Merckx: Froome can dominate for years
Eddy Merckx sent a warning to the rest of cycling yesterday, saying he did not see anyone beating Chris Froome for "the next few years" at the Tour de France after the Team Sky rider showed his all-round class with a perfectly judged time-trial win in the French Alps.
Froome beat Dutchman Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), his likely rival for gold in the same event in Rio next month, by 21 seconds over a nasty, hilly 17km course from Sallanches to Megeve to claim his second stage win of this year's race.
It was Froome's seventh stage win overall at the Tour.
Ireland's Dan Martin finished a respectable 18th in a time of 32:11, but dropped one place in the general classification, to 10th overall, as South African Louis Meintjes leapfrogged the Etixx QuickStep rider by just three seconds.
Martin's time was 1:28 slower than Froome, who completed the testing climb in the shadow of Mont Blanc in a time of 30:43, snatching the stage from long-time leader Dumoulin by 21 seconds.
Dumoulin won the other time trial of this Tour, stage 13 to La Caverne du Pont d'Arc, and had been seen as the favourite again here but could not match Froome in the latter part of this course.
Britain's Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange), third overall, gained two seconds on second-placed Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) in what was supposed to be his weakest discipline, and now lies just 24 seconds behind the Dutchman.
Both men, though, are fighting something of a rearguard action, with Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Romain Bardet (AG2R) and Richie Porte (BMC) all within a minute of Yates.
Porte, in particular, is closing fast, taking fourth place in the time trial yesterday and climbing extremely well.
But for his puncture on the second stage, when he lost 1min 45sec, the Tasmanian would in the podium places already and he promised to fight for one over the forthcoming two Alpine stages.
That battle is simmering nicely, then, which is more than can be said for the yellow jersey battle.
Even Froome conceded yesterday that victory in Paris on Sunday will come down not so much to whether his rivals can eat into his near four-minute lead in the Alps, but whether the can "stay safe, out of trouble".
In other words: stay upright. Only a crash or something idiotic from a fan can prevent him winning his third title.
Merckx, who won five Tours from 1969-74 in a reign of such terror that he acquired the nickname 'the Cannibal', said he was impressed by the Sky rider.
"Chris is a very great champion," said the Belgian. "He can win more (Tours). If you look at the guys behind him, I don't know who can beat him in the next years.
"He's complete. He's a good time triallist, he's good at ascents, he's overall. He's the best of the moment and his team-mates are as strong as his rivals."
This last point is, perhaps, the biggest bone of contention that has emerged this year as far as Sky and Froome are concerned.
With speculation regarding the legitimacy of Froome's performances far less pronounced than it was in 2013 and 2015, attention has turned to the power of Froome's team, with rival teams and riders complaining that moneybags Sky have bought up an army of potential grand tour winners and got them all working for the two-time champion.
There is some truth in that. Sky have four riders in the top 20 of the general classification, with Wout Poels, who has really come on strong in the last few days, 33rd.
But Sky rightly point out that it is up to others to stop them. No other team, seemingly, came with a game-plan even to try.
As Froome pointed out yesterday, no other team have eight riders working with the sole purpose of getting their leader home in as quick a time as possible.
Either way, Froome got his tactics and his ride spot on yesterday. One of only two men to opt for a rear disc wheel - he thanked his team for convincing him to use it - he paced himself to perfection, going quicker through each time-check after lying fifth at the 6.5km mark. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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