CYCLING: Chris Froome's last-minute attack on the flat in the finale to yesterday's stage of the Tour de France will not win the Briton his third yellow jersey in Paris, but in psychologically intimidating his rivals before the toughest mountain stages its effect could well be considerable.
Froome and Sky's formula for winning the Tours in 2013 and 2015 was predictable - and very effective. His strategy has been attack on the first big mountain climb, gain a stack of time on the rivals and then hang on to that advantage through the remaining big Pyrenean and alpine stages as best he can.
Up to now it has worked brilliantly. But this year the Tour's hardest mountain stages are all in the third week. The Olympic Games - where Froome also wants to shine - come immediately afterwards and one of his most daunting rivals, Nairo Quintana, plans to be at his strongest in the third week, too.
Froome's aim is therefore to hit top form in the last part of the Tour. In the first two weeks of the Tour and yesterday's flat run into Montpellier, Froome has been looking to win tactical battles, not a war. His late attack gained only six seconds' advantage on the bunch, plus a six-second time bonus behind winner Peter Sagan, but it was the kind of lightning blow that would rattle even the most formidable of opponents and mentally wear them down.
What makes matters worse for his rivals is that Froome has already successfully sprung one such surprise attack in this year's Tour, on the downhill towards Bagneres-de-Luchon, netting him the yellow jersey. With their nerves already on edge, when Froome bolted after Sagan on yesterday it must have been even more demoralising.
It had been a long time since a multiple Tour winner attacked on a pancake-flat stage - in 1991 when Greg LeMond, a three-time champion, attacked in the first stage in Lyon to take nearly two minutes on arch-rival Miguel Indurain.
Stage winner and current world champion Sagan, who was barely a year old when LeMond made that attack, could therefore barely believe his eyes when he saw he had Froome for company in a late break, and all this in a finale supposedly designed for sprinters.
"Crazy stage, crazy stage," the Slovak said repeatedly. "Unbelievable. Nice for me because I win, but also not boring. A crazy day."
Froome called it bike racing at its best, "taking the race on, on flat stages like this".
"I'm not being forced into this because of pressure or nervousness - I just went to see what could happen," he said.
But behind the spontaneity of the attack itself was also a plan, Sky team manager Sir Dave Brailsford argued, for Froome and the team generally to race more unpredictably - to keep their rivals on their toes, gain time and, last but not least, to make their racing more enjoyable. Froome said of his downhill attack on Saturday, for example, he "felt like a kid again".
Brailsford added: "We've thought this through over the winter. We wanted to play the surprise factor more, to be a bit more aggressive. If you don't try, you don't win."
How much Froome's efforts will affect his performance in tonight's stage-12 finish on the Mont Ventoux, widely held to be France's toughest single climb, is the big question mark over Sky's radical change in tactics.
The Ventoux has been curtailed from its usual 16km to 10km because of gale-force winds that would render the ascent to the summit too risky. But Froome warned that if the weather was that rough beforehand, "then it could split apart. It'll still be a very intense race."
After yesterday's surprise performance, how Froome will tackle the Ventoux, though, is anyone's guess - and that is probably intentional.
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