BRITISH rider Chris Froome showed why he remains the overwhelming Tour de France favourite by winning yesterday’s gruelling 15th stage up to Mont Ventoux to extend his lead over main rival Alberto Contador.
Froome attacked about two-thirds of the way up the mammoth 21-km (13-mile) Ventoux, and his brutal acceleration was too much for two-time former champion Contador. The Spaniard dropped back and finished about 1 minute, 40 seconds behind. Colombian Nairo Quintana was second, 29 seconds behind.
“This is massive. Everyone wanted to win this stage today, on Bastille Day, being on top of Mont Ventoux,” Froome said. “It really was an epic stage today.”
The win means Froome effectively made up the time he lost on Friday’s sprint stage, when Contador caught him out with a surprise attack. “My objective today was to take a bit of time in the general classification, but I didn’t think I could win the stage,” Froome said. “I thought Quintana would win it, but then his legs started to go in the last two kilometres.”
Ventoux is one of the most famed climbs in the Tour’s 110-year history. Britain’s Tom Simpson collapsed and died on it during the 1967 Tour.
Froome raised his right arm in the air when he clinched his second stage win of the race after winning a mountain stage in the Pyrenees on stage eight with a similarly effective attack. “It was incredible today, incredible. This is the biggest victory of my career,” Froome said. “This climb is so historical. It means so much to this race, especially being the 100th edition.”
Froome’s Sky team manager Dave Brailsford hailed his rider as “above his competitors,” adding that “every time it’s been man against man, Chris has shown he’s up to the challenge”.
It is the first Tour since Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour titles (1999-2005) for serial doping.
Froome has twice been asked during the race if he is racing clean and has assured that he is.
He was not asked after yesterday’s stage, but Brailsford said: “We have a great performance and ten minutes later I jump for joy like this, and then ten minutes later I guarantee you I’ll be answering all these questions and allegations about doping for the next few days.”
Froome now leads Dutchman Bauke Mollema by 4 minutes, 14 seconds and Contador by 4:25.
The longest stage of the race took riders over 242.5km (151 miles) from Givors in the winemaking Rhone Valley and ended in the Provence region.
A nine-man breakaway group led early on, including sprint champion Peter Sagan and French veteran Sylvain Chavanel.
Touted as one of cycling’s showmen, Sagan lifted his front wheel and did a wheelie, followed by a salute to the crowd in a rare moment of frivolity on a bitterly hard day.
Froome said he needed “five or ten minutes on the oxygen” mask after the stage.
The small group of front- runners split open on Ventoux, leaving Chavanel alone.
Andy Schleck, the 2010 Tour champion, was dropped straight away, while the 36-year-old Cadel Evans, the 2011 winner, then faded with Chavanel. “It was a terrible day for me,” Evans said.
With about 15km (nine miles) to go, Froome, meanwhile, had two only Sky team-mates – Australian Richie Porte and Britain’s Peter Kennaugh – to help him. Then Quintana surged ahead. He attacked Froome four times on the last climb in the Pyrenean mountains on stage nine up to Bagneres-de-Bigorre, but could not beat him. It was the same story yesterday.
“I was telling him, ‘come on man, keep pushing’,” Froome said, “but in the last 2km he just couldn’t really hold the wheel anymore.”
At one point, Contador still had three team-mates, but Froome would lose Kennaugh shortly after, leaving just Porte.
Then the yellow jersey group blew wide open. Suddenly, Froome and Porte were alone with Contador.
With 7km to go, Froome launched a devastating attack on Contador – rocketing up the slope as fans threw water over him and others lit orange flares or waved British flags close to his face.
As he moved alongside Quintana, who had a nose bleed during the climb, Froome launched a second brutal acceleration.
“I needed more strength, but I couldn’t find it,” Quintana said.
Tens of thousands of people crammed the roadside on 14 July – France’s national day.
Other countries were well represented, though.
There were dozens of Union flags and Norwegians and Danes wearing Viking costumes. Pockets of Belgians and Dutch swigged beers, others dressed up as animals or ran alongside the riders in inflatable body suits.
The chaotic, raucous, deafeningly loud scene saw race motorbikes and spectators perilously close to the riders.
Near the summit, the scenery started to change, with fewer and fewer trees; then just a little bit of green brush left, before even that gave way to the barren, lunar landscape that makes Ventoux unique.