Chris Froome savagely ripped the heart out of his Tour de France competition on Tuesday by streaking to victory on the first mountain stage of this year’s race.
The 30-year-old Briton, who started the day in yellow, blitzed one rival after another before coming home alone at the end of the 167km 10th stage from Tarbes to la Pierre-Saint Martin.
The Sky team leader made his attack with a little over 6km left on the brutal 15km climb to the finish.
At that point, reigning champion Vincenzo Nibali had already been dropped and two-time former winner Alberto Contador was struggling.
They came home respectively 21st at 4min 27sec and 11th at 2min 51sec to see their overall title hopes shredded.
Only Colombian climber Nairo Quintana, and American Tejay Van Garderen to a certain extent, managed to limit their losses.
Quintana finished third on the stage at 1min 04sec, suffering the insult of Froome’s domestique Richie Porte beating him to the line for second place to deny him a pair of bonus seconds.
— Le Tour de France (@letour) July 14, 2015
The Colombian moved up to third overall, though he’s now 3min 09sec behind Froome, albeit with several mountain stages to come.
Van Garderen rode a solid race to come home 10th at 2min 30sec and hold onto second overall at 2min 52sec.
But it was a miserable day for French hopes Jean-Christophe Peraud, Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet who were dropped on the lower slopes of the final climb.
In the first half of the race, a two-man breakaway of Pierrick Fedrigo and Kenneth Van Bilsen built up a 15-minute lead on the peloton.
But by the time they reached the foot of the final climb to the summit finish, their lead was down to just 2min 30sec, and their time in the sun was almost up.
Several of the favourites’ teams pushed the pace as their leaders fought to start the climb at the front of the peloton.
Van Bilsen gave up the ghost 13km from the end while Fedrigo lasted another 1.5km before the battle for the stage victory overtook him.
By that point the peloton had been shredded under the pace set by Quintana’s Movistar team to just 25 riders.
But already for the hosts it made miserable viewig as Peraud, runner-up to Nibali in 2014, Pinot, third last year, and Bardet, sixth 12 months ago, were amongst the debris.
As Fedrigo was caught, Dutchman Robert Geesink counter-attacked alone.
But incredibly it was Nibali next to crack more than 10km out from the finish.
— Le Tour de France (@letour) July 14, 2015
Spaniard Rafael Valls had set off after Geesink and the two formed a tandem at the front with a 30sec lead.
Joaquim Rodriguez, the winner on the stage three Mur de Huy climb, and last year’s king of the mountains Rafal Majka were the next to be dropped.
Sky took up the pace-setting but Quintana’s teammate Alejandro Valverde attacked and the reaction from Froome’s team reeled in Valls as only a dozen riders were left in the yellow jersey group.
Porte took over pace-setting and Contador was next to feel the pace and drop off, with Valverde following shortly afterwards.
Van Garderen also cracked as Geesink was caught, leaving only Froome and Quintana in Porte’s wheel.
But when Froome launched his decisive attack, he dealt a crushing blow to his rivals.
Sir Dave Brailsford is concerned Team Sky have been the victim of computer hacking by critics convinced Tour de France leader Chris Froome is using performance enhancing drugs.
Froome, during the 2013 Tour which he won, was subjected to sustained interrogations and his performances were pored over by critics, with some using data to justify their stance.
The 30-year-old Team Sky leader has always insisted he competes clean and has described “clowns” interpreting power data as “unhelpful”. He is prepared to be a spokesman for drug-free sport.
Froome led the Tour by 12 seconds on yesterday’s first rest day and could extend his advantage in the Pyrenees this week, beginning with today’s 167-kilometres 10th stage from Tarbes to La Pierre-Saint-Martin ski station.
That would give his detractors, many of whom are active on Twitter, ammunition to fuel their argument which Froome and Brailsford believe is flawed.
Asked if he is ready for the almost inevitable doping questions, Team Sky principal Brailsford said: “It’s part of the game, isn’t it? If he does well (today), the rest of the Tour it’s ‘How do you know he’s not doping?’
“The question of how to prove a negative is always going to be a difficult one.
“We think someone has hacked into our training data and got Chris’ files, so we’ve got some legal guys on the case there.
“I would never mention a name (but) ethically and morally if you are going to accuse someone of doping then don’t cheat.”
Team Sky tightly controls access to riders’ data, which can be skewed and does not account for all variables.
Brailsford, who does not have access to all riders’ data, added: “I used to worry about it a lot more, but I don’t any more. It’s part of the game. Just try to be honest, tell the truth, be open.”
Reigning Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali says he’s not panicking despite a poor first week in which he lost almost two-and-a-half minutes to Chris Froome.
The 30-year-old Italian appeared to have got off to a flying start when he beat all three of his ‘fab four’ rivals in the opening stage time-trial during a heatwave in Utrecht.
But since then, as the weather changed, he’s rolled from one blow to another in his hopes of overall victory.
He lost a minute-and-a-half to race leader Froome, the 2013 champion, on the windy second stage to Zeeland, another 11 seconds to the Briton on the third stage finish up the Mur de Huy, 10 more seconds on a similar finish on the Mur de Bretagne on Saturday and then more than 30 seconds in Sunday’s team time-trial.
He currently sits 13th overall at 2min 22sec of Froome and behind both of the other two ‘fantastic four’ Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana as well. But he’s not worried.
— Le Tour de France (@letour) July 12, 2015
“I’m in good form but not every year is the same. The only thing to do is keep calm and pedal,” he said. “I’m feeling serene because I know I’ve done my best.
There was a lot of pressure from fans and the media.
“I’ve had some highs and lows. On the Mur de Bretagne I had a bad day, it was a very difficult finish.
“But Alberto (Contador) had the same thing on the Mur de Huy (where he lost 18sec).”
Quintana is only 23sec ahead of Nibali in the standings in ninth but is considered by most to be the best climber in the world.
Nibali agrees with Froome that Quintana could be the man to watch in the mountains.
“He’s hiding, we never see him (at the front of the peloton). Froome is certainly in the best form but Nairo hasn’t yet shown what he’s capable of,” said Nibali.
Froome may have appeared imp-regnable so far but Nibali believes he will eventually run out of steam..
“We’ve not seen anything yet in the mountains but we’ll certainly know more after (the finish at) La Pierre-Saint Martin.
“Right now we know Chris is in form but (his trainer) Paolo Slongo thinks he might come unstuck in the Alps.”