Chris Froome went from firestarter to firefighter on a dramatic stage nine of the 100th Tour de France as Dan Martin became the first Irish stage winner since his uncle Stephen Roche in 1992.
Twenty-four hours after Froome lit up the Tour with a dazzling ride to Ax 3 Domaines, he had to put in an equally brilliant ride yesterday as he fought a lone battle to defend the yellow jersey, with the famed Sky train having come off the rails even before the summit of the first of five categorised climbs.
Froome got out of the saddle at least half a dozen times to cover attacks off the front, playing a fascinating game of cat and mouse as Movistar’s Nairo Quintana kicked out four times in the space of two kilometres on the final climb, the category one Hourquette d’Ancizan.
As that squabble went on, the Birmingham-born Martin moved clear along with Jakob Fuglsang to take the long descent to Bagneres-de-Bigorre alone, with the Garmin-Sharp man winning in a short sprint to the line. Froome followed 20 seconds later in a pack that included his major rivals Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador.
While Froome kept yellow, Team Sky have plenty to ponder after a bruising second day in the Pyrenees.
Richie Porte lost second place overall as he had a dismal day, finishing more than 17 minutes down, Peter Kennaugh suffered a spectacular and bruising fall, while Vasili Kiryienka is out of the race all together after being swept up by the broom wagon.
“This was one of the hardest days I have ever had on the bike,” Froome said. “I had no-one else with me. I am really happy I have come through today. I was completely on my own, I had [sporting director] Nicolas Portal in the car telling me not to worry.”
Froome kept his cool on the final climb as Movistar’s Quintana teased him time and again, the Colombian trying to force the pace and help his team-mate Valverde, who last night replaced Porte in second place overall, one minute 25 seconds back.
“I was prepared for it in the final climb. I thought this is where they were going to put me under pressure,” Froome said. “I felt quite within myself on that last climb, but they did go for me.”
Sky will hope Porte recovers on today’s rest day with his main work in the Alps still to come, while Kennaugh can expect to feel sore after tumbling down an incline following a clash with Ryder Hesjedal.
He clambered back up to the road in a top ripped down the left shoulder and with barely more than half a pair of shorts.
Portal admitted the team car had missed the incident entirely as Kennaugh was out of view down the side of the hill by the time they passed just behind.
“To be honest, I don’t know how far Peter fell because I have only seen the TV replays from a helicopter camera,” he said.
“But when he was trying to scramble back on to the road to change his bike, he had to go mountain climbing. It was very steep, maybe five metres, and it could have been worse.”