PEYRAGUDES, France (VN) — On the wall of Peyragudes Chris Froome’s rivals saw him stand, then sit, then weave, then drop. Within this uncharacteristic motion, they spotted weakness for the first time. Froome lost just 22 seconds, but the size of that gap may be less important than the fact that it exists.
“I just didn’t have the legs in the end to finish it,” Froome said. “Simple as that. No excuses. I just didn’t have the legs on the final kick.”
When was the last time Froome didn’t have the legs, even for a moment?
Froome and his powerful Sky team retained their aura of invincibility this Tour despite spending all of the last week with a slim lead on the overall. Though his rivals told us they could beat him — albeit cautiously — they seemed afraid to try. Even Thursday, across six categorized climbs, nearly 46 kilometers spent heading uphill, attack options aplenty, they waited until the last 300 meters. Because to shoot and miss against a marksman like Froome could and should spell a certain end.
It did not, though. And now this Tour is on.
Fabio Aru leads. Then six seconds to Froome, 25 to Romain Bardet, 55 to Uran, as of press time (there’s some controversy.)
Froome planned to attack at 5km to go, or maybe 2.5km to go if the timing felt better, his director said. Going for it on the last kick, a nasty ramp that tips close to 20 percent, was the final option. Sky teammates Mikel Nieve and Mikel Landa set an astounding pace. Froome appeared to be riding well. “I thought at one point I heard Froomey on the radio telling them to ride faster,” said LottoNL-Jumbo’s George Bennett, now ninth overall. “I wanted to ride up and punch him in the leg and say, ‘Bugger off, keep it this speed — I don’t know what it looked like on TV, but it was full gas from 70k out.”
In the end, Froome never made a move. The small group passed 5km, then 2.5km to go. Bennett had a go just after the red kite at 1km to go, just the second attack of the whole day. (Alberto Contador made the first, much earlier.) Then they hit the Peyragudes wall.
Bardet was best, Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac) was second. Landa, the faithful lieutenant, left his team leader behind. “If I would have gone for the stage I would have been a candidate to win it,” he said, eerily reminiscent of Froome dropping his own team leader, Bradley Wiggins, on this very same climb in 2012.
Froome is a self-assured fellow, but dropping out of yellow can’t feel good. He was curt but not rude on Thursday, congratulating Bardet and Aru for their rides. Does the loss hurt his confidence? “Yes and no,” said his director, Nicolas Portal. “In my opinion, I get the feeling that he lost a bit of energy at the end. It had been a long, long stage.”
Let’s not overstate Froome’s loss. Though interesting in its scarcity, like a rare bird, Froome’s few seconds of weakness occurred across nearly six hours of racing. He’s still incredibly strong, his rivals agree. “Froome still was very good today,” said Simon Yates. His Orica-Scott team director Matt White cautioned, “People will try to read a lot into it, but he’s in super shape. I wouldn’t be reading anything into today.”
Friday is a short, short stage. In just 101 kilometers to Foix the route will cross three category 1 climbs. It brings to mind the Formigal, where Froome lost the Vuelta a España, or the final stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné this year, where Richie Porte lost his lead. The GC contenders were unanimous atop Peyragudes: Friday will be bonkers.
“Tomorrow is going to be something special, I think,” Bennett said. “One-hundred kilometers, fireworks, pretty sure Contador will do something ridiculous, maybe even Quintana, maybe even Sky. Stay tuned.”
Unlike that day at Formigal and Porte’s loss in the Alps, Froome will have the benefit of racing to Foix with what is unquestionably the strongest team in the race. It controlled the entire field for more than 200 kilometers on Thursday, for all but the last 300 meters, and there is no reason it couldn’t do the same again.
Still, the weakness has been spotted. The aura of invincibility is gone. The Tour de France, dear bike fans, is on.