time trial in Marseille. But obvious has not been the hallmark of this Tour.
Rather than being content to preserve the status quo Sunday in a Stage 15 set up for a breakaway, Bardet’s French AG2R La Mondiale team pressured the leaders’ group with an aggressive tempo up the second-to-last climb of the day — the Category 1 Col de Peyra Taillade, which had never before been featured on the Tour route.
AG2R manager Vincent Lavenu said the plan laid out on the team bus Sunday morning was executed “to the letter,” and that the team would continue to attack. “We have to exploit the possibilities in the Alps,” he told a small group of reporters after the massive media scrum that converged on Bardet, a native of nearby Brioude, had cleared.
Lavenu and director Julien Jurdie spoke of the day before Izoard — a stage that finishes on the descent of the Col du Galibier and includes that classic climb and the long, grinding Col de la Croix de Fer before it — as a package deal in terms of the team’s hopes to slingshot Bardet to Paris in first place.
The peloton has been emboldened by Froome’s vulnerable patches, by the unfortunate early exit of BMC leader Richie Porte and by a course that has encouraged teams to attack with paper cuts in between the few moments suited to knockout punches.
“I mean, these guys are taking nips out of each other on every single downhill,” said Cannondale-Drapac manager Jonathan Vaughters, whose Colombian team leader Rigoberto Uran is tucked into fourth place, 29 seconds out of the lead. “I understand why it’s happening. I don’t love it, because it’s high-risk racing, but they’re beating on each other on every downhill.”
Sunday’s lumpy 117-mile excursion through the Massif Central left only one contender clearly off the back: another Colombian, Nairo Quintana, who seemed to have reinserted himself in the podium conversation 24 hours earlier, only to backslide again.
Quintana now sits more than six minutes behind Froome, who for the second time in the race was forced to stop by a mechanical issue at a most inopportune moment just after AG2R launched its broadside on the Col de Peyra Taillade.
Teammate Mikel Landa, the current sixth-place rider who could provide Team Sky with tactical insurance in the coming days, was the last helper to escort Froome back to his rivals. Froome retained his 18-second lead over Italy’s Fabio Aru.
Martin’s odds looked dim after getting tangled in Porte’s frightening crash seven days before. They continued to brighten Sunday when he attacked near the finish for the second time in three stages. The Quick Step rider gained 14 seconds on Froome, another incremental step toward a possible podium finish that would be the only one for Ireland besides that of his uncle Stephen Roche, who won the 1987 Tour.
Froome’s dominant silhouette of the previous two Tours was eroded by Aru’s attack that cracked him in the Pyrenees and temporarily cost him the yellow jersey. But he has not allowed the mechanicals to unravel him, and lest anyone forget, the Kenyan-born British rider kept his head after losing his bike in a moto mishap on Mont Ventoux last year and covered part of the last kilometer on foot.
If Froome has a lead, however small, going into Saturday’s individual time trial in Marseille, his would-be giant killers will probably fall short. It won’t be for lack of effort.