For first time in years, a Chris Froome win isn't a foregone Tour conclusion
TOULOUSE, France -- Just when the 2017 Tour de France looked to be stuck in a never-ending replay loop, someone hit the reset button.
In a bicycle race that traces thousands of miles of roadway, only 300 yards of steep mountain tarmac converted three-time champion Chris Froome from the rider everyone feared into the rider everyone attacked.
For the first time since Team Sky won its first yellow jersey in 2012, there is a sense that the Tour de France is up for grabs.
"No excuses, I just didn't have the legs on the final kick," Froome said. "It's certainly going to be a big fight now from here to Paris."
Cycling is an odd sport. Ego, posturing and bravado only go so far. What counts is how fast a rider can move up the mountain. There is no hiding. For three Tour victories in four years, Froome never faltered. Unexpectedly at the spiky end of the six-climb marathon across the Pyrénées, Froome cracked.
"I looked back and did a quick calculation, the yellow jersey would be mine," said Italian Fabio Aru, who took time bonuses to snatch yellow. "I didn't expect to see Froome so far back."
Froome's slender 18-second lead to Aru on Thursday morning turned into six-second deficit to Aru by evening. No big deal, right? Wrong.
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Here's why it matters: En route to his three previous Tour victories, Froome never ceded the yellow jersey to a legitimate GC threat. He lost the yellow jersey to time trial specialist Tony Martin for two days in 2015, but never to anyone of the stature of Aru, a winner of the Vuelta a España and twice on the podium at the Giro d'Italia.
Cycling is as much physical as it is psychological. When a rival looks untouchable, the race is on for second place. When a rival is struggling, you turn the screw. The Tour de France is a cruel, and that is why it is so beautiful.
French star Romain Bardet, second overall last year to Froome, won Thursday's stage in a finish-line flourish that charmed the locals. Many believe that the erudite climber can become the first Frenchman to win the Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985. His victory Thursday only bolstered his self-confidence.
"Now I am ready to fight for the yellow jersey," said Bardet, now third at 25 seconds back. "We have never been closer. Why not try?"
Thursday's upending finale was just the spark that this Tour needed, and Friday's stage made the GC chase that much closer.
Instead of bemoaning Team Sky's dominance - the UK-registered team has won four of the past five yellow jerseys - everyone is suddenly interested in the race. One Twitter cynic cycling fan even chimed in, "I might even watch Friday's stage."
Here's what happened Thursday in a nutshell: Team Sky crushed it like they always do. Chris Froome didn't. Instead of polishing off his rivals on the final climb, Froome was on the receiving end of a beating. Of a nine-man GC group that came into the finale, six finished ahead of Froome. That has never happened since Froome emerged as Tour King in 2013.
Everyone inside the Team Sky bus was quick to try to tamp down the flames. They might be right. This Tour remains stacked in Froome's favor. His team is still strong. The team sent Froome's Spanish teammate, Mikel Landa. racing ahead on a fast Friday Stage 13. At the end of the day, Froome and Landa were in the top five.
There is also the penultimate time trial stage where Froome should reel back minutes on Aru and Bardet. And it's not as if Froome bonked Thursday and lost three minutes.
"When you lose the yellow jersey, it's not nice, but it's only seconds," said Sky sport director Nicolas Portal. "It's not the end of the world. There is still a lot of Tour ahead of us."
By Thursday, many were quick to call it the end of the Froome Era. That is wrong. Despite this hiccup, Froome will very likely win another yellow jersey. But for the first time in five years, that outcome isn't predicated by the notion that all Froome has to do is still upright.
The parade is over. The race is on.