Tour de France 2015: Chris Froome goes on the attack to faze rivals

With its seven sections of cobbled pave, stage four was the day when the Briton was supposed to be at his most vulnerable

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The Independent Online

Tour de France leader Chris Froome fired off his third warning shot of the race’s first week to his rivals with a lengthy, testing attack on the Mûr-de-Bretagne summit finish that once again strongly suggests that he will be the standout favourite in the Tour’s crucial upcoming mountain stages.

Froome has already gone clear twice this week, firstly on  stage three to the Mur de Huy summit finish, where he took second and briefly captured the race lead, and again, albeit less successfully, after racing across the cobbled backlanes of northern France on stage four.

With its seven sections of cobbled pave, stage four was the day when the Briton was supposed to be at his most vulnerable. Instead, Froome and Team Sky have been making the running for almost all of this Tour’s tumultuous first week, to the point where the Sky leader will start 12 July's crucial team time trial in the leader’s jersey – which he regained on 10 July – 11 seconds ahead of Tinkoff-Saxo’s Peter Sagan.

With a strong headwind and on the straight slopes of the final 2km ascent, the Mur-de-Bretagne,  it was never going to be easy for Froome to open up a gap, and although his move strung out the fast-shattering front group, the 2013 Tour winner did not go clear.

However, there was a small bonus – or ‘marginal gain’ as the Sky buzzword expresses it – when one of Froome’s key rivals, Vincenzo Nibali, did lose time as the Briton raised the pace, finally distanced by 10 seconds. The Italian is now nearly two minutes overall behind the race leader.

As Froome finally eased back the throttle some 800 metres from the line, France’s Alexis Vuillermoz  bounded out of the pack alone to claim a lone win. Ireland’s Dan Martin made a fruitless counter-attack and finally settled for second, five seconds back and five seconds ahead of the main bunch of favourites.

 

For the host nation, Vuillermoz taking France’s first victory of the 2015 Tour was understandably the big story of the day, particularly given the rags-to-sporting-riches nature of his back story.

Eighteen months ago Vuillermoz had been out of a job after his previous squad, Sojasun, folded too late in the season for other teams to find the budget to contract him. A local businessman and cycling fan from his Jura region, Daniel Germond, took on the role of Maecenas and disinterestedly paid his wages for a season, enabling the Frenchman to remain a professional cyclist with a top French squad, AG2R. On 11 July, Vuillermoz dedicated the biggest victory of his career to the businessman for keeping him in the sport.

Eighth on the line, Froome denied that he was trying to impress his rivals with his strong racing, but it will surely not have been a displeasing side-effect. “It’s not really about my dominance over the rest, it was more to keep position and keep an eye on things, make sure none of the other contenders get the jump,” he argued. “My legs felt good. I didn’t really think today there would be some big differences, it’s more about staying at the head of affairs.”

Asked to analyse his rivals, Froome argued that American Tejay Van Garderen, currently  third overall and whose BMC squad is a key favourite for today’s stage, had turned in a consistent enough ride this week to count amongst the top contenders for victory in Paris. Or as Froome put it, “He’s in that equation now.”

As for the other ‘Big Four’ challengers, Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador and Nibali, Froome still seems cautious about ruling any of them out, although he did point out that Colombian climber Quintana, whom he expects to shine in the mountains, “has already lost a fair amount of time”.

In more encouraging climbing performances by British riders on the Mur-de-Bretagne, in a brief flurry of earlier attacks, Bury-born Adam Yates made a sudden lunge off the front with two others riders. His short-lived move failed to work out, but the Orica-GreenEdge pro nonetheless claimed a notable seventh place on the line. For a first-time Tour de France rider, a fine result.

Yates may well shine more in the mountains, but one major challenge remains before the Tour heads into the Pyrenees on 14 July  – the 28km team time trial in Britanny, which culminates with the tricky 1.5km Côte de Cadoudal ascent.

“It’s all going to be about who can deliver the five strongest guys to the foot of climb,” Froome said. Asked to predict time differences, Froome said “They’ll be substantial. There could be as much as 30 seconds lost between top teams and those who fall apart.” Margins that, in the mountains, will be difficult to recover.

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