It was not supposed to be like this: Chris Froome taking the yellow jersey following a mountain stage that ended with a fast descent.
Froome’s unpredicted, opportunistic and daring move over the top of the Col de Peyresourde on Saturday saw him take the maillot jaune on day eight of the race, just as he did when he won atop Ax-3-Domaines in 2013.
Sunday sees the first summit finish of this year’s Tour, a challenging 10.1-kilometre ascent to Andorra Arcalis, but that the Briton is already leading the race emphasises how good Team Sky are at dealing with whatever race organiser ASO throws at them.
Previewing the race route earlier this year, the Tour’s course director Thierry Gouvenou admitted that this three-day foray into the Pyrenees deliberately only had one mountain-top finish.
“Everything will perhaps happen not on the climb, but in the spectacular descent,” he said of Friday’s finish at Lac de Payolle, but something than rang true of Saturday’s stage. “Is this to say that we have learned the lessons of the years past, when Chris Froome destroyed his rivals on the first mountain stages with summit finishes?
“[Yes], our role is to ensure the course can maintain the suspense.”
The ascent of the Peyresourde was fairly unremarkable; Froome, teammate Sergio Henao, Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde, Dan Martin and Romain Bardet all made tentative attacks, all of which were like watching shy teenage boys preparing to chat up similar aged females at a party, before getting embarrassed by their mocking mates and opting against.
“I had a couple of goes on the climb, but nothing was sticking,” said Froome. “So I thought I’d give it a go on the descent and see what I could do, see if I could catch somebody out.
“I’ve not won a stage like that before, so it felt like a bit of a risk, but it paid off. I knew I had a 54 chainring on today so I could pedal quickly on the descent.
“Gaining 20 seconds more or less [he finished 13 ahead of his rivals] is not a huge margin but I’ll take every second I can get at this point.”
Unfortunately for his rivals, Gouvenou and ASO, it is five years ago since an eventual Tour winner – Cadel Evans – did not lead the race after its opening two mountain stages. (Admittedly, he was third, just 17 second behind Frank Schleck, with Thomas Voeckler leading and skewing the GC somewhat.)
Froome’s 16-second GC lead on Saturday evening pales in comparison to when he led Valverde by 1-25, with Bauke Mollema 1-44 behind in third, after two Pyrenean stages on days eight and nine of the 2013 Tour.
As Gouvenou referred to, the majority of that time was earned on the summit finish to Ax-3-Domaines.
However, 12 months ago, the standings looked even better for him at a similar point – only Tejay Van Garderen, at 2-52 down, was within 180 seconds of Froome on GC following a stage to Cauterets, not far from where the race passed in the first half of Saturday’s stage.
Eventual podium finishers Quintana and Valverde were even further behind, 3-09 and 4-01 respectively, almost half of which was gained in the famous crosswind-affected stage to Neeltje Jans on day two of the race.
A notable achievement, this, given he was caught in similarly windy conditions on a stage to Saint-Amand-Monrond in 2013 (he lost 1-09 to Alberto Contador that day).
The incredibly assured manner in which he navigated narrow roads in Belgium en route to Huy (stage three) and the cobbles of northern France (stage four) proved that, whatever ASO designed for the race route, he was not going to repeat the mistakes from his 2014 title defence.
Froome called his attack “old-school bike racing”. It was quite remarkable that his risky descending style, hovering forward and using the top tube for support, wasn’t anywhere near as unsightly as his climbing stance. His head and elbows were tucked in, his back flat and his pedalling bursts were hurried and made with real purpose.
Technically he handled the bike well, most notably when navigating a left-right chicane immediately upon going under the 10km to go inflatable (no deflation dramas today, thankfully).
A slight wobble on a bend with 5.3km to go outlined the gutsy nature of the move.
Such was his determination to gain as much time as possible, Froome only sat up to celebrate upon crossing the second huge Skoda logo painted onto the finish line, barely half a metre before it.
“With tomorrow [Sunday] being such a decisive day, I think people were thinking about that stage,” said Froome explaining his attack.
Whether deliberate or not, stage nine’s route does appear to be another ASO attempt to test Team Sky.
Given there’s only nine, slightly uphill kilometres from the bottom of the Col de Beixalls descent to the start of the Arcalis climb, it will be interesting to see if Movistar or maybe even BMC attempt to put Froome under pressure on the former mountain.
Remember, had Sky not have been able to regroup on the long stretch between the Col de la Croix de Fer and Alpe d’Huez on the penultimate day of last year’s Tour, Froome would have been isolated for the duration of the final climb in the 2015 race and Quintana could have claimed yellow at the death.
Then again, a day after catching his rivals by surprise, who’s to say Froome won’t make the attack many were expecting to be his first bid for 2016 Tour de France glory?