Tour de France 2015: 'This is start of real race for yellow,' says Chris Frome

Sky's race leader expects major rivals to attack on first mountain stage

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Chris Froome may already be in yellow after just nine days’ racing, and in a stronger position than he could have hoped in this year’s Tour de France, but with all of the key mountain stages to come, starting on Tuesday, the Sky leader wisely preaches caution.

“It is up to the other teams to put pressure on us, we’re getting into the heart of the race now,” Froome said on Monday’s rest day. “This is where the real race for yellow truly starts.”

The 30-year-old recognised that having an advantage over all his rivals – ranging from 12 seconds on American Tejay van Garderen to over eight minutes on France’s Thibaut Pinot, third last year – gives him a strong starting point for the mountains. But he was adamant, too, that after nine days of fierce skirmishing the battle for overall victory was about to begin in earnest in the Pyrenees.

The first big challenge comes today on the  15-kilometre summit finish of La Pierre-Saint-Martin, a “beyond-category ascent” last tackled in 2007. The first major climb of 2015 comes after a rest day and represents a radical change of pace after previous stages – the type of ascent that often sees major contenders in trouble.

“It’s a key stage. It’s not as hard as the others but it is the first big test – it’s a gauge of what can happen over the next two weeks,” Froome said.

“It’ll be a very important day, and I’m very glad I’m not trying to make up time on somebody else. It’s up to the others to show their cards.”

That could include both Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador. The Colombian climber came through Sunday’s team time trial with flying colours and his team only three seconds behind Sky. Despite being nearly two minutes behind Froome, Quintana has not gone  all-out against the British rider on the climbs in any Grand Tour since 2013.  “He will be the person to look out for in this part in the race,” Froome said.

Quintana will have plenty of opportunities. Today’s summit finish is followed by two more very difficult stages in the Pyrenees – the mountain range’s single hardest climb, the Tourmalet, before a summit finish at Cauterets, and then another exceptionally difficult summit finish at Plateau de Beille on Thursday, where Contador won en route to victory in 2007.

“Alberto is definitely a guy who waits for a moment when other people’s weaknesses are exposed and he takes full advantage,” Froome added. “He’s lost a small amount of time, but he’s someone I can’t just let get up the road.”

On the plus side for Sky, Froome believes he is in a better physical condition than when he won the Tour two years ago. “Then I had won pretty much every race beforehand. I did feel that, once I was past the halfway mark, I was almost hanging on to the finish. This year I’m a lot fresher, a lot more mentally prepared. I feel as if I’m getting stronger.”

One key difference from last year, when Sky started out with Richie Porte as a second option, is that they are putting all their general classification eggs into one basket with Froome.

This was confirmed by Froome’s team-mate Geraint Thomas, lying eighth overall. When asked if he could either make the podium or represented a plan B for Sky, his answer to both questions was a flat “No”, qualified by calling a possible podium finish an “out of this world” result. Thomas said he would be focusing on his team worker’s role and supporting Froome all the way to Paris.

Rival team Tinkoff-Saxo suffered a dramatic loss to their team worker line-up yesterday when one of their key domestiques, Italian Ivan Basso, announced he was quitting after being diagnosed with testicular cancer.

Basso, 37, a vital climber for Contador, said that an examination, following an injury on stage five, had revealed the cancer.

Contador said: “It was a very tough blow… we never imagined a day like this. Ivan and  I have spent 120 of the past 180 days together. I’m sure we’ll be together to celebrate in Paris.”