Chris Froome, his team-mate Richie Porte and the British squad Sky launched a knock-out blow in the Tour de France, with Froome capturing a solo stage win and the overall lead on the race’s first major summit finish – all in a style which strongly suggests that with two weeks still left, the Tour could well conclude with a second straight British win.
As if Froome’s devastating charge four kilometres from the line of the sunbaked Ax-3 Domaines climb was not impressive enough, delivering an almost conclusive blow to the aspirations of Alberto Contador and the rest of the field to dislodge Sky, his team-mate and key climbing wing-man Porte claimed second on the stage and moved up to second overall.
This control of the Tour’s top two places overall gives Sky a stranglehold that looks at least as strong as last year when Sir Bradley Wiggins claimed the yellow on the equivalent first mountain stage – with Froome, like yesterday the winner, close behind him on second.
Froome’s domination of the Tour had been predicted since he claimed second in last year’s Tour and followed that up with a relentless series of stage race wins this spring and last year’s winner Wiggins was ruled himself by injury.
But with Porte at 51 seconds, Sky’s closest rival Alejandro Valverde at 1min 8sec and the rider Froome most fears, Contador, at nearly two minutes on the stage, even Froome, now the King of the Mountains leader as well, said he did not expect the damage to be so great in the race’s first day.
“I wasn’t expecting that much for today, it was a big surprise,” he said. “I saw Alberto wasn’t in a good state, but to make as big a gap as this on the first high mountain stage is really something. I expected the overall contenders to be much more prevalent, more attacks from them. But I know we’ve got good condition, we’ve been training for this for months so I’m happy with that.”
Froome revealed that if the team-work up until the final climb had been planned with Sky’s meticulous attention to detail, his decision to make the devastating final charge for the line had been his.
“Once I pulled clear, I had to go into time trial mode to try and take as big an advantage as possible,” Froome said. With sweat pouring down his face, and his hulking frame wrapped over the bike Froome’s style could not be described as elegant. But with the peloton already whittled down to only five riders – himself, Contador, Porte, Spain’s Alejandro Valverde and Czech Roman Kreuziger – the damage Froome then proceeded to wreak on a day when soaring temperatures had sapped riders strength, was considerable.
“There’s almost two weeks to go to Paris, so every second counts, I had to give it everything,” Froomesaid. But by the time he reached the summit, arms raised aloft and fingers splayed as he claimed his first Tour de France lead, the seconds advantage had stretched into minutes.
The clinical execution of Froome’s final attack, the devastating gaps on the first climb of the entire Tour and the extent of Sky’s domination meant that questions about the reasons for the British team’s collective performance were not long coming, either.
Referring indirectly to cycling’s murky doping past, Froome responded: “There is absolutely no way we would be able to get these results if the sport hadn’t changed. [But] the sport has changed, and I certainly know that these results are not going to be stripped from me in five or ten years’ time.”
Sky’s allconquering domination, in fact, had looked to slip a little on the second last climb of the day, the Pailheres, when the Colombian Nairo Quintana opened up a gap of a minute by the summit.
At that point Sky had only three leaders left in the main pack. But sterling work by Isle of Man rider Pete Kennaugh as he enforced a breakneck pace on the descent slowly reeled Quintana in. Then when Froome opened up the throttle and Contador, his biggest rival, cracked, the stage was all over bar the shouting. The Tour may not yet be, though, but after such a decisive first victory, there can be no dbout that the 2013 Tour, like last year’s at the same point, is now Sky’s to lose.