GAP, France (VN) — It wouldn’t have been the first time a Tour dream died on the descent to Gap.
Joseba Beloki’s devastating fall on the twisting, melted tarmac below the Col de Manse in the 2003 edition of the race ended his Tour hopes and — ultimately — his career. The image of Beloki’s brakes locking, his wheel wobbling, and his bike catapulting him to the ground, was in race leader Chris Froome’s mind as he negotiated the same curves today.
And then it very nearly happened to him.
Froome (Sky) was sitting just behind Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) when the Tour’s third-placed rider overcooked a right-hand turn and went down. Froome avoided Contador, but couldn’t avoid dropping off the road and into the grass to its left. He was unscathed, but on the steep descent, the few seconds it took to recover left him far behind rivals like Bauke Mollema (Belkin), Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff).
“It’s just one of those crazy things,” Froome said later. “One second you could be going for the finish and trying to win the race, and the next second you (could be) lying in the ditch with broken bones. Nothing’s guaranteed in cycling.”
If that thought rattled him, he didn’t show it. There wasn’t time. Instead, Froome, Contador, and Sky lieutenant Richie Poorte flew down the mountain in pursuit.
Later, safe on the valley floor in Gap, both of the Sky riders talked about the dangers of the stage’s finale.
“Whenever you tapped the brakes there, the back wheel would slide,” said Porte, who was quick to point out that the team was prepared for a risky ride today. “But we knew that was going to happen. It’s quite an infamous descent now, isn’t it? I think Chris is more than up to it. People have questioned his descending ability, but he wasn’t the one who crashed today.”
Froome, meanwhile, said Contador had ridden dangerously today. “Alberto was really taking risks in the descent in front of me…. (He) actually put me in danger,” said Froome. “I was purposefully laying of a little bit and trying to take it easy, but at the same time trying to keep touch with the SaxoBank guys who were really pushing the limit.”
Contador, meanwhile, was likely remembering his 2010 trip down the same descent when he planned his strategy today. During that Tour he took more than a minute out of his primary rival Andy Schleck on a rain-soaked road that left Schleck complaining the course was simply too dangerous.
Contador’s punchy, attacking style worked that day. Today it cost him — in skin, if not in time.
The Spaniard arrived at the finish bleeding from his knee, and concerned about a hand injury that he hoped would improve with ice this evening. But, he told reporters, the Tour de France cannot be won without risk.
“To go on calmly on the wheels in the peloton is never a big motivation for me,” said Contador. “You have to keep fighting, whether it’s at the start or the end of the race.”
Porte, meanwhile, saw Contador’s attacks not as calculated risk, but as a sign of increasing desperation
“I saw a kitchen sink being thrown at us,” he said. “They threw absolutely everything at us. I mean, the race isn’t over, we knew that. I think Contador and Kreuziger were good today. (Attacking) is what they have to do. I think if they keep doing that, it’s fine for us. We’re more than comfortable.”
Froome, meanwhile, said he was confident as well, thanks to teammate Porte. It’s something the Tour de France leader has said more than once already about the rising Australian star.
“I was just happy to get to the end without actually doing any damage,” said Froome. “I can’t say it was too fast, but it was really huge. It gave me a lot of confidence, having Richie Porte there…. He literally must have covered about 10 attacks.”
It is likely not the last time Froome will say it. Sky may have avoided disaster in Gap, but the Alps loom — literally — on the horizon.