SAINT-MALO, France (VN) — Chris Froome’s grip on the Tour de France’s yellow jersey is expected to be even tighter by the end of Wednesday’s decisive 33km individual time trial from Avranches to Le Mont-Saint-Michel.
With a flat course against a field of climbers, Froome’s current lead of 1:25 to Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) will likely push north of two minutes to his closest rival, if not much more.
That’s certainly what the Team Sky captain is hoping for.
“I am really looking forward to tomorrow. It’s another opportunity to take time,” Froome said after defending yellow Tuesday. “It will be a very fast time trial. I will give it everything. I hope to defend my advantage, or maybe take more time on my rivals.”
That’s the understatement of this Tour. The top-10 is stacked with riders who can climb well enough, but who will likely be moving backward against Froome in the discipline where he won a bronze medal at last year’s Olympic Games. Proven time trialists, such as Cadel Evans (BMC Racing, 16th at 4:36), are too far back to be a legitimate threat to Froome.
Others who can put down a good time trial, such as Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), sixth at 1:51 back, or Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), 12th at 3:07, are well off the pace following Froome’s impressive stage-winning ride Saturday at Ax-3 Domaines. For just about everyone racing tomorrow, it will be about limiting the losses to Froome.
“Chris Froome will start the stage with an advantage, because the course favors him,” Contador said. “This first time trial is not as good for me as the second. I will do the best I can and give 100 percent. I will try to lose as little as possible.”
If June’s Critérium du Dauphiné is any indication, Froome can expect to take big gains against Contador and the rest of the climbers stacking the GC.On a similar course (32.5km at the Dauphiné, compared to 33km tomorrow) and across similarly flat roads, Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) won the stage, but Froome shelled all of his Tour rivals, including taking nearly three minutes on Contador.
Other riders in the top-10 at the Dauphiné, such as Valverde and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha, ninth at 2:31), also lost nearly three minutes to Froome.
It will be interesting to see how Nairo Quintana (Movitar), seventh at 2:02 back, performs. The young Colombian rode very well at the final time to claim the overall at the Vuelta al País Vasco back in April, but on a much hillier course.
Tour-rookie Quintana, at the very least, can cement his hold on the white jersey and bolster his podium hopes, but it remains to be seen if he can stay close enough to Froome to present a challenge in the Alps.
In fact, that’s the challenge for all the climbers. Everyone admits Froome starts in the pole position; it’s a question if they can stay close enough to make it a race all the way to Paris.
The Belkin duo of Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam, sitting impressively in third and fourth overall, both expect to lose time. Mollema admitted he’s no TT specialist and knows he will likely lose all hope of the yellow jersey tomorrow.
“We can expect Froome to take time on all of us,” Mollema told Dutch journalists. “He is the best time trialist among the favorites. Against the others, I hope to hold my own and limit my losses.”
The message? The race is on for the podium.
Team Sky skirted disaster Sunday when Froome was isolated in a shoot out across the Pyrénées, but saved the day when none of the GC favorites had the legs or the courage to take it to Froome over the final climb that was still 30km from the finish line. While that performance gave his rivals optimism that Sky is vulnerable, Froome stood tall.
Sky principal Dave Brailsford said Wednesday’s time trial could turn the Tour into a defensive race all the way to Paris. ”The first block of racing is done and we’re in good position. We have the yellow jersey out of the Pyrénées. Even if we do not even gain more time, we will win the Tour,” he said. “I am interested to see where things stand after tomorrow. Chris is time trialing quite well right now. We can expect to take more time.”
One rider who does not seem to be on many people’s radar is Saxo-Tinkoff’s Roman Kreuziger. Tied with Contador at fifth at 1:51 back, the Czech can put down a good time trial when he’s on form. Since joining Bjarne Riis at Saxo-Tinkoff this year, Kreuziger is enjoying a renaissance, winning the Amstel Gold Race in April and finishing third at the Tour de Suisse in June.
So far, Kreuziger has actually looked stronger than Contador on the climbs, yet Saxo-Tinkoff has held him back, in part to help pace Contador through the Pyrénées. Kreuziger could very well post a better ride than Contador on Wednesday, making him the best-placed rider on the squad. If that scenario plays out, Saxo-Tinkoff will have to let Kreuziger make a move and try to take on Froome. That might be too late, especially if Froome hits it out of the park tomorrow against the clock.
If he does, the race could be on for the podium behind Froome’s grip on yellow. That would make things a lot easier for Sky all the way to Paris.