With less than three weeks to go to the Tour de France, defending champion Chris Froome suffered an unexpected setback yesterday when he lost the lead of the Critérium du Dauphiné race to arch-rival Alberto Contador of Spain.
Until two kilometres from the summit of yesterday's final climb at Finhaut-Emosson, Froome seemed in control, with his Sky team-mates setting a relentless pace that shrank the peloton to less than a dozen contenders.
However, when Contador suddenly darted away and opened up a gap of nearly 20 seconds, Sky's supremacy disintegrated. Froome, his head rocking with the effort, initially used key mountain wing-man Richie Porte to try and hold the gap, and then attempted to chase the Spaniard down himself.
Although Contador's margin remained at 20 seconds right the way to the line thanks to Froome's sustained countercharge, the Sky leader suffered badly in the closing metres and several of his rivals were able to regain contact. Contador finally finished fourth behind Dutch winner Lieuwe Westra, with Froome slipping to seventh – and losing the race lead.
Injured in a crash on Friday, Froome initially seemed relatively unscathed, just needing two stitches in an elbow. But he admitted later that his injuries took more of a toll than he expected.
"Obviously I'm disappointed to lose the yellow jersey, but in the same breath, I think we can take a lot away from today – it was such a strong team performance," Froome told Sky's website. "I took a bit of a knock on Friday in the crash and lost a bit of energy because of that. I felt a bit blocked through my thighs, especially where I landed, but I'm not going to let that get me down."
Injuries or no injuries, this week's racing in the Critérium du Dauphiné has shown that the performance gap between Froome, who dominated the 2013 Tour de France and Contador has narrowed considerably.
And with just eight seconds separating Contador from Froome in today's second and last Alpine stage, the battle starts again. Or as Froome put it: "It's never over till it's over."
Meanwhile Sir Bradley Wiggins came fourth in the opening time trial of the Tour de Suisse yesterday.
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