Chris Froome’s rollercoaster ride as Tour de France leader showed no signs of letting up as both he and arch rival Alberto Contador came un-nervingly close to a major crash that could have cost the Briton his lead.
The stage win was no longer up for grabs – that went to breakaway Rui Costa of Portugal – but if Froome thought the yellow jersey group behind Costa was in for a calm day, he was sorely mistaken. Instead Spanish all-rounder Joaquim Rodriguez began the process of shredding the leader’s group on the final ascent of the Col de Manse and then further attacks by Contador and his team-mate Roman Kreuziger reduced it to half a dozen riders, including Froome.
Then, as Contador and Froome were descending at very high speed to the finish at Gap they both skidded badly on a right-hand bend – Contador because of his excessively fast speed as he tried to shake off Froome, Froome because he was right behind the Spaniard and could not avoid him.
Neither suffered major injuries – Contador fell and banged his right knee and could continue; Froome juddered along the side of the road before stopping. But no one needed reminding that on the same notoriously dangerous descent, just a few corners below, 10 years ago triple Tour podium finisher Joseba Beloki had skidded and fallen during the Tour, suffering multiple fractures in his hip, right leg and shoulder, injuries that effectively cost the Basque his career.
Unlike in 2003, when Tour leader Lance Armstrong was forced to ride across a field to avoid the falling Spaniard, Froome was back on the road in seconds. Nonetheless it took a flat-out descent by team-mate Richie Porte to guide the race leader back to the group of top overall contenders, with Contador on their wheel.
Nerves were understandably on edge afterwards and whilst Contador gave an ironic thumbs up to Nairo Quintana – “for continuing to drive hard down the descent after I’d fallen” – Froome slated Contador “for really taking risks”.
“Alberto fell and took himself down and I had to go off the road to avoid him and it took me a few seconds to recorrect myself,” Froome said. “It’s one of those crazy things; one second you’re going for the finish and to get the win, the next you’re lying in a ditch and wondering how you got there. One little accident and it’s the end of the Tour.”
Froome said he had been “purposely trying to lay off a bit” on the descent, given its dangerous reputation, “and at the same time trying to keep up with them [Kreuziger and Contador]... it was taking too many risks, he went a little bit too fast and he couldn’t even control his own speed”.
The signs are clear that Contador is utterly unwilling to throw in the towel despite his four-minute disadvantage overall and will continue to harry Froome all the way to Paris. “I don’t care if I finish second or 10th overall,” Contador said, “I don’t find it at all motivating to just sit on wheels and accept defeat. The really good news is that I’m getting stronger by the day.”
Froome, on the other hand, viewed Contador’s move as one inspired by frustration.
“Teams are starting to get desperate and are taking uncalculated risks,” he said, before warning that another dangerous descent, off Alpe D’Huez, awaits the riders tomorrow. “There are no barriers so if you fall you’ll go down a long way. I hope the [other] riders are more cautious than today.”
Froome has another opportunity to increase his lead in today’s technical time trial in the southern Alps, which features two long climbs and two fast descents – hopefully neither as eventful as yesterday’s.