By Gregor Brown
Chris Froome's quest to win a third Tour de France title is the toughest test of his professional career, he says. In the leader's yellow jersey racing up to the Arcalís ski station today in Andorra, he held off attacks from Daniel Martin (Etixx–Quick-Step), Richie Porte (BMC Racing) and Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange).
Froome finished stage nine in a rainstorm, his yellow jersey soaked, but with his 16-second advantage over Yates intact. Ireland’s Martin moved to third at 19 seconds. Top rival Nairo Quintana (Movistar) is in fourth at 23 seconds.
"I've said it a few times. I feel this is going to be the biggest battle of my career," Froome said in the safety of the interview truck near the finish.
"That's what it's turning out to be. By no means did I expect it to be easy and I was just going to ride away from everyone. The level is higher and I have to fight for every second I can."
In his two Tour-winning years, Froome has enjoyed a sizeable advantage as the race leaves the Pyrenees. In 2013 he led by 85 seconds, while last year he was nearly three minutes clear. In 2016, the entire top 10 riders are separated by only 61 seconds ahead of the first rest day tomorrow.
Froome did manage to distance himself from some of his rivals, however. Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) and Fabio Aru (Astana) both lost time, while Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) abandoned mid-stage citing illness.
"There were a lot of attacks in that final climb," Froome added. "I was hoping to try to gain some more time as well. But in the end, there were a few of the main contenders… so I was happy to close some gaps and finish in the same time.
"It's still very open race at this point. I am really happy where it has gone to go into the first rest day as leader with the yellow."
Froome rode protected by five of his team-mates going into the final climb with Quintana only having two. Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) rode free from an escape and won the stage while behind, Froome, Porte, Martin and Yates attacked – but not Quintana.
"In the back of my mind I was waiting for his attack," Froome said. "All the way up to the last K and into the last K, I thought he hasn't attacked yet, maybe he's saving it for one big move, but that never came. I'd like to think he was on his limit, but I think he just stuck to my wheel like glue."
"I was quite surprised to hear Contador got into the car today and withdrew from the race because he attacked on the first climb and was up front so obviously he wasn't feeling too bad at the start, but of course he was still suffering from injury."
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