Chris Froome landed what looks to be the knockout blow of the Tour de France on Sunday with a first ever British victory on the summit of Mont Ventoux, this country’s most difficult climb.
On the empty moonscape of the Ventoux’s upper slopes, Froome dropped his most tenacious mountain rival, Colombian Nairo Quintana, with just over a kilometre to go. His teeth gritted against the pain and the strong headwind as, hunched over the bike as usual, the 28-year-old Briton forged ahead for a stunning solo win, a reinforced yellow jersey lead and even the unexpected bonus of the lead in the King of the Mountains competition.
Quintana crossed the line 29 seconds behind, but the important damage inflicted by Froome was to his overall rivals: double Tour winner Alberto Contador, dropped 7km from the line and pushed back by a minute and 40 seconds, a gap that more than restores the time lost in Friday’s mass attack by the Spaniard’s team, while Bauke Mollema, second overall, lost nearly two minutes.
“My objective was to take a bit more time and I did my maximum to get as big an advantage,” said Froome – after briefly needing oxygen to recover, something unprecedented in his career. “I didn’t see myself getting this victory, but it’s really the greatest win I’ve ever had. Winning on the Ventoux is something exceptional, historic.”
After a furious charge towards the foot of the Ventoux, the climb itself – 20 kilometres long, relentlessly rising to 1,900 metres, with temperatures touching 40 degrees at its base and strong headwinds in the final segment – decided everything.
If Froome’s team were notably less present in numbers at the front of the peloton than in 2012, Sky’s Pete Kennaugh nonetheless led the bunch at a powerful pace as it shrank to 40 riders as the road climbed steadily in dense woodland. Only Quintana, making a notable debut in his first Tour at 23, managed to rip away. However, it was a huge drive by Sky’s Richie Porte, playing the same role of top mountain wingman as he had done when Froome won eight days ago at Ax-3-Domaines, that really shredded the field.
After Porte repeatedly looked back to see who was left – in fact only Contador could handle his pace – it was up to Froome. Remaining seated as he accelerated away from his Spanish rival after 40 minutes of steady climbing was impressive enough: reaching Quintana, the ideal ally for the remaining five kilometres, made it even more certain that Froome had just made a checkmate move.
The key point, though, was shedding Contador, a moment when calculation gave way to instinct. “So much of that sort of attacking is done on feeling; I can feel when it is personally hurting, hopefully other guys are also hurting too. It’s mental warfare,” Froome said.
Arriving with Quintana at the summit would have been enough to underline the Sky rider’s superiority. As it was, after a brief period of collaboration another slight increase in pressure on the pedals saw Froome go clear – coincidentally, but with beautiful symbolism, as he passed the memorial to British cycling great Tom Simpson, who died on the Ventoux in 1967. Now he had only the mountain left to beat.
“I was trying to motivate Quintana, saying, ‘Let’s keep riding together and see what happens’,” Froome said. “I thought Quintana would win it, but in the last two kilometres he lost a bit of time and I did my maximum to get as big an advantage as possible.”
The only doubt that lingers at this stage in the game is whether Sky, as a team, are up to protecting Froome’s lead. However, with an advantage of 4 min 14 sec, and his individual strength in the mountains, it looks increasingly unlikely that he will crack in the final week in the Alps.
“The Tour is over,” declared Greg LeMond, America’s three-time Tour winner. “You can have a bad day, but normally if you’re as good as that, you’re good all the way through.”
Tour de France race details
Leading positions after stage 14 (Saint-Pourcain-sur-Sioule - Lyon, 191km):
1 M Trentin (It) Omega Pharma-Quick Step 4hr 15min 11sec,
2 M Albasini (Swit) Orica-GreenEdge,
3 A Talansky (US) Garmin-Sharp,
4 J Joaquin Rojas Gil (Sp) Movistar Team,
5 E Garcia Echeguibel (Sp) Cofidis, Solutions Credits,
6 L Ytting Bak (Den) Lotto Belisol,
7 S Geschke (Ger) Team Argos-Shimano,
8 A Vichot (Fr) FDJ.fr,
9 P Brutt (Rus) Katusha,
10 C Gautier (Fr) Team Europcar.
Selected others: 21 P Kennaugh (GB) Sky Procycling at 7min 17sec, 22 C Froome (GB) Sky Procycling at same time, 81 M Cavendish (GB) Omega Pharma-Quick Ste at same time, 179 G Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling at 10.22.
Stage 15 (Givors - Mont Ventoux, 242.5km):
1 C Froome (GB) Sky Procycling 5hr 48min 45sec,
2 N Alexander Quintana Rojas (Col) Movistar Team at 0.29sec,
3 M Nieve Ituralde (Sp) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 1min 23sec,
4 J R Oliver (Sp) Katusha at same time,
5 R Kreuziger (Cz Rep) Team Saxo-Tinkoff at 1.40,
6 A Contador Velasco (Sp) Team Saxo-Tinkoff at same time,
7 J Fuglsang (Den) Astana Pro Team at 1.43,
8 B Mollema (Neth) Belkin Pro Cycling Team at 1.46,
9 L Ten Dam (Neth) Belkin Pro Cycling Team at 1.53,
10 J-C Peraud (Fr) AG2R La Mondiale at 2.08,
11 B De Clercq (Bel) Lotto Belisol at 2.12,
12 M Rogers (Aus) Team Saxo-Tinkoff at 2.26,
13 A Valverde Belmonte (Sp) Movistar Team at 2.32,
14 D Martin (Irl) Garmin-Sharp at 2.36,
15 R Porte (Aus) Sky Procycling at 2.49,
16 D Moreno Fernandez (Sp) Katusha at 3.06,
17 R Gesink (Neth) Belkin Pro Cycling Team at 3.11,
18 M Kwiatkowski (Pol) Omega Pharma-Quick Step at 3.14,
19 R Bardet (Fr) AG2R La Mondiale at 3.15,
20 M Monfort (Bel) RadioShack Leopard at 3.31.
Selected others: 45 P Kennaugh (GB) Sky Procycling at 12mins 38secs, 89 D Millar (GB) Garmin-Sharp at 23.07, 127 G Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling at 27.56, 134 I Stannard (GB) Sky Procycling at 28.39, 150 M Cavendish (GB) Omega Pharma-Quick Step at 32.36.
1 C Froome (GB) Sky Procycling 61hr 11min 43sec,
2 B Mollema (Neth) Belkin Pro Cycling Team at 4min 14sec,
3 A Contador Velasco (Sp) Team Saxo-Tinkoff at 4.25,
4 R Kreuziger (Cz Rep) Team Saxo-Tinkoff at 4.28,
5 L Ten Dam (Neth) Belkin Pro Cycling Team at 4.54,
6 N Alexander Quintana Rojas (Col) Movistar Team at 5.47,
7 J Fuglsang (Den) Astana Pro Team at 6.22,
8 J Rodriguez Oliver (Sp) Katusha at 7.11,
9 J-C Peraud (Fr) AG2R La Mondiale at 7.47,
10 D Martin (Irl) Garmin-Sharp at 8.28,
11 D Martin (Irl) Garmin-Sharp at 8.28,
12 M Rogers (Aus) Team Saxo-Tinkoff at 9.54,
13 A Talansky (US) Garmin-Sharp at 12.32,
14 M Monfort (Bel) RadioShack Leopard at 13.47,
15 A Valverde Belmonte (Sp) Movistar Team at 14.42,
16 C Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team at 15.40,
17 M Nieve Ituralde (Sp) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 18.12,
18 A Schleck (Lux) RadioShack Leopard at 19.14,
19 D Moreno Fernandez (Sp) Katusha at 21.42,
20 D Navarro Garcia (Sp) Cofidis, Solutions Credits at 23.36.
Selected others: 72 P Kennaugh (GB) Sky Procycling at 1hr 26mins 32secs, 99 D Millar (GB) Garmin-Sharp at 1.42.13, 140 M Cavendish (GB) Omega Pharma-Quick Step at 2.15.36, 147 I Stannard (GB) Sky Procycling at 2.21.06, 162 G Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling at 2.29.05.