Chris Froome is braced for the battle for the yellow jersey to heat up as the Tour de France enters its final week.
Since Froome moved into the race lead on stage eight there have been surprisingly few attacks from his rivals, leaving the Team Sky man still one minute 47 seconds ahead of Trek-Segafredo’s Bauke Mollema with 16 stages gone.
But after yesterday’s rest day the riders face four gruelling stages in the Alps and everything could yet change.
“I feel as if I’ve been waiting for these four days,” Froome said. “Perhaps some other riders have too.”
The second week of the Tour was notable for the failure, or inability, of Froome’s rivals to make a dent in his advantage. Froome put that down to how hard the racing has been as the riders have tackled plenty of climbing in the early days while flat days were made stressful by howling crosswinds.
“I think that one of the main reasons we’ve not seen massive attacks is the level of fatigue,” he said. “At the moment everyone is nailed. The first two weeks have been full gas.”
Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, seen as the main threat to Froome but still two minutes 59 seconds down in fourth place, is yet to show his cards but the Colombian has usually been strongest in the final week of Grand Tours.
“Last year he made up a lot of time in the final week, and I expect he’s going to be one of the main guys who is going to put us under pressure these next few days,” Froome said of Quintana.
“We’ve always seen him have a good third week and I don’t expect that to be any different.”
This year, however, Froome is hoping his own conditioning is better after he changed his preparations for the Tour with the final week in mind. “I feel more ready for the third week than I have been previously,” Froome said. “Starting the season later helped and I had a quieter run-in to the Tour. I said at the beginning of the race I wanted to be at my best in the third week and I think I’m on track for that.”
Team Sky brought a climbing-orientated squad to the Tour with the third week in mind, and are hoping that will now pay dividends. “We’re confident for sure, but not over-confident” said Froome’s team-mate Geraint Thomas. “We’re not getting carried away. The big difference is having that extra climber here. In the past we’ve never had five guys who can stay there in the end on their day.”
Where Froome’s previous two Tour wins were marked by big successes on summit finishes, he has built his advantage this year with a surprising downhill attack on stage eight to Bagneres-de-Luchon, an opportunistic move in the crosswinds on stage 11 to Montpellier, and a big advantage gained on the stage 13 time trial to La Caverne du Pont d’Arc.
He tried to pick up time gaps on the weather-shortened stage 12 to Mont Ventoux, only to suffer a bizarre crash in the chaotic scenes on the mountain and being reduced to running uphill on foot until help could get through.
Froome did not rule out attacking again, but with the lead already his the primary focus will be defensive.
“If I’m going to attack I need a good reason,” Froome said. “I’m not going to attack for the sake of it. We need to think about all the efforts we are making. At the back of everybody’s mind is that the next four days are so hard.”
Meanwhile, Steve Cummings has been rewarded for his stunning victory on stage seven of the Tour with a late call-up to the Great Britain squad for the Rio Olympics.
The 35-year-old, who blazed to a memorable win in the Pyrenees, will replace Peter Kennaugh, who stepped down after struggling for form since recovering from injury.
Cummings, who won team pursuit silver in Athens in 2004, will be one of five British men in the road race, along with Froome, Thomas, Ian Stannard and Adam Yates.
Cummings had reacted angrily to being left out of the initial squad in June, accusing British Cycling endurance coach Rod Ellingworth of a “conflict of interest” due to also holding a role at Team Sky.