THE clock is ticking down for Chris Froome’s rivals as the Tour de France enters its final days.
On the first full day in the Alps, when the race resumed yesterday after a rest day, Nairo Quintana launched a series of attacks, from as far as 60km from the finish, but Froome coped easily with each of them as the German Simon Geschke took a tremendous victory at the summit of Pra Loup having ridden alone for 50km.
Froome remains in yellow with a lead of more than three minutes over Quintana. His Sky team-mate Geraint Thomas had a tough day but, with Alberto Contador crashing and losing time, still moved up to fourth. Thomas faces quite a test, though – there are three more tough Alpine stages.
This was a day that evoked a memorable stage in 1975, when Eddy Merckx, the five-times winner, finally did the unthinkable and cracked. Although the Cannibal’s collapse came almost within sight of the finish, he lost the yellow jersey and would never wear it again.
That stage also pre-shadowed this year’s in that Merckx had been subjected to roadside abuse – he was punched the previous day as they climbed the Puy de Dôme, and his injuries were arguably a factor in his collapse on Pra Loup. Froome hasn’t been hit – though his Sky team-mate Richie Porte has – but he has received abuse, and a cup of urine in his face on Saturday.
Immediately after the stage he was asked by French TV about the atmosphere. Froome agreed it had not been good and added: “We can thank Laurent [Jalabert] for that.” Jalabert is the former rider, now French TV pundit, who has been raising doubts about Froome’s performances.
Forty years after Merckx’s collapse, this stage wasn’t quite as dramatic. But the relentless heat is taking a terrible toll. There were several casualties, including the world champion Michal Kwiatkowski, and one of the overall favourites, Tejay Van Garderen. The American had emerged as a real threat in the first week but apparently came down with illness on the rest day. He struggled from the start in Digne-les-Bains, dropping two minutes back before tearfully climbing off his bike and into a team car.
Things came to a head for the overall contenders on the Col d’Allos, the penultimate climb. Quintana tried a few jabs, so did Nibali, but the latter also had a go on the dangerous, twisting descent. This was almost certainly the most dangerous descent in the entire Tour – it’s where the eventual 1975 winner Bernard Thévenet almost came a cropper – and while the favourites negotiated it safely, Thibaut Pinot did not. The young Frenchman, who has had so many problems with descending that he has tried everything from motor racing to classical music, was chasing Geschke when his front wheel slipped and he went down heavily. It meant that Geschke held on for an emotional victory. The German’s trademark is his beard, and he said afterwards that he would shave it off only if he won the Tour. “Which will never happen, so get used to the beard.”
Froome dealt with some more Quintana accelerations on the climb to Pra Loup. “He’s running out of opportunities,” said Froome at the finish. “I’ve got to admit I was quite surprised to see him jumping around 50, 60km into the race. A few of the guys [have] definitely got the feeling it’s all or nothing.”
The only worry for Froome is that there are now two Movistar riders behind him, Quintana and Alejandro Valverde, and the Spanish team is exceptionally strong in the mountains. “My main concern is following Valverde and Quintana,” he said. “Those two are the only two.”
He has had more problems off the road than on it. On Tuesday’s rest day his team finally bowed to pressure and released some of his power data. It related to the climb of La Pierre Saint-Martin in the Pyrenees: a stage that Froome won, and which made Jalabert and others suspicious. Inevitably, the release of data did little to quell the doubters, who then began poring over the released data, looking for possible discrepancies. Froome said he anticipated that.
“I really haven’t seen the reaction,” he said, explaining that he’d spent the rest day with his wife, brother and nephews. “I’d imagine it’s going to be never ending… the data will never be enough. There are a lot of people out there who have already made up their minds.”