Chris Froome’s battle for a second Tour de France title received an important early boost when a front group of 25 riders including the Briton gained nearly 90 seconds on defending race champion Vincenzo Nibali and another of the leading favourites, the Colombian Nairo Quintana.
On an enthralling, rain-soaked 60km mass breakaway across the flatlands and estuaries of the western Netherlands, Froome’s seventh place at the stage finish on the approach road to a massive flood protection dam in Zélande saw him move up to 10th place overall.
Things did not go nearly so well for his compatriot Mark Cavendish, back in the Tour after his appalling crash on the first stage of last year’s race, whose Etixx-Quick Step team forged the key breakaway on Sunday.
Cavendish started his long, drawn-out sprint at a blistering pace but was outpaced by Germany’s André Greipel and Slovakia’s Peter Sagan. To cap it all, as Cavendish slowed in the final metres, veteran Swiss star and former Olympic time trial champion Fabian Cancellara sneaked past to claim third and a four-second time bonus on the stage, thereby moving into the overall lead ahead of the rider who had been expected to take yellow, Cavendish’s team-mate Tony Martin.
Cavendish argued that he had made his acceleration too early, and said: “Losing out to André Greipel isn’t too much of a bad thing. It wasn’t like I had a bad sprint, you can see I’ve gone [accelerated] from too long.”
While Cavendish’s next chance of a bunch sprint will be on Wednesday, Team Sky leader Froome now has an important time cushion on two of his direct rivals.
“Two days down now and I couldn’t have hoped for much more at this stage,” Froome said afterwards. “This is a huge advantage for us now. Sitting in this position after one flat day out on the road, that’s fantastic. But this is a three-week race and we’ve seen things do change on a daily basis.”
Of the leading favourites, only double Tour de France winner Alberto Contador stayed with Froome when the split happened, although another small split in the 25-strong group within sight of the finishing gantry allowed the Briton to gain another four seconds on his Spanish rival. It was the icing on a sizeable cake that when Cavendish’s Etixx-Quick Step squad had powered away in the teeming rainstorm and gusting crosswinds, forging the key split in the bunch, Froome had had no way of telling exactly what was cooking.
“It was only a good few kilometres after the split happened that we actually found out that it was a smaller group and so many of the GC [general classification] guys had been distanced already,” Froome admitted.
“It was chaos out there for a few minutes with the storms, the winds, a nasty old stage.”
Froome added that in the difficult conditions he was surprised to hear that Nibali – who in theory is better equipped to profit from such complicated racing – had been dropped. “One second Nibali was right next to me... I couldn’t believe he was distanced,” Froome said. “That’s the nature of the racing here in Holland.”
Initially in a small group behind Froome and Contador with just one Astana team-mate for support, Nibali’s chances of recouping his losses seemed to rise when he was absorbed by Quintana’s chasing group, led by a much stronger Movistar team.
However, the Italian suffered another setback when he punctured 25 kilometres from the line, and finally the gap of 88 seconds on Froome and Contador may not have seemed such a bad loss.
Froome, on the other hand, has taken a big step forward, and he paid tribute to his two team-mates, Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard, who supported him in the lead group.
Such difficult, treacherous racing conditions are typical of Thomas and Stannard’s favoured hunting ground, the spring one-day Classics of northern Europe, and allowed them to protect their leader perfectly during the fraught, high-speed, 90-minute breakaway.
“For them, this is their playground, and that was a big reason for having them in the [Tour de France] team. They really lived up to that today,” Froome said.
He faces a very different kind of challenge on Monday’s short, sharp uphill finish in Huy, in Belgium, where climbers like Quintana, and perhaps Nibali, may be able to strike back. As Froome’s team-mate Thomas predicted after Sunday’s dramatic developments: “It’s certainly going to be nervous again after what happened here.”Reuse content