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With eyes on the podium race, rivals regroup after Froome pummeling

The time is near for Chris Froome's rivals to start racing against each other for the podium and he can take advantage

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FOUGERES, France (VN) — Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) just laughed when a French TV reporter asked him if it was possible to beat Chris Froome (Sky) in the 100th Tour de France.

“Dificil,” he said, shaking his head. “Dificil.”

Froome took the pole position for the yellow jersey and cemented his grip on the lead in Wednesday’s time trial, and everyone behind him, not just Valverde, was shaking his head.

Froome dismantled his GC rivals once and for all on the rolling road toward Mont Saint Michel, laying bare their weaknesses, and asserting his dominance in 33 kilometers.

On Thursday, taking stock following Wednesday’s pummeling, all the GC favorites could say was that the Tour is far from over.

“Froome was the best, without a doubt. Chapeaux to him,” said Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), who climbed to fourth despite losing time to Froome. “I didn’t have the best time trial, but I was more or less close to the other rivals. We have the hardest part of the Tour still to come. I hope to be at my best in the Alps.”

Although Froome singled out Valverde, still second at 3:25 back, as his most dangerous rival, Contador remains the most worrisome, simply based on his track record of being able to deliver big wins despite the odds. Contador’s back is against the wall, now fourth at 3:54 back, but he promised to go down swinging.

“Every day I am feeling a little bit better, so that’s a good sign,” Contador said. “Of course, there is still a race. Cycling is one of those sports where anything can happen, and you can lose everything with a bad day. We’re going to do everything we can to stay as high as possible and make it a beautiful race.”

Contador proved this to be true at the 2012 Vuelta a España when he launched a long-range attack on a medium mountain stage in the final week to surprise overall leader Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and steal the jersey.

At this point, the only hope for Froome’s competitors seems to be that he will have a bad day — he’ll bonk, he’ll crash, or Sky will leave him isolated again. Yet many already believe that, if Froome is Froome, the race is on for the minor steps on the podium.

“If things keep going like this, the differences will be 10 minutes,” said Omega Pharma-Quick Step boss Patrick Lefevere, who doesn’t have a dog in the GC hunt.

A few riders lost all hope of a GC result on Wednesday, including Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Leopard), who ceded four minutes and plummeted to 17th. Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), the 2011 Tour winner, gave up 2:30 to slip to nearly seven minutes back to 14th.

Among Wednesday’s big losers, Rodríguez has to hit the reset button after falling to 11th, managing only 56th on the day, at 3:29. The 2012 Giro d’Italia runner-up focused his entire 2013 campaign on finding the final podium in Paris.

“It’s obvious right now that Froome is stronger than anyone,” Rodríguez said. “He’s fantastic in both the mountains and the time trials, but there is still a lot of racing. I hope to find my best form and try something in the Alps.”

One of the biggest surprises so far during this Tour has been Belkin, with Dutchmen Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam. Mollema rode what he called the “best time trial” of his life to keep a grip on third overall, now 3:37 back.

The mood outside the Belkin bus was positive Thursday morning, with the team having two riders in the top 10 with favorable terrain looming in the final week.

“I expected to lose time to Froome, everyone did, but to be this close to the others gives me a lot of morale,” Mollema said. “Now we are still within reach of the podium.”

That’s what the Tour’s become; a race for the podium, with the top rivals keeping one eye on Froome to watch for the telltale signs of a crack, and the other on each other.

At some point, Contador, Mollema, and Valverde will have to start racing against each other. Froome and Sky know they can use that to their advantage, perhaps all the way to Paris.