Chris Froome weathered a 20-second penalty for an illegal feed as he increased his overall lead in the 100th Tour de France after a drama-filled double ascent of the Alpe d’Huez.
As Christophe Riblon raced to victory to become France’s first stage winner this year, Froome showed his first signs of distress all Tour when he waved for help just after the post signalling five kilometres to go.
By then he had passed the final point at which riders may legally accept food from their teams, just a kilometre earlier. Team-mate Richie Porte dropped back to the team car to get an energy bar for the yellow jersey holder, but what looked to be an attempt to circumvent the rules and have the Tasmanian take the hit backfired as both riders were penalised.
Nevertheless, Froome still increased his lead over closest rival Alberto Contador to five minutes 11 seconds after finishing in seventh place, almost a minute ahead of the Spaniard. It was not all good news, though, as the dangerous Nairo Quintana, who was with Froome when he ran into difficulty, raced ahead to cut his own deficit to the yellow jersey to five minutes 32 seconds.
Froome went into the stage fearing the dangerous descent of the Col de Sarenne and the forecast thunderstorms, but the only rider to come to grief on the Sarenne was the eventual stage winner Riblon and the weather remained clear.
Instead, it was Froome’s sugar levels that would put him in trouble on the way back to the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez, 1,850 metres above sea level. “It’s not the first time in my career I’ve run out of sugar,” Froome said. “It’s a horrible feeling. I’m just happy to get through the stage and come out of it with more of an advantage than I went in with. If that was a bad day for me then I’ll definitely accept that.”
Froome seemed to admit they were trying to bend the rules by sending Porte back when he said “technically it was Richie who fed from the car and I fed from Richie, maybe that’s something that needs to be taken into account”, but by then the rulings had been made and it was clear the commissaires took a dim view of their chicanery.
Froome and Porte were both docked time and fined 200 Swiss francs (£140), while Sky’s directeur sportif Nicolas Portal was fined 1,000 Swiss francs (£700). “I really felt I needed those sugars at the end. If it comes with a 20-second penalty I have to accept that,” added Froome, who had been kept on his toes all day.
The Alpe d’Huez has been the scene of so many defining days on the Tour over the years, and crowds had massed in their hundreds of thousands around the famous 21 hairpins, the greatest natural amphitheatre in cycling.
The first ascent passed without major incident. Riders had feared the descent of Sarenne for the number of steep drops unguarded by safety barriers, but, out in front, Riblon could be grateful for a soft landing when he left the tarmac, slowing to a halt in a ditch before climbing back to the road. Behind, Contador attacked Froome but while he and Roman Kreuziger raced down the twisty road, they were unable to gain more than 20 seconds on Froome and eventually allowed themselves to be caught.
Tejay Van Garderen attacked off the front, moving 40 seconds clear, and Froome too would make a move on the peloton, kicking away with 11km to go, only Quintana initially able to stay with him. Contador began to drift back, never to recover, but Porte would catch his team-mate. Froome, though, was soon riding into a metaphorical wall when his sugar levels crashed.
Up ahead, Van Garderen had also run out of gas and Riblon reeled him in before bursting past the American. “I wanted him to know in his mind that he had no chance,” the 32-year-old said. “This is a huge thrill.”