LE PUY-EN-VELAY, France — The race is the star this year. The 2017 Tour de France is roaming vaguely counterclockwise like a child’s coiled Slinky toy propelled by its own physics, with standings that contract, stretch out and then contract again on alternate days. The top riders are having at each other like a pack of neighborhood boys vying for alpha status.
It is a gift for everyone who thought the biggest bike race in the world had been reduced to dry tactical algorithms.
Monday is the Tour’s second rest day, which is a good thing not only for the peloton but also for spectators blue in the face from holding their collective breath. Seven men from six different teams and countries are within two minutes of one another. Defending champion Chris Froome has been dancing on the precipice. French rider Romain Bardet has a legitimate shot to win something more than a moral victory. Dan Martin has positioned himself for a run at breaking a 30-year podium drought for Ireland.
Under normal circumstances, Thursday’s lone remaining summit finish on the Col d’Izoard would sort things out enough to make the hierarchy obvious before Saturday’s individual time trial in Marseille. But obvious has not been the hallmark of this Tour.
Rather than being content to preserve the status quo Sunday in a Stage 15 set up for a breakaway, Bardet’s French AG2R La Mondiale team pressured the leaders’ group with an aggressive tempo up the second-to-last climb of the day — the Category 1 Col de Peyra Taillade, which had never before been featured on the Tour route.
AG2R manager Vincent Lavenu said the plan laid out on the team bus Sunday morning was executed “to the letter,” and that the team would continue to attack. “We have to exploit the possibilities in the Alps,” he told a small group of reporters after the massive media scrum that converged on Bardet, a native of nearby Brioude, had cleared.
Lavenu and director Julien Jurdie spoke of the day before Izoard — a stage that finishes on…