FOR the second year in a row, Chris Froome won the first mountain stage of the Tour de France.
But whereas last year a team-mate, Bradley Wiggins, stood in the way of him and the yellow jersey, now there appears to be nothing in his path, not even nominal rivals such as Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans.
So dominant was Froome’s performance at Ax-3-Domaines, which also gave him the yellow jersey of overall leader, that the question being asked last night was whether, with two weeks to go to Paris, the Tour is over. Contador was a shadow of his former self, sweating, grimacing and sliding forwards on the saddle to try and find more power as Froome danced up the climb to claim the stage win and a commanding lead in the overall classification.
The 28-year-old Team Sky leader described his first time in yellow as “amazing, a dream come true” but stressed that there is a long way to go. Yet adding to a sense of “game over” is the fact that the rider who placed second on the stage, and now sits second overall, is Froome’s friend and team-mate, Richie Porte.
None of this should detract from Froome’s performance, which was stunning. And it was the antidote to critics of his team, who bemoan their calculated approach – when he attacked, he did so with the “panache” that is so cherished by cycling fans.
“There are several mountain-top stages and it was the plan to really go for it today and take advantage of the high finish,” said Froome, who rejected the suggestion that it was as good as over. “It’s still a long way to Paris and we’re going to have a lot of work to do before then.
“I’m really confident in the team I have around me, especially with Richie Porte in second place, but we’re going to have to fight for it and other teams are going to really fight us along the way.”
“Maybe Contador didn’t have a good day today,” he added, “but believe me, the Tour is far from over.” The time gaps suggest otherwise, with Contador already almost two minutes down in seventh, and Evans, who said it was his “worst ever day at the Tour de France”, 23rd, over four-and-a-half minutes down.
Contador’s directeur sportif, Dan Frost, went as far as admitting that it was “a huge blow to the confidence being dropped like this on the first mountain stage,” before more defiantly adding: “On the first mountain stage in any race, it’s common to have a bad day... We’ll be looking for a gap in the Team Sky defence and take advantage of it.”
The Sky tactic was similar to last year’s first mountain stage to La Planche des Belles Filles, when they sent their men to the front, set a fearsome pace before they reached the final climb and then propelled Wiggins and Froome up the mountain.
But the final act was a little different this time. And even before the climb to Ax-3-Domaines, the British team didn’t appear to have the same strength in numbers on the first hors categorie mountain of this Tour, the Col de Pailhères, with the summit coming 166km into the 195km stage.
It was on this 15km monster, to the highest point of this year’s Tour, at 2,001m, that a fly appeared in the ointment in the form of the gifted Colombian climber, Nairo Quintana. He attacked and quickly gained a minute as, behind, Sky’s Vasil Kiryienka and Peter Kennaugh led a remorseless chase.
Kennaugh, the 24-year-old from the Isle of Man who is riding his first Tour, was a revelation, taking over from Kiryienka before the summit, and leading the diminished group all the way down the descent. He even had some fuel left in the tank as they began the final climb to Ax-3-Domaines, remaining at the front until, with 6km remaining, it was down to Porte, with Froome behind him. And behind those two, Contador, Alejandro Valverde and the other favourites sat waiting.
The decisive moment came 5km from the top, when Froome spotted that Contador was in difficulty. “I looked back and saw the other guys were really struggling on the wheel,” said Froome. “They were hanging in there, and I thought, this is the right moment to push on and get a bit of time.”
He attacked hard, immediately establishing a gap to his erstwhile companions. Porte looked up, awaiting the response, but it didn’t come. Contador struggled even to hold the wheel of his Saxo-Tinkoff team-mate, Roman Kreuziger. Over his radio link to Froome, Porte said: “They’re dropped, they’re dropped, all of them,” before counter-attacking and coming in second, 51 seconds behind Froome.
“I was surprised more guys weren’t attacking in the final,” said Froome. But the reason was obvious: nobody was capable. “To have the yellow jersey now is really amazing,” he added. “I’ve been in a few leaders’ jerseys this year but nothing compares to the Tour de France. It’s fantastic, a dream come true, particularly after the way the team rode those last two climbs. We couldn’t ask for any more today.”
“We didn’t miss a beat,” said Porte, the 28-year-old Tasmanian, adding that they didn’t panic when Quintana attacked. “We just reeled them in nice and slowly. Pete for me was the ride of the day. We said in the bus we wanted him to go over with us and he was just phenomenal.”
It was indeed a coming-of-age performance by Kennaugh, who admitted he had been “a bit nervous about whether I was going to perform and whether I could live up to the job that I had to do. Today, I proved why I was selected. It’s great for the team and for my own confidence as well.”
“It’s so easy to commit to Froomie,” continued Kennaugh. “The way he handles everyone, he has respect for every rider no matter what the job is. Every time, you give 100 per cent for him because you know you’ll get it back. He’s the most consistent rider I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Yet as with any dominant performance, Froome’s here will attract some suspicion given cycling’s history of doping, and the fact this 100th Tour is the first after Lance Armstrong was stripped of his titles from 1999-2005. Unofficial calculations suggested that Froome’s time up the final climb was third on the all-time list, behind Roberto Laiseka and Armstrong in 2001.
Froome said he understood “100 per cent” that people would ask questions of the man in yellow. “I think it’s normal that people ask questions in cycling, that’s the unfortunate position we find ourselves in at the moment,” he said.
“Eyebrows are going to be raised and questions are going to be asked, but I know the sport has changed,” he continued. “There’s absolutely no way I’d be able to get these results if the sport hadn’t changed. I certainly know the results I get now are not going to be stripped ten, 20 years down the line. Rest assured, that’s not going to happen.”