Chris Froome (Sky) pulled on the yellow jersey on Saturday after crushing his rivals on stage 8 of the Tour de France on Saturday.
Chief lieutenant Richie Porte finished second in the 195km stage from Castres to Ax 3 Domaines, the first real test for the GC contenders, and moved into second overall for his efforts.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) took third and likewise took over third spot on the overall.
Froome built himself quite a cushion on just one stage. He now leads the Tour by 51 seconds over his own teammate, with Valverde at 1:25, and added the polka-dot jersey to his collection for good measure.
“I couldn’t be happier,” said Froome. “It really has been a very nervous week, building up until now. But my team has done a fantastic job. Richie coming second … we couldn’t have asked for more today. This is just a dream come true for us so far.”
Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), who found himself unable to follow when Froome made his move, remains inside the top 10 at seventh, 1:51 down.
“It wasn’t my best day,” said Contador. “I didn’t feel good on the last climb and it was thanks to (teammate Roman) Kreuziger that I didn’t lose more time.”
Not so fortunate was Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), who was just 24 seconds down at the start but surrendered more than 12 minutes on the day. Teammate Cadel Evans, the 2011 champion, likewise gave up time to his Sky rival — he’s nearly five minutes adrift after finishing 4:12 down on Froome.
“It’s my worst day at the Tour while I’m healthy. I certainly didn’t expect to be this far off,” said Evans.
Hares and hounds
The break du jour featured Christophe Riblon (Ag2R La Mondiale), best placed at 61st overall at 4:49; Rudy Molard (Cofidis), 76th at 10:57; Jean-Marc Marino (Sojasun), 99th at 20:22; and Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM), 161st at 49:27.
Riblon was briefly leader on the road, but the bunch began taking time back going into the big test of the day, the hors categorie Col de Pailhères, 15.3km of climbing with an average grade of 8 percent and a maximum of 10.5 percent.
A 20km descent led to the final grind, the category-1 finale at Ax 3 Domaines. Shorter than the Col de Pailhères, it was no sweeter — the 7.8km climb averaged 8.2 percent with a maximum of 10.5 percent before leveling out in its final kilometer.
Riblon went off alone on the lower slopes of the Pailhères as the bunch containing the GC contenders closed in, swallowing up his former companions.
With 40km to go Riblon had just over a minute’s advantage. Behind, Robert Gesink (Belkin) moved ahead of the peloton. Next to jump was Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) as teammate Pierre Rolland jumped in the opposite direction, right out the back.
Then Nairo Alexander Quintana Rojas (Movistar) took a big dig. Just 25 seconds out of first in 19th overall, the Colombian shot past Voeckler, Gesink and Riblon, and into the virtual yellow jersey.
With 30km to go Quintana led the GC group by a minute. He rocketed across the summit and began the descent. Behind, Rolland had recovered to take second over the summit, just 30 seconds down, temporarily reclaiming his grip on the mountains jersey. Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi) followed for third.
Quintana had a couple of tense moments on the descent as Sky led the pursuit, sweeping up Anton and going after Rolland and finally, the leader.
“I thought I was going to win but the others were too strong. The whole Sky team were very good,” said Quintana.
And then Sky got down to business. Peter Kennaugh and Porte thinned the herd of contenders to just five — and then Froome sprang free.
Porte, the last man standing in the Sky train on the 7.8km climb to the Pyrenean ski station, said Froome told him to punch it after realizing Contador was in trouble.
“When Chris told me Alberto was no longer there, I just tried to give it everything I had,” said Porte, who had taken over the pace-setting duties from Kennaugh.
“I’m finished (exhausted), but it was an absolutely incredible ride.”
Quintana stayed with Froome, briefly, but nobody else did. With 3km to go the Sky men were one-two on the road, and soon they would be one-two on the podium.
Still, plenty of road remains in the 100th Tour, as Froome himself conceded.
“This is only the first week of the Tour. We still have two weeks to go,” he said.
Added Porte: “It looks good for us but there’s still a long, long way to go. There’s still Ventoux and L’Alpe d’Huez, so it’s not over until the fat lady sings.”
Sunday’s stage 9 is another rough day on the job — a 168.5km leg from Saint-Girons to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, with a category-2 climb right out of the gate followed by four cat.-1 climbs and a downhill run into the finish.