Tuesday 12 December 2017

Friendless Froome hangs on as peloton sharks circle him

Ian Chadband in Bagneres-de-Bigorre

Now his rivals know that Chris Froome is not just a bully when his mates are around. On a day when Team Sky's train, for once, came careering off the track – and in Peter Kennaugh's case, plunging five yards down a grassy bank – the Tour de France leader, friendless and encircled by sharks, survived bite after bite to still be pristine in yellow here.

If the dazzling climb up to Ax 3 Domaines on Saturday said everything about Froome's talent, then a second, more demanding Sunday schlep over four Category One climbs in the Pyrenees told his opponents all they needed to know about his spirit and guts.

Dan Martin became the first Irishman since his uncle Stephen Roche 21 years ago to win a Tour stage, Froome the battling fireman proved, if anything, even more impressive than Froome the twisting firestarter.

"One of the hardest days I've ever had on a bike," he said, after retaining his one-minute-25-second lead over nearest challenger Alejandro Valverde.

Sky were missing the target from the start and, by the end, with Vasili Kiryienka out of the race altogether after failing to beat the time limit, Kennaugh having suffered his tumble and, worst of all, Richie Porte dropping from second overall to 33rd after losing 17 minutes, Sky were on the ropes as their fortunes took a grim turn.

Yet Froome was calmness personified amid the calamities, he shrugged and said: "This is bike racing. Today showed us there is a lot more to it than going fast up a mountain finish." Indeed. It is about sheer, bloody-minded resilience, too.

The peloton wanted revenge. The attacks poured in from the start and Sky had, by the top of the first climb, the not overly ferocious Col de Portet-d'Aspet, all been dropped, including Froome's trustiest ally, Porte. Within 18 miles. Amazing.

Froome looked momentarily fazed. What the hell was going on? He glanced across to see Kennaugh disappearing when Garmin's Ryder Hesjedal, trying to escape plummeting a steep, grassy bank, nudged the young Olympic champion down there instead.

Then we really saw Froome's sangfroid. He was alone, all around, the vultures hovered and swooped. At least six times over the 104-mile parcours, Froome had to leap up in the saddle to chase down attacks. The idea was to weary him. Four times in two kilometres Nairo Quintana tried to nail him. Each time, Froome hit back.

It was great theatre. The victor, Martin, felt Froome's pursuers had let a weakened Sky off the hook by not launching even more concerted assaults. Yet Froome just shrugged: "They did go for me. It is not easy to follow Quintana. He's a light little Colombian who can fly up hills so to cover his attacks definitely wasn't easy. But I was ready for more."

Today is a rest day and how Sky will be relieved about that. Kiryienka came home 38 minutes behind Froome, leaving Sky down to eight men now. They were, Froome conceded, major tactical blows, particularly now they don't have the Porte 'plan B' to turn to. "It makes us a little more exposed." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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