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Fortress Froome returns in the Alps

BRIANÇON, France (VN)— Just six days ago, Chris Froome and his Sky teammates showed a rare hint of weakness when the peloton climbed high into the Pyrénées.

After Froome lost the maillot jaune on the stage 12 climb to Peyragudes, fans and pundits alike wondered whether Sky’s “Fortress Froome” would crack in the Alps. Could Sky control the peloton across the monstrous Col du Télégraph and Galibier? Would Froome buckle under the vicious attacks of Romain Bardet and Fabio Aru?

On Wednesday’s stage 17, Sky delivered an emphatic answer:

No way.

On a day that saw the peloton crest three famed cols — the Croix de Fer, Télégraph, and Galibier — Sky appeared bulletproof, tapping out tempo across the peaks that left the peloton in tatters. Froome and teammate Mikel Landa then took turns swatting back attacks from GC contenders as if they were chasing away a swarm of flies.

They then stomped on Froome’s closest rival, Astana’s Aru, who lost 30 seconds and toppled from second to fourth overall.

“It definitely showed we have the team to control the race at the moment, but this late in the race everyone is on their hands and knees,” Froome told reporters after the stage. “I am feeling a lot better than in the Pyrénées a week ago.”

Sky even allowed Alberto Contador to attack into an early breakaway up the Col de la Croix de Fer. He built a 3:30 advantage on the peloton. At the base of the Télégraph the British team began eating into Contador’s lead, and by the summit of the Galibier, both Froome and Landa had caught and dropped the Spaniard.

After the stage, Sky principal David Brailsford said the stage showed him which of Froome’s rivals were best on the climbs. And with the important individual time trial just three days away, Froome is now in the driver’s seat, Brailsford said.

“All things being equal we got to see who the best climbers were today and they couldn’t shake Chris, and that’s what they’re going to have to do,” Brailsford said. “Chris doesn’t have to go anywhere. They need to shake him.”

Froome relied heavily on the efforts of Landa, who stayed at the front of the peloton after Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) jumped away from the peloton 7km from the summit. Martin, who lost 50 seconds in the crosswinds on Tuesday’s stage to Romans Sur-Isere, has spent much of the Tour de France hunting for small gaps after he lost 1:25 in a crash on stage 9.

After Landa reeled in Martin, Ag2r La Mondiale’s Bardet put in several accelerations, surging away inside 5km to the summit. After each move, Landa and Froome chased back on. Landa sprinted to the front of the group to reestablish the tempo. Landa then helped pull the group down the valley into a block headwind toward the finish.

“I wasn’t worried about the situation,” Froome said. “There were big attacks going over the Galibier but my teammates rode such a fantastic race. Up until the final Mikel Landa buried himself to cover a few of those attacks.”

Landa now sits fifth in the general classification, 1:24 behind Froome. Landa is a talented time trialist. A strong ride during Saturday’s stage 20 time trial could boost him onto the podium.

Of course the team still needs to survive Thursday’s stage 18. It is the second of two alpine stages at this year’s Tour de France and finishes up the Col d’Izoard.

As he warmed down from his efforts, Landa said Wednesday’s stage was a challenge. Yet Sky was actually saving its efforts for Thursday.

“The goal was saving today, trying not to do too much effort,” Landa said. “Tomorrow we will give 100 percent.”

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