Questions were asked when he crashed out last year before the Tour de France reached the cobbles, but this year Sky’s Chris Froome showed that he has the ability to handle himself on some of the roughest roads.
He marked moves from rivals like 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and even launched an attack himself after the last sector heading towards the finish in Cambrai.
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He not just defended his lead among the grand tour stars, he did it in style on Tuesday. He went one better by losing seconds and the yellow jersey to a non-threat, German Tony Martin (Etixx-Quick Step).
After a mostly dry and dusty day along northern France’s pavé, Froome holds 13 seconds on Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), 36 on Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), 1-38 on Vincenzo Nibali and 1-56 on Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
“It wasn’t about showing how strong I am on the cobbles, it was all about staying out of trouble,” Froome said after the stage.
“Of course, I have to thank my team-mates for the way they supported – riding on the cobbles can be a bit hairy.”
Froome noted that the wind blew mostly from the west into the riders’ faces today, which made it difficult for someone to stretch out the pack and break it. He added, “I never really felt I was under a lot of pressure.”
A lot has been made of Froome’s bike handling skills. He crashed three times last year and had to abandon in cobbled stage five. However, he keeps reminding those who ask that he never even had a chance to ride on the sectors last year because he abandoned first. Other incidents in the past, like riding into an official during a time trial, do not help his reputation.
This time, with the help of Geraint Thomas and Nicolas Roche in the final kilometres, he went a long way to erase critics’ doubts.
More importantly for him, and the rest of the top contenders, he came away from the stage unscathed. Froome nearly crashed twice due to the narrow and technical roads leading to and out of the cobble sectors, and those were just the times that followers saw on TV.
“The GC contenders,” he said, “will sleep a lot better tonight.”
“It was great to have the cobbled sections but it was great to get through without any of the big riders losing out,” team principal Sir David Brailsford added.
“The risks are massive and when they do have bike crashes the consequences can be very very serious. They never know when a crash will happen, it might not be their fault, and everyday they go out and put their bodies on the line.
“I know it’s a cliché but they deserve a massive amount of respect. It is pretty scary what they do.
“On the other hand, sector after sector, I was getting more confident and by the end Chris really grew into it and looked like he got his legs.”
His path towards another overall victory looks that much better after his legs and skills, and team-mates like Thomas, carried him through the Tour’s pavé stage.
On the horizon, the cyclists face several flat stages with small climbs mixed in. On Saturday, they finish up the Mûr de Bretagne and on Sunday line up for a team time trial in Brittany.
Afterwards, they transfer by plane south for France’s high-mountain passes, starting in the Pyrenees, and the next big test of the Tour de France.