Chris Froome (Sky) won the stage 17 time trial at the Tour de France on Wednesday.
Finishing second was Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), while Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) took third on the mountain course, which featured two Cat. 2 climbs before a fast descent into the finishing town of Chorges.
Froome remains the overall leader of the race with four days left. Contador is 4:34 back in second, while Roman Kreuziger (Saxo) is 4:51 behind in third.
“I couldn’t believe it when I got over the line and saw I had the fastest time,” Froome said. “I went into today just thinking I would try and limit my losses today, thinking about the next few days.”
American Tejay van Garderen held the lead with about a third of the riders left to ride, but rainy weather slowed down much of the field. When the rain stopped and the road began to dry, however, van Garderen’s time on the 32-kilometer course was bound to be beaten.
Contador eventually took the lead after stopping the clock in 51:42 with two riders left on the course — Bauke Mollema (Belkin) and Froome. Mollema, slowed by a near-crash close to the finish that saw him slam into the barriers, did not contend for the win.
“I just went too fast into the corner and my brakes were not working well on the final descent,” said Mollema, who fell from second to fourth in the GC. “I lost confidence and I just went too late into the corner.”
It was then up to Froome to chase down Contador’s time, which he did on the final run into Chorges.
Crucial bike change
The difference might have come down to bike setup: Contador opted to use a road bike with a rear disc wheel and aero bars clipped on, while Froome switched from a road bike to a TT bike just before the summit of the second climb.
“That very well could have been the difference,” Froome said of his bike swap. “I felt for me personally … I needed the bigger gears on the descent.”
Froome was 11 seconds behind Contador at that point, but he zoomed down the mountain on his aerodynamic setup and was able to grab the victory.
Other riders also opted to switch bikes, while some, like Contador, stayed on road bikes with aero bars for the entire stage. Van Garderen was one of those riders that decided to switch to a more aero setup before the finishing descent.
“The bike change was planned, we reconned it in the morning and thought that would be faster, and I think that was the way to go,” van Garderen said.
Forecasted rain began to fall as the second half of the field made its way through the course. Times slowed down dramatically as the two downhill sections became slippery. For a little while, it looked like van Garderen’s time would hold up.
Pierre Rolland (Europcar), for example, said he lost 3:00 on the first descent because of the falling risk posed by the rain. Other riders were seen hammering on the brakes entering the tight corners.
Once the rain stopped, however, the times started to go down. Coupled with the fact that the leaders started the stage later, van Garderen’s top time was all but destined to be erased.
Valverde, Schleck surprise
Riding the entire course on a standard road bike setup without aero bars, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) flew through the course with a then-fastest time of 52:03. He floated up the two climbs and cruised down the descents.
Valverde was second overall entering last Friday’s stage 13, but a broken wheel cost him valuable time. And when he was unable to make it back to the front group after the peloton fractured in the crosswinds, he plummeted to 16th.
Valverde is now 12th overall, 15:12 behind Froome.
“It was a good time trial for me,” Valverde said. I’m happy with my performance.”
Another rider making some noise was Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Leopard), who finished 15th at 2:27 back. Schleck has struggled since his return to the bike following a crash last summer that led to a broken pelvis.
“I’m not the best descender. I was careful not to fall, but I went full block,” said Schleck, who is 16th overall at 23:34 back. “It’s very hard, but I felt good in the stage. It gives me great motivation for the coming days in the Alps.”
Tough day for Peraud
Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r) crashed midway through the course during a reconnaissance ride before the stage began, and a trip to the hospital confirmed that he fractured the outside of his right collarbone.
Since the bone was still in place, he decided to stay in the race and try to make his way to Paris on Sunday. But things fell apart for the Frenchman near the end of Wednesday’s time trial.
With just a few kilometers left, Peraud lost his balance on a tricky right-hand turn and fell hard on his right shoulder. In obvious pain, he was helped into his team car that was trailing him and abandoned the race.
The Tour resumes with Thursday’s stage 18, a 168.5km route that has six rated climbs — including two ascents of l’Alpe d’Huez.