AX-3 DOMAINES, France (VN) — Mark Madiot (FDJ.fr) leaned against the team car at the top of the mountain with a bemused look on his face.
“It’s over!” he said. “The Tour’s finished!”
It certainly might be over for Madiot’s team — his best-placed rider was Thibaut Pinot at 30th at six minutes back — but there remains little doubt that Team Sky’s dominance in Saturday’s first touch with the mountains certainly deflated the race for the yellow jersey.
Just about every team manager was sharing Madiot’s exasperation as riders trickled across the finish line at Ax-3 Domaines, colorless, exhausted, and at the limit.
Team Sky dropped the hammer, and Chris Froome swept away the fragments, winning the stage and taking the yellow jersey — perhaps for good — with a promising 1:25 lead to his nearest rival, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), now in third.
“I was expecting to see more of the GC contenders to be more prevalent,” Froome said. “It is a bit of a surprise, the differences we made today.”
A scan down the results sheet reveals the bleeding.
Top danger man Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) could only limit the damage, crossing the line with an ashen look on his face at 1:46 back.
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp), riding with a cracked rib, ceded 8:15, while Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) gave up 2:06.
Things were worse at BMC, where 2011 Tour champ Cadel Evans forfeited 4:13 and the team lost its second GC option, with last year’s white jersey Tejay van Garderen losing 12:15, plummeting out of contention to 44th.
“That was my worst day of the Tour while I am healthy,” Evans said at the line. “I am certainly not at my best, and certainly didn’t expect to be this far off the best.”
Sky was impressive up the hors-categorie Pailhères, as Vasil Kiryienka and Peter Kennaugh shredded the field, whittling the main pack down to less than 30 riders coming over the top. Among those dropped were van Garderen and Hesjedal.
An attack by Nairo Quintana (Movistar) forced Sky to chase even harder, which only turned the screws even deeper on the pack.
At the base of the 7.8km final climb to Ax-3 Domaines, things were looking good, at least briefly. Contador still had Roman Kreuziger and Mick Rogers (teammate Nicholas Roche was dropped on Pailhères but regained contact on the descent), while Movistar had Quintana up the road, with Valverde tucked in behind Rui Costa.
Things went sideways as soon as Porte surged to the front. The Tasmanian went deep, putting everyone at the limit. Evans, Schleck, Contador, and Rodríguez succumbed one after another.
Contador, who started in Corsica as Sky’s principal rival, simply couldn’t react when Froome jumped with about 5km to go. Kreuziger helped pace him up the climb, but Contador was only trying to limit the damage.
“They ripped our eyes out,” Contador told Spanish journalists at the line. “I know the climb well, and I was hoping to fight for the victory, but it wasn’t meant to be.
“Let’s hope it was only a bad day. It’s hard to see that you cannot give more. I hope to have better days in the future.”
Finish-line mayhem revealed the depth of suffering inflicted upon the pack by Sky.
Ag2r-La Mondiale’s Jean-Christophe Peraud collapsed on the ground and poured a water bottle over his head. Laurens Ten Dem (Belkin), who had a phenomenal ride to climb into fifth at 1:50 back, was being held up by his soigneurs after crossing the line.
Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talansky methodically rode the trainer as he cooled down and assessed the situation. Though Garmin lost GC options in Hesjedal and Tom Danielson, Talansky and Daniel Martin both clawed their way near the top-10.
Talansky is also second in the race for the white jersey and settled into 12th at 2:48 back. Martin is 13th on the same time.
Talansky said there was a certain inevitability in Sky’s attack.
“It was always going to happen. They have the best rider in the race, and they wanted to show it,” he said. “They rode like they do. They make it as hard as possible on the first climb, then Richie takes over, and they blow it to pieces. …
“You know it’s going to happen. You know it’s coming. Unless you’re having a very special day, you know you’re going to explode. They’ve been doing it all year.”
Despite the important gains, many were cautioning that the race was far from over. First among them was Froome, who realizes this was only the first step toward Paris.
“Tour is far from over. We have a lot of work to do over next two weeks,” Froome said. “I can expect more attacks from my rivals. There is still a lot of racing ahead of us.”
Others agreed that the Tour is not yet won.
“I look around and I don’t see any fat ladies singing,” said Garmin’s Charles Wegelius. “We’re not going to cry in our soup too early.
“After eight days, there are not any surprises. It’s no secret that (Sky) has the top two riders in the race, and they have real options to both finish on the podium. But I was also surprised to see some of their riders dropped earlier in the climbs than we have in the past, and this is still only the eighth stage.”
Even behind the swath of destruction, others were taking confidence out of the stage.
Top among them was Movistar, which moved into first place in the team competition, and moved Valverde into podium contention after he finished third on the stage and climbed into third overall at 1:25 back.
“We’ve come to this Tour aiming for the podium, right now we are right there,” said Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue. “A lot can still happen in this Tour. The final week of this Tour is horrifying.”