Froome takes advantage as key rivals miss break
Chris Froome's battle for a second Tour de France title received an important early boost yesterday 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 Zeeland saw him move up to 10th place overall.
Things did not go nearly so well for his compatriot Mark Cavendish, whose Etixx-Quick Step team forged the key breakaway yesterday.
Cavendish started his long, drawn-out sprint at a blistering pace but was outpaced by Germany's Andre Greipel.
To cap it all, as Cavendish reached the final metres, veteran Swiss star 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 his leadout man Mark Renshaw had initiated his acceleration too early, and said: "Losing out to Andre 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 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 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 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."
The Italian suffered another setback when he punctured 25km from the line, and finally the gap of 88 seconds on Froome and Contador may not have seemed such a bad loss.
The riders face a very different kind of challenge on today's short, sharp uphill finish in Huy, in Belgium, where climbers like Quintana, and perhaps Nibali, may be able to strike back. (© Independent News Service)