Chris Froome is back on top at the Tour de France after winning Saturday’s eighth stage to Bagnères-de-Luchon to also take the yellow jersey. Froome has won the first mountain stage in the two Tours he has previously won, but never like this, attacking not on the climb but on the descent.
On a brutally hard day, over four Pyrenean passes, Froome’s Sky team-mates set the tempo until, close to the top of the Col de Peyresourde, the final climb, he only had a couple left. They had put in a lot of effort for little reward, which might have been what prompted Froome to sprint for the line at the top and then keep going, descending in unconventional, ungainly, fashion to win by 13 seconds.
His first acceleration opened a small gap to the rider behind him, Nairo Quintana, who has twice finished second to Froome at the Tour and who is his most dangerous rival this year. Quintana might have thought Froome was sprinting for King of the Mountains points, as he also did at the summit of the penultimate climb, the Col de Val Louron-Azet.
At the same time, Quintana accepted a bottle of water from a team helper. It proved a critical lapse in attention. Froome opened a small gap, the chasers dithered, and he was gone, sitting on the top tube of his bike and pedalling in a style that was unattractive but effective.
“I felt like a kid again out there,” said Froome at the finish, “just trying to race my bike as fast as I could.”
He insisted it wasn’t planned, that he had seen an opportunity and seized it. But those familiar with Team Sky were not so sure – most of what they do is planned. Then again, Sir Dave Brailsford, the team principal, seemed as surprised as anyone at the finish, while at the same time admitting that descending is an area they have been studying, particularly with regard to critical pieces of equipment such as wheels and tyres.
But Froome’s great, audacious escapade involved a lot of skill, too. It meant the focus for once was not on his extraordinary physical capacity but instead on his bike handling and ability to descend so much quicker than the chasing group.
Froome’s latest success continued a remarkable opening week for British riders, who now wear three of the four jerseys, with Froome in yellow, Mark Cavendish in green and Adam Yates in the white jersey of best young rider.
It was also the fifth British stage win from the first eight, and the third in a row, after Cavendish on Thursday and Steve Cummings’ solo win on Friday.
There was another bit of British history in the finish town of Luchon, since it is where Robert Millar won the first of his three Tour de France stages in 1983 – he, too, descended the Col de Peyresourde alone to take the victory.
Yates, who suffered a nasty injury in a bizarre incident on Friday, was in line to take yellow before Froome’s attack. Yates had jumped clear towards the end of stage seven when the inflatable arch, signalling a kilometre to go, collapsed in front of him and he was flipped over the handlebars, landing on his face. He appeared at the stage start in Pau yesterday with stitches in his chin but put up a brave fight to try to take yellow, knowing the leader, Greg Van Avermaet, would struggle in the high mountains. In the end, his effort was good enough for him to move up to second, 16 seconds down on Froome.
Froome said his attack was not planned. “I thought, let’s give this one more go going over the top of the hill and see if I can get away on the descent,” he said. “I didn’t take a massive gap but I’m in yellow again and it’s an amazing feeling.”
There was admiration for Froome for his courage and panache, but also a small controversy when footage emerged showing him hitting a fan in the face as they climbed the Col de Peyresourde and a Colombian supporter in a yellow wig ran alongside him.
“I have nothing against the Colmbian fans, they’re fantastic,” Froome said when asked about the incident. “But this guy was running right next to my handlebars and he had a flag, so I lashed out, I pushed him away.
“It’s fantastic having so many fans out on the road,” he continued, “but I would urge them not to run with the riders. It gets really dangerous for the guys behind.”
There were repercussions for Froome: he was fined 200 Swiss francs by the race officials for “incorrect behaviour” for hitting the Colombian fan.