'Froomedog' takes bite out of Tour rivals
On Mont Ventoux's legendary moonscape, one giant leap for Chris Froome towards the 100th Tour de France title.
With a performance which felt almost other-worldly, perhaps the finest stage win in the annals of British cycling, this pipe cleaner of a man placed one hand on his heart and punched the other towards the Provence skies as he crossed the line on the Tour's most feared slopes.
It was a victory full of pain and overflowing with emotion. The pain came from throttling all his rivals, one by one, on a 20.8km climb into uncharted realms of self-discovery with an effort so monumental that, for the first time in his career, he needed an oxygen boost before he walked gingerly and a bit light-headedly to the podium.
The emotion came with the victory occurring on Bastille Day on the mountain where Tommy Simpson, the first Briton to wear the yellow jersey, perished. Now the latest to wear the hallowed garment became the first British rider ever to conquer the mountain and win at its summit.
It was 46 years and one day since Simpson's death, amid anything up to half a million fans lining the slopes, many of whom had earlier paid their respects laying tributes at the granite monument to him which stands at the roadside just a mile from the 1,912m summit.
It was perhaps just happy chance, Froome reckoned, that the last man left alongside him, Nairo Quintana, should finally weaken at almost exactly that spot as the 28-year-old pedalled clear. "It was just coincidence, but definitely worth paying tribute to him," he said.
What followed, he said, was just like a dream, the greatest moment of his sporting life. With the crowds cheering his every last, grimacing effort, he sped away up the barren slopes, taking 29 seconds out of Quintana, an exceptional Colombian climber, over that last mile.
Behind him – as he took the final, evil hairpin into cycling immortality to win beneath the old white observatory tower that has witnessed so much extraordinary Tour drama for over 60 years – were a trail of broken hearts and spirits.
Alberto Contador, from whom Froome had sped away with 7km left like Gordon the Big Engine showing off to Thomas the Tank Engine, ended up losing 1min 40sec to him and is now 4:25 adrift overall.
Bauke Mollema, Belkin's Dutchman nearest in the general classification, was beaten by 1:46 to now lie 4:14 behind. All around could be heard suggestions from other riders and team directeurs that the Tour was now Froome's.
Of course, you could never get him to admit such a thing – "There's still the hardest week and hardest stages to come," was the mantra – but who can beat him now? Perhaps only himself.
Froome admitted that he had never had to put on an oxygen mask after a race, so was not sure of his long-term reaction. "I hope it's relatively normal given that it was a full-gas effort up to the finish. I was feeling quite faint, and short of breath at the top, so five to 10 minutes on the oxygen helped. I feel much better now, thanks."
Good old 'Froomedog'. Still politeness personified after savaging his rivals. Perhaps, though, the best in the world can only now hope that, somehow, he did take so much out of himself here with this masterpiece that he may have weakened himself for the week which still lies ahead, with three huge Alpine stages and a really difficult, undulating time trial too.
It looks like wishful thinking. Froome seems as at home now as an Alpine mountain goat, as he reprised his wonderful victory last weekend on the Pyrenean peak Ax 3 Domaines and watched the Sky train rediscover its mojo again, with the standout Pete Kennaugh and rejuvenated Richie Porte the last to guide him to his final duel with Contador and Quintana.
It felt almost an insane task to try to reach the summit yesterday afternoon by car amid the hundreds upon hundreds of hopeless amateur Eddy Merckx impersonators puffing up through the cedar forest and into the bleak, lunar landscape.
The excitement was infecting everyone, ebullient Peter Sagan even treating the cameras to a wheelie on Ventoux's slopes after adding to his green jersey points lead with an intermediate sprint triumph.
Organisers, and the riders themselves, had requested calm on the roads as the riders ascended. Some chance. Such was the familiar chaos as the lunatic fringe bustled alongside the riders that, when Froome made his move, you held your breath, fearing one false move could ruin everything.
Nothing could stop him, though. The longest stage of the Tour was an epic, with a Movistar-pushed peloton speeding along for 220km of this 242.5km stage from Givors, so that they reached the foot of the mountain about 40 minutes ahead of schedule.
It was so hot and hectic over four tiddly climbs that some riders had been dropped even before Ventoux. France, winless in their historic Tour, demanded a hero and Sylvain Chavanel tried to oblige but, alas, was swallowed up when Movistar's Quintana made his move with 13.5km remaining.
Froome felt the Colombian was far too dangerous to let go too far. Kennaugh and Porte pushed on magnificently until only Contador was left among the chasers and Froome just skated clear of him. Quite amazing.
Quintana was next, caught and passed with 6.5km left, but he fought back to leave Froome believing the Colombian would actually win the stage, only for him to run out of gas in the final 2km battle.
Froome's last push was decisive. His attacks, he said, were less calculated and more based on feeling. "It becomes who can dig deepest, who can suffer more," he mused. At the moment, he is doing all the digging and the rest are doing all the suffering.
Ireland's Dan Martin was one of those left in his wake, finishing 14th on the stage, 2 mins 36secs adrift. He remains 11th overall, while Nicolas Roche was 54th and is now 38th overall. (© Daily Telegraph, London)