Chris Froome was asked after he’d won the stage at La Pierre-St Martin to cement his lead in the Tour de France: what could pose a risk to his march to victory in Paris?
“Well, of course anything…” he said, earnestly. “A mechanical at the wrong point, a puncture at the wrong point, could be pretty damaging.”
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That’s an indication of Chris Froome’s confidence atop the first summit finish of the 2015 Tour. If things continue as they did on Tuesday, it’s going to take bad luck to topple him because his rivals aren’t going to do it.
And why shouldn’t he be confident? After barely putting a foot wrong in the opening nine days of the race and taking the yellow jersey into the first rest day, he put his rivals to the sword on the first serious climb in ruthless fashion.
Tejay Van Garderen (he lost 2-30), Alberto Contador (he lost 2-51), Vincenzo Nibali (he lost 4-25); they all must be wondering how they can take apart what, at the moment, looks like the impregnable yellow walls of fortress Froome.
Nairo Quintana, perhaps on paper the strongest pure climber going into the race, set his Movistar team to work early on stage 10 but lost 1-04 and must be feeling despondent that he couldn’t capitalise on his ideal terrain.
“I certainly wouldn’t want to be in the position that some of my rivals are in now,” Froome said.
The Tour de France is full of clichés: riders love to say that ‘the Tour is the Tour,’ that they’re ‘taking it day by day’ and that ‘there’s a long way to go until Paris.’ Yet the latter rings true in this instance. Froome is certainly in the driving seat but is far from hitting cruise control just yet.
His victory to La Pierre-St Martin was reminiscent of the opening mountain stage of the 2013 Tour when he won on Ax 3 Domaines in comfortable fashion. Just as he did two years ago, Richie Porte finished second.
It was also similar to exactly two years previously when Froome rode away from the field on Mont Ventoux. Again it was Bastille Day, again there was a relatively flat stage culminating in a summit finish and again, Froome picked his moment and simply span his legs and pulled away.
However Froome now fears that his rivals could attack at other moments. His first Tour victory almost became derailed on the descent of the Col de Manse into Gap in 2013 when Contador forced the pace a little too high and the pair almost fell off. This year’s Tour traces exactly the same route into Gap on stage 16 and if they can’t beat him in the mountains, Froome knows his adversaries will be looking at every opportunity to peck away at his lead.
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Froome said. “We saw back in 2013 with Contador really taking it on in the crosswinds, really pushing the limits on the descents. I think we can expect all of the above.”
Froome was caught out on that crosswind stage in 2013, the second time he was put on the back foot in that Tour while in the yellow jersey. Earlier in the race, following Froome’s first summit victory, Froome found himself isolated and vulnerable under sustained pressure from Movistar and Garmin. Pete Kennaugh crashed into a ditch and Vasil Kiryienka rode himself so hard working for his leader that he missed the time cut and was eliminated from the Tour.
Sky’s team does look strong this year, and Geraint Thomas’s sixth place ride just behind Alejandro Valverde was a sensation. But the effect of tough opening days and the efforts of the team in tearing the race to shreds in the Pyrenees could weaken their reserves just as the likes of Quintana, who seems to get stronger as a grand tour progresses, finds some form.
The little Colombian outclimbed Froome to Annecy-Semnoz, the final summit of the 2013 Tour, but on that occasion it was too little too late. Froome also famously bonked on the stage to Alpe d’Huez, taking an illegal feed and conducting an exercise in damage limitation.
“We did put in a lot of effort today and we’re going to have to gauge that over the next few days and see how we’re going to pay for that,” Froome added. “I think obviously we’ve got to be on our guard now and this is the time to really focus and stay on it.”.
On Tuesday evening the fear, at least for neutrals, was that the Tour was already over before it had really begun. Yet thankfully for fans of cycling and the Tour de France, Froome’s yellow jersey is far from being in the bag.
There’s still a long way to go until Paris.
Chris Froome’s Pinarello Dogma F8