Blazin' Saddles

Golden handshakes prove decisive in the mountains

Blazin' Saddles

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Alejandro Valverde rides through the mist in a downhill in a breakaway on stage 17 of the Tour de France (AFP)

The final mountain stage of this year's Tour de France was decided by two handshakes — one physical and one metaphorical.

The literal handshake occurred on the descent of the Cat.1 Col de Menté just over 100km from the finish. As a small breakaway made its way downhill two men off the back were deep in discussion; one of them, in Movistar colours and visibly balding beneath his helmet, clearly objected to the presence of the other, wearing the lime green of Liquigas.

After some heated words, the pair shook hands and the Liquigas rider slipped back to the chasing peloton, which was roaring along just 30 seconds behind. Almost instantly, the pack took its foot off the gas and allowed the break's lead to grow.

Who were they? Alejandro Valverde and Vincenzo Nibali. Three and a bit hours later, the Spaniard had won the stage and the Italian had failed to overturn his deficit to Team Sky's indomitable duo Brad Wiggins and Chris Froome.

Nibali had put in a trademark downhill attack after crossing the summit of the Col de Menté. Fine drizzle and mist made the road pretty treacherous — and Sky presumably thought that while Nibali's surge was dangerous, trying to follow him could be even more so.

The Shark quickly caught up with the Valverde group — who instantly treated the Italian to the same kind of disdain that Cadel Evans would give to a man with a bunch of carpet tacks in his pocket. Nibali's presence ensured the break was doomed to failure. "Get lost before I Chris Horner you into a ditch," was, presumably, the basic gist of the Valverde's message for the outcast.

Never before had a man been so unwanted since Brice Feillu walked into the Saur-Sojasun team bus on day one of the Tour looking like he had put on a pair of Ag2R-La Mondiale shorts.

Sealed by a handshake, Nibali singlehandedly (quite literally) gave the escapees a sporting chance to stay out by dropping back to the peloton. Soon the gap increased to three minutes — and Valverde went on to win the stage by 19 seconds.

While Valverde's win would not have happened had he not talked Nibali into backing down it would equally not have happened had two other riders in the peloton not shook hands on the Tour's defining alliance.

This brings Saddles onto the figurative handshake between Wiggins and Froome, which just about saved Valverde's bacon going into the final few kilometres on Thursday.

It's fair to say that had Froome been allowed to actually treat the Tour de France as if it were a race and not a training exercise then he would have quite easily caught and passed the Spaniard to take his second stage win of the race.

What we saw on the final major climb of the Tour up the Col de Peyresourde to Peygagudes was essentially the maillot jaune being paced up by a rider so clearly stronger than him in the mountains.

It was a piece of "Froome Service" extraordinaire — and an incident which, quite frankly, made Wiggins look like a complete charity case. It wouldn't surprise Saddles if he were to learn that Chris Froome's middle name was, er, Keirin, given the amount of pace setting he was going.

Time and time again, Froome looked over his shoulder, spotted he had pulled out too far ahead, checked his speed and waited for his team leader in yellow. It was embarrassing to watch.

Afterwards, Wiggo told reporters that, with third-placed Nibali distanced, "Chris said he wanted to go for the stage win and I said, 'Yeah... ah... phffft.' You know, I wasn't sure."

Froome himself denied he was ever thinking about the stage win, choosing instead to tow the party line. "We weren't here today to win the stage — our focus is the yellow jersey and we strengthened that. Everyone makes sacrifices," he said.

Froome's sacrifices come after a huge golden handshake from Sky after the 27-year-old signed a new three-year contract extension after finishing runner-up in the Vuelta last year. There's another handshake for you.

It may have made for difficult viewing to see a rider so flagrantly under-perform in a bid not to show up the man he's employed to support — but you have to praise Froome for his loyalty. You also have to give him a pat on the back for managing to convey so brilliantly those sacrifices without failing to fulfil his contractual obligations. He's clearly a very smart guy — but a guy who may never have a similar chance to win the Tour (and certainly as the first Briton to do so).

Wiggins had no option but to heap praises upon his right-hand man during the post-stage press conference, admitting it was better to have Froome as an ally than as an opponent. "He's been absolutely solid for me the whole Tour," said Wiggo. "He's just one less thing to worry about. If he was in an opposing team then you'd constantly have that battle all the time."

It's very easy to demonise Wiggins and extol the virtues of Froome after the past few weeks — perhaps too easy when you consider Wiggins is on the brink of becoming Britain's first Tour de France winner without having to put in a single attack (even his idol Miguel Indurain put in the odd dig in the mountains).

But let's get a few things straight. It's not as if Wiggins is a bad rider or that he doesn't merit his likely Tour win. He patently does. He has worked incredibly hard for this — plus remember, Team Sky has been moulded on him and for him. Without Wiggins, there would be no Froome, and so it's only natural that he is the team's number one rider — for now.

"For sure, one day he'll win the Tour — and I'll be there beside him to do it," Wiggins said of Froome. The question is: when?

Finally, to keep on the subject of handshakes, one rider Saddles would love to shake firmly by the hand is that man Thomas Voeckler, who secured the polka dot jersey after making it seven successive climbs over which he had passes in pole position.

"The polka dot jersey is a jersey which captures the spirit with which I like to race - with panache and on the attack. Last year I missed out on climbing the podium on the Champs Elysee because I finished fourth in the GC. With this jersey I will be able to do it - provided I get there. I think it will be a huge moment."

Once again, Voeckler lightened up another stage on the Tour de France which failed to deliver on the centre stage.

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