Early splits reveal hints of palace intrigue

RENNES, France (VN) — Is the first week of fast racing revealing fracture lines inside teams that brought multi-pronged attacks to the Tour de France?

There are some tantalizing hints, and Richie Porte (BMC Racing) asked as much Thursday when he said what’s on everyone’s mind, “It will be interesting with Sky to see if they back Thomas or ‘Froomey.’”

Several marquee teams brought more than one leader to cover their bases during this Tour de France, and everyone is watching closely for any telltale sign of discontent.

Already through the first week, the Tour is seeing lieutenants emerging as threats not only for the yellow jersey but to their own leaders.

Look no further than Team Sky. Geraint Thomas is just a few seconds off the yellow jersey and well ahead of Chris Froome at 1:02 back. At Movistar, Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Landa are more than one minute ahead of Nairo Quintana, 27th at 2:10 back. Even at BMC Racing, committed worker Tejay van Garderen suddenly finds himself ahead of designated leader Porte.

Could these differences set up a palace coup?

When asked if he considers Thomas an enemy within, Froome just shook his head and said, “No, no, that’s not how I am looking at it.”

Thomas was equally quick to shoot down the idea that he might go rogue.

“We’ll get through the cobbles and through the Alps, and we’ll see where I am and see how Froomey is, and we’ll go from there,” Thomas said. “A lot can happen between now and there.”

Sky gave Thomas full leader status as an insurance policy if Froome might not have been able to start due to his Salbutamol case (since closed) or if he might run out of gas following his Giro d’Italia victory in May.

Right now, Thomas is tantalizingly close to the maillot jaune — starting Friday’s stage in second at three seconds behind Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) — and the team is giving him enough leash to chase yellow. Thomas has picked up two intermediate time bonuses and is ready to pounce if Van Avermaet misses a beat.

“I think I’ve come into in the best condition I’ve ever been in,” Thomas said. “The team’s riding well, so I hope it continues like this.”

It’s still early days, but teams that brought more than one captain are seeing the race dynamics stirring things up right from the start. Of course, nothing goes to script in any Tour, and the uncertainty of a brutally hard first week is the reason why several teams brought a “Plan B” to this year’s race.

Among the teams that bring multiple cards to play, it’s Movistar that’s drawing the most attention. With the team’s unconventional approach of three leaders, the Spanish team seems most likely to split apart at the seams if there is not a clear leader by the Alps.

Nairo Quintana was forced to chase following an ill-timed flat on the opening stage of the 2018 Tour de France. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Some have even suggested that Movistar might be tempted to throw its collective weight behind Landa, who is already well-positioned ahead of Quintana. Speaking to reporters Thursday, Valverde said all three will remain protected until the Tour arrives at the mountains.

“We are sticking to our plan,” Valverde said. “Mikel just as Nairo will remain the leaders until we reach the mountains, then we can see where everyone stands. For me? My job is to make sure one of them wins.”

Just like everyone in the peloton, Movistar is waiting to see how who is left standing following the dangerous cobblestone stage Sunday to Roubaix.

There are a few other teams with internal dynamics that will be interesting to watch. Ag2r La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet has struggled early while rising French prospect Pierre Latour attacked yesterday to finish second at Mur de Bretagne when Bardet struggled with a mechanical. Though Latour is behind Bardet on GC, it will be noteworthy if he chases his own chances again.

On paper, LottoNL-Jumbo has two candidates with Steven Kruijswijk and Primoz Roglic. The team PR has been saying that their man is Kruijswijk and there’s no pressure on Roglic, but in Wednesday’s stage, LottoNL-Jumbo massed at the front when Roglic to pull him back when the bunch split into echelons under pressure from Quick-Step.

Of course, every team will work to keep its riders within the frame as long as possible.

The opening nine stages of the Tour are a trap for any GC rider. Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) saw his near-perfect start to the Tour unravel Thursday when his front wheel was taken out 5.5km from the finale. He lost time and was penalized 20 seconds, and dipped from seventh to 19th, now 1:23 back.

“Everyone comes into the Tour de France knowing during the first week there is a high possibility of having a crash, of having a mechanical, because everyone is on the limit and everyone’s nerves are fraught,” Froome said. “You just try to limit your losses.”

That’s certainly been true in the first week of this Tour and many of the pre-Tour favorites have been hit one way or another.
Dumoulin and Quintana both lost time with mechanicals while Porte, Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), and Froome have been caught up in crashes.

Danger lurks at every turn, so having more than one protected leader is more an insurance policy than an invitation for palace intrigue.

“This is a Tour of two parts,” said Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué at the start of the race. “The ‘real’ Tour begins in Annecy after we finish the cobblestones. That’s when we’ll know who can still fight to win this Tour.”

And that’s where the palace intrigues might begin in earnest. Right now, everyone is trying to maintain their options, and it’s far too early to know if there’s a traitor in the house.

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