Team Sky have promised to get their train back on the rails in the second week of the Tour de France to keep Chris Froome in the yellow jersey.
A dramatic stage nine of the Tour on Sunday saw Sky crumble on the first of the five categorised climbs, leaving Froome to defend yellow all alone amid a pack of predators.
That the 28-year-old did so without losing any time to the likes of Alejandro Valverde or Alberto Contador in the general classification battle was a huge positive, but Sky know they cannot leave their leader exposed in such a way again.
“Yesterday once I got into that front group and was isolated, it did sink in that was going to be a really long day and I’m going to have to dig in,” Froome said as the team enjoyed a rest day in La Boule. “I just had to make the most of the situation I was in, try to limit any losses if there were going to be any.”
Froome’s performance, keeping him one minute and 25 seconds ahead of Valverde in second, only served to underline why he is the clear favourite as he showed a side to his game not seen before.
“You could argue, using a boxing analogy, he’s taken the biggest right hook on the chin he’s going to take and he didn’t flinch,” said team principal Sir Dave Brailsford. “You always learn more from adversity than success and we learned a lot yesterday.”
The Sky train came off the rails early on as Peter Kennaugh crashed dramatically while Richie Porte was dropped and never recovered, eventually finishing more than 17 minutes down to surrender second place overall.
Vasili Kiryienka had an even worse day, suffering elimination as he was swept up by the broom wagon at the back of the pack, a key member of Froome’s supporting party now on his way home.
But Kennaugh and Porte have vowed to bounce back, while Geraint Thomas said he is feeling better and better on the cracked pelvis he suffered on the opening stage.
“It’s been a tough week, probably by toughest week on a bike ever,” the double Olympic gold medalist said. “I’m feeling better every day, and yesterday I had the best day so far. If I keep going as I am in the final week I should be able to play a strong role again.”
Kennaugh, the Manxman making his Tour debut, disappeared down the hillside in a frightening incident around 10 kilometres into the stage, but promised to be ready when Froome needs him in the Alps.
“I’ve got some cuts and bruises but I’m feeling good,” he said. “I can’t wait for the mountain stages to come. There are a few flats to come and the time trial where I can take it relatively easy. In another week I should be ready to go for (Mont) Ventoux.”
After Froome’s brilliant ride to Ax 3 Domaines in stage eight it had seemed like the Tour was already decided, but Brailsford always expected tough days to come. “It’s the whole idea of sport, isn’t it?” he said. “This notion that we just turn up and win easily isn’t something that sits well with us.
Thomas, who compared the challenge ahead to those he had faced on the track against Australia in the team pursuit, added: “For sure the other teams will see us as vulnerable and they will try to take the race to us. We’ve come out of this weekend really well considering the advantage Chris has got.”