A solid third place for Team Sky in the team time trial in Nice saw Chris Froome move up to seventh overall, with the Briton ahead of all of the other main contenders for the Tour de France for the first time in the race, albeit by minimal margins.
Victory went for a second day running to Australian squad Orica-GreenEdge, with stage three winner Simon Gerrans moving into yellow, a position which Gerrans, a gifted all-rounder, is all but certain to hold until the race’s first incursion into the high Pyrenee mountains on Saturday.
Sky overall seemed satisfied that even if they were not able to repeat their team time trial win in May’s Giro d’Italia, with Geraint Thomas, one of their key specialists for the stage, riding with a fractured pelvis, they had nonetheless come very close to taking the victory. Thomas himself had made the best of a difficult situation, gritting his teeth to stay with the long line of Sky team-mates as they blasted up the Promenade des Anglais seafront and even took a turn on the front before being dropped in the final kilometre.
Froome pointed out that not taking the lead yet left the pressure on the shoulders of other teams – and Orica-GreenEdge, with no overall contenders for Paris, will be determined to keep the race under control to extract the maximum publicity possible from their Tour lead at least until the mountains.
“I’m really happy,” Froome said afterwards, “finishing third, just three seconds down on Orica-GreenEdge, keeps us where we want to be and without the stress of taking the yellow jersey – even if it would have been a bit of a bonus to have.”
“If we’d had the lead right now, we’d have had to do extra work on the flat stages coming up which would have been a bit unnecessary for such a small advantage in terms of time.”
“We can stay without that pressure for a little bit longer, and until we get to the mountains where I feel the team are going to excel.”
He singled out Thomas for praise, saying: “He was the hero of the day, doing some pretty solid turns there and definitely helped us get that good finishing time.”
Others who could be pleased were Alberto Contador, whose Saxo-Tinkoff squad finished a bare six seconds behind Sky, a major improvement on the previous Tour team time trial in 2011 where they were 24 seconds slower than the Britons. Sky were not the only ones who were “carrying” injured riders – Saxo-Tinkoff team-mate Benjamin Noval dropped back early on yesterday’s stage when the Spaniard smashed into a camera held at arm’s length by a fan and all but dislocated a finger. If Saxo-Tinkoff nonetheless fared marginally better than expected, among those underperforming were 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans’s BMC squad, on paper one of the favourites, but who ended up a disappointing ninth, 26 seconds down.
Wednesday’s flat stage should see Britain’s Mark Cavendish, whose Omega Pharma-Quick Step team came within a whisker of claiming the victory yesterday, in the fray for the 24th Tour stage win of his career.
Unable to take part in Saturday’s sprint after he was blocked by a major crash on stage one that caused his team-mate Tony Martin to be badly injured – but battle on nonetheless – and suffering from bronchitis himself for the first three days, Cavendish says he is now back on track. And after the disappointment of missing out on his chance to clinch the yellow jersey in Corsica, today’s stage finish at Marseilles could see the Briton claim his first victory of the 2013 Tour.