No time to take a breath, not much air to breathe: 2020 Tour de France, Stage 17
Do we have ourselves a podium? If we do, as it seems we may, its shaping came in a way that few could have predicted.
We weren’t actually wrong yesterday, when we said Jumbo Visma were predisposed to let the break go because it was in their interest to extinguish the bonus seconds, we just hadn’t reckoned that any other team might possess - or be foolhardy enough to roll out - the firepower necessary to keep it on a short leash.
And even if we had considered that possibility, there are plenty of riders we would have named as more likely candidates for the cannon fodder than those of Bahrain McLaren.
UAE would have been top of our list, for obvious reasons, even without Aru and Formolo; EF might have wanted to protect their podium - spoiler: EF Pro Cycling have in fact got five riders other than Neilson Powless and Rigoberto Uran in this race - with an “attack is the best form of defence” kind of maneuver; Astana are usually a good bet if you want a race to be suicidally spiced up. Remember their opening day attack down the ice rink-slash-descent that lasted precisely as long as it took for Tony Martin to give them a good telling off?
But no, it was the team vibrant in orange that took over at the front from the one in yellow. All day they seemed to be there, puffing and panting as the air grew thinner, setting the pace and not letting the escape… er…. escape. It was an impressive display that could only have meant Mikel Landa was feeling strong, had instructed them to support the move that he would inevitably make. Only when the moment was right, though. All we had to do was wait.
Or so we thought. As it turned out, when the last of Landa’s team-mates peeled away on the Col de la Loze the first responder was not Landa himself but… a rider from Jumbo Visma. Well, that was fun while it lasted, eh? A reminder that some things really are more exciting in anticipation than realisation.
On slopes as long and as steep and as high as those of Stage 17, it would surely take the lungs and legs of an actual Superman to launch a meaningful, race-changing attack.
We settled for the Colombian version, instead.
It ought not to have been a surprise.
Miguel Ángel López has, at no point in this Tour de France, appeared weak. The rider who wrapped himself around a signpost on Stage 1 looked strong, even, on the Grand Colombier. Perhaps it was his falling just a few seconds further back from Richie Porte on Sunday’s stage that caused us to underestimate his threat. Or it could have been his inconsequential 5th place overall at the Dauphine which, in retrospect, more closely resembles some combination of a deliberate attempt to not show his hand, and a careful management of fitness, to avoid peaking too soon. Did we also judge him too harshly for a 2019 that did not live up to the seasons which preceded it?
Yes, we absolutely should have known better. López has never finished a Grand Tour outside the top ten and has stood on the podium of two of them. What’s more, he was raised at an altitude and brought up riding roads a heck of a lot higher than the highest point of yesterday’s stage. It’s easy to say with hindsight, but if anyone was going to challenge the Slovenian supremacy, it was him.
So, to return to our original question: Do we have our podium? The answer surely lies in how deep into their reserves the respective riders dug yesterday. What does each have left? We’re about to find out...