Chris Froome came another step closer to victory in Paris after the second of four hard stages in the Alps, while Romain Bardet’s solo stage win provided a much-needed boost of morale to French cycling.
With second, third and – in the 24-year-old Bardet’s case – sixth in the 2014 Tour to live up to, this year illness, injury and simply being outclassed means Bardet, France’s highest-placed rider, is currently 10th overall. But if stage wins are consequently the host nation’s only way of keeping their heads high, it all went to plan here.
The paroxysms of enthusiasm among French TV commentators as Bardet roared away over the Glandon summit and then soloed up the series of 18 hairpins on the spectacular Lacets de Montvernier for a lone victory left no doubt as to the importance of this win. To cap it all, Bardet’s closest pursuer, Pierre Rolland, was also French and former President Nicolas Sarkozy was on hand at the finish to congratulate the winners personally.
Explaining why the French had underperformed so badly this year, Bardet said: “We had a lot of pressure on us from last year and we are not ready for that yet. Next year I will come back for the 21 stages, today is all about breakaways.”
Bardet said he had attacked over the Glandon just as Dane Jakob Fuglsang, moving away with him, had crashed. It later emerged the Astana rider had been clipped by a race motorbike, whose driver was subsequently expelled from the Tour. “I was very sorry for Jakob but I had to go, it was now or never,” Bardet said.
The pressure on Bardet had been even higher after he failed to live up to expectations on Wednesday’s ascent to Pra Loup – the same climb where the AG2R La Mondiale rider had won in the Critérium du Dauphiné last month– and another top French climber, Thibaut Pinot, crashed out to leave the road open for a German win. Both Pinot and Bardet had also messed up tactically when attacking on a previous breakaway to Mende, and Merseysider Steve Cummings promptly shot past them for the win. Here, Bardet hit the bullseye.
Back in the leader’s group, a much anticipated onslaught by Movistar failed to materialise and indeed their co-leader Alejandro Valverde, third overall, came within a whisker of cracking on the monster climb up Glandon.
Valverde quickly regained contact but even if Froome was left with just one team-mate for support, Geraint Thomas – riding the Tour of his life to remain in fourth overall – the leader proved more than capable of responding to all the attacks.
“It’s hard to control things in these mountains,” said Nicolas Portal, the sporting director of Froome’s Team Sky. “The Glandon is very hard but the team did very well to hold off the attacks that were made against us. We did well to weather the storm.”
After the stage Froome continued to face a slowing but steady series of questions about doping insinuations, including one about whether his bike had been tested for a secret motor. He confirmed that – along with five other riders, including Bardet – it had been checked, but added that he believed such tests, carried out regularly during the Tour, were a good thing.
Friday’s summit finish to La Toussuire may bring back memories of 2012 for Froome. The long Alpine climb was where the rivalry between Froome and Bradley Wiggins, already simmering in 2011, erupted when Froome moved ahead in the closing stages, briefly gapping his team-mate and race leader. “The incident in 2012 was at the root of it all,” said Froome two years ago. “I’m not sure it was that big a problem but it was all played out so much in the media, it was allowed to escalate.”
Froome expects to come under attack from the start on the short but punchy 138km (86-mile) Alpine trek. “Alpe d’Huez [tomorrow’s stage] is better known, but this is a much harder stage,” he said.
With his eye increasingly on conserving yellow, Froome has sacrificed his other lead in a secondary classification, King of the Mountains. Double stage-winner Joaquim Rodriguez, who racked up points in that competition after taking part in a day-long break, is now wearing the polka dot jersey.
There was a setback for Mark Cavendish’s chances of victory on the Champs-Elysées on Sunday after team-mate Mark Renshaw, his main wingman for the sprints, abandoned. But first there are two dramatic days in the Alps.Reuse content