BAGNERES-DE-BIGORRE, France – The mighty mountains of the Pyrenees offered at least two important insights about Tour de France leader Chris Froome: He can land terrible blows to his rivals with his grinding uphill speed and can take their punches, too. In short, if the Briton in the yellow jersey perhaps isn’t unbeatable, he seems very close to it.
After nine hectic days of racing more tha 940 miles, the Tour luxuriates in its first rest day today. The pause allows the contenders for victory in Paris on July 21 to lick their wounds and regroup after Froome knocked them dizzy and grabbed the race lead with a triumphant first day of climbing in the Pyrenees on Saturday. But they’ll also be ruing the opportunity they collectively wasted the very next day on Sunday to hurt Froome right back.
On what may well prove to have been one of the toughest and decisive days of this 100th Tour, and certainly one of the most tactical and interesting, Froome’s rivals isolated him from his Sky teammates and forced him to ride alone – one man against many – up four consecutive climbs as jagged as sharks’ teeth. But they could not make Froome crack.
“That was one of the hardest days that I’ve ever had on a bike,” the 2012 Tour runner-up said after defending his yellow jersey.
The rival who harassed Froome most, with successive squirts of acceleration on the last climb, was Nairo Quintana. The lesson the Colombian drew from this drama amid pine forests and peaks with stubborn patches of snow was: “That we can break down his team a little, but that he can defend himself and is very strong.”
Sky’s impressive climbing on Saturday was in some respects reminiscent of the way Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team would exhaust his rivals. But the way Sky wilted on Sunday definitely was not. Doped up on hormones, blood transfusions and other performance-enhancers, Armstrong’s teammates rarely looked human like this. This Tour is the first since Armstrong was stripped last year of his seven titles for serial doping.
Seemingly drained by their monster efforts a day earlier, Froome’s support riders quickly burned out. The day started badly for Sky when Peter Kennaugh crashed. He was treated for grazes and continued. It also ended less than ideally when Vasili Kiryienka rode in too slowly and missed the time cut, depriving Froome of his services for the Tour’s last two weeks.
“It’s quite nice to see that they’re human,” Froome said of his teammates. “I think it’s quite understandable considering the amount of work they did.”
For some rivals, Sky’s difficulties on Sunday reinforced suspicions that the team isn’t as strong as in 2012, when Bradley Wiggins and Froome finished one and two on the podium in Paris. Some riders were surprised that Sky wore itself out so quickly trying to control Stage 9.
“They are not unbeatable,” said Jakob Fuglsang, the Dane who finished second behind stage winner Daniel Martin. “They blew themselves up one by one.”
Martin’s Garmin-Sharp team was particularly aggressive, with different riders distinguishing themselves with their go-get racing at different parts of the 105-mile slog from Saint-Girons to Bagneres-de-Bigorre.
“We were attacking without even thinking about it,” said the Irish rider whose uncle, Stephen Roche, won the 1987 Tour. “When you look back, it’s kind of crazy. But we wanted to really make the race exciting. We really enjoy racing our bikes.”
For Froome, the day was far less enjoyable. Richie Porte, his lieutenant who rode furiously Saturday to come in second at the Ax 3 Domaines ski station behind Froome, got left behind by the pace on Sunday’s second climb, to the Col de Mente.
That left Froome without help for the next 125 kilometers (77 miles) and three more climbs in temperatures once again into the 30s Celsius (above 90 Fahrenheit).
Looking around, Froome could see no friendly faces, just his main rivals ganging up on him and all with teammates to support them. Their eyes were hidden by their sunglasses, but their intentions were not.
Yet each of the four times Quintana spurted ahead on the final climb, through pines on a mountain-hugging road to the Hourquette d’Ancizan pass, Froome furiously whirred his pedals to stay with him. Two-time champion Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde, Spaniards who have both served doping bans, stayed with this battle but couldn’t surge ahead of it themselves.
Froome said he went into that last climb “thinking ‘OK, this is where they are going to put me under pressure”’ but was expecting worse.
“They did go for me. I mean, Quintana – it’s not easy to follow Quintana in the climbs. He’s a light little Colombian who can fly uphill, so to cover his attacks definitely wasn’t easy,” he said. “But yeah, I was quite ready for more attacks, and I’m quite glad there weren’t.”
Contador said: “The only times he was really tested was by the attacks by Nairo Quintana, who only tried a little and didn’t try it with much conviction. But I think this is good because he (Froome) had to respond and we hope we can take advantage of that later.”
With Porte rolling in nearly 18 minutes behind the leaders, Valverde moved up to second overall. But his deficit to Froome remained unchanged: 1 minute, 25 seconds.
Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam, both from the Netherlands, are 1:44 and 1:50 behind Froome, respectively. Teammates Contador and Roman Kreuziger stayed 1:51 behind. Quintana is still 2:02 off the lead.
The next test for contenders for the overall title is Wednesday’s time trial to Mont-Saint-Michel, a walled medieval masterpiece in Normandy given World Heritage status by UNESCO.
“Froome is very strong in the time trial,” said Contador. “But we have to see how we all recover after the first nine days when he gave it his all.”