CHRIS Froome and his Team Sky squad lost the stage nine team time trial of the Tour de France by less than a second in Brittany yesterday but he could afford to be sanguine about that. As the Tour heads south for the Pyrenees, it would be difficult to imagine the British rider in a stronger position: Froome is in the yellow jersey of overall leader with his three main rivals all more than a minute in arrears.
It was the American BMC team that narrowly won the 28km stage, which finished with a cruel climb that saw several riders hanging on for grim death. In the team time trial, the time is taken on the fifth rider across the line, so finishing with five riders packed closely together is the goal.
But this deep into the race, and with so many riders suffering with injuries sustained in the numerous crashes, it was a struggle for some. Sky lost their sixth man, Wout Poels, at the foot of the climb and Nicholas Roche battled to remain in contact as Geraint Thomas hit the front and strung them out. Froome realised the danger and eased off to allow the Irishman to remain in contact. It certainly cost them the stage.
“It was very fast, we were really up for winning it,” said Roche afterwards. “[Geraint] really, really put the hammer down at the bottom of the climb and moreover on the flat a bit. He put me out of the comfort zone and he was able to accelerate again with 500 to go and that was a bit too much.
“Personally, it’s quite difficult for me. This was a massive opportunity for me for a stage win. Over the last few Tours I’ve been riding as a domestique and winning a [team time trial] is something very particular, something you work at. There’s no luck, it’s all about sticking together and being there. It’s something that I really dreamed of so it’s a bit of a tough one.
“But looking at the bigger picture Froomey is in top shape, we kept the jersey, we’re in contention, and we’re really ready to be in the mountains now.”
Froome was also more concerned with the bigger picture. “We really can’t be too disappointed with that, within a second of BMC,” he said. “For everyone’s morale it would’ve been fantastic to have been able to get the stage win today [but] more importantly we’ve kept the yellow jersey, we’ve put time into most of our rivals. We’ve got to be happy with that.”
It is the rider who is up to second overall, Tejay Van Garderen, who might be of most concern to Froome. The American has been steadily progressing over the last few years and ran him close in the Criterium du Dauphine on the eve of the Tour. Yet with all the talk of the ‘Big Four’ – Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador – Van Garderen barely merited a mention in the build-up.
Now, stealthily, he has risen to second overall having ridden flawlessly for the first nine stages. “It’s an incredible feeling,” said Van Garderen. “So far the team in this first week has been incredible. We’ve passed every test with flying colours. It’s given me a lot of morale going into the mountains. It’s given the team a lot of morale. Everything’s clicking.”
He admitted to being annoyed by the attention on the Big Four – or the “Fab Four” as he called them – when asked whether he now deserves to be considered a favourite. “We’ll see. Those guys have that tag, the Fab Four, which is getting a little irritating hearing that. I’m not offended. All those guys have won Grand Tours. I’m yet to finish on the podium or win one. If I’m not spoken about as much as those guys, I understand. That doesn’t mean I’m intimidated by them. The press can say what they want, but that doesn’t make a difference to the race on the road.”
Froome is certainly not discounting him. “Tejay, I’ve said from the beginning of the race, is definitely someone to look out for, given that also in the Dauphine he was right up there in the climbs.” The others have been fading: Contador is fifth, over a minute back, while Quintana has conceded almost two minutes and Nibali over two. “The pressure’s definitely on them to be attacking once we go into the mountains,” said Froome.
The riders went by air from Plumelec to Pau, the gateway to the Pyrenees, yesterday evening, while the rest of the Tour’s entourage of vehicles and people embarked on the 685km journey by road. Monday is a rest day and for those nursing injuries, illness or just plain old fatigue, it can’t come soon enough. Froome, however, seems to be looking ahead to the Pyrenees, with the Alps to come in the final week, with relish.