ARENBERG PORTE DU HAINAUT, France (VN) — Just five days into the 2014 Tour de France, the grandest race of them all has shown it cares little for sentimentality.
First, it claimed Mark Cavendish. Then, Andy Schleck, and Greg Henderson. Now, the defending champion is out, his team forced to regroup on the road and switch general classification options in a matter of seconds. As a broken Chris Froome ducked into a team car after his third crash in two days — two on Wednesday’s short but dangerous stage — the Sky charge fell to Richie Porte.
Froome’s crashes came before the peloton hit any of the cobbled sectors but indicated a peloton rife with nerves in the wet, barreling into the pavé.
“I knew he crashed twice, heavy. It was always part of the plan to have Richie as protected just as much, because we didn’t know how Froomey would cope,” a muddy-faced Geraint Thomas said at the finish. “That’s really disappointing for him. He worked all year for this, and then in two days he crashes and it’s all gone, you know?”
The day was unbridled from the onset in Ypres. Once Froome was gone, it felt more like a one-day race than a stage in a three-week tour. Clusters of GC riders littered the route, strung out just like an afternoon of Paris-Roubaix. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) raided the general classification and is now up by 40 seconds on his closest GC threat, but is about two minutes out on Porte, Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
“We were in front most of the time, and when that big split happened Richie had just crashed. So I sat up and I was going back one group, two groups, three groups,” Thomas said. “I was like, ‘Oh no. Where is he? Eventually he was okay and we managed to limit our losses in the end. We went full gas from two sectors out. And we managed to gap [Alberto] Contador I think, as well. A good day for Richie, all in all.”
Porte’s good day, though, only offsets that of teammate and friend Froome, whose absence seemed to upset even his competitors.
“It’s really disappointing that Froome is out of the race. That’s always a risk with a stage like this,” Talansky said. “You know, I come through and I say it was an epic day, but it’s really sad for the race as a whole as well as for, you know, Chris and Sky that that happened.”
Contador echoed Talansky’s sentiments, saying, “Froome was the number one favorite to get the victory and is now out of the race. Of course I will feel sorry for him, because to prepare the Tour needs many months of physical and psychological work and many sacrifices that you cannot see. If you have so many crashes and have to go home… I’m sorry for him and for the race, because it would have been a great spectacle in the mountains and in this year’s Tour it won’t happen.”
For Sky, one of the peloton’s most methodical teams, it’s a blow, but one officials took in stride. “It’s really, really sad of course. Chris focused for the Tour all year,” director Servais Knaven said. “He was in great shape, and he was one of the guys who could win the Tour. And now after five days … it’s really, really sad. Especially for him.”
The team waited after Froome’s first fall Wednesday, but pressed on after his second amid the chaos of the storm and the constricting peloton as it careened toward the cobbles. And once Knaven saw Froome, he knew the title defense was over.
For Sky it was just another hectic day at a Tour that’s lacked reservation and manners toward its stars. Dave Brailsford, the team’s principal, addressed a flock of reporters at the team bus. He looked forward almost immediately.
“We knew it would be a tough race. Really believed in Chris, really believed he could win this year, but in Richie Porte we have a very, very capable guy who’ll now lead the team,” Brailsford said “When you have a setback you’ve got to roll with it. You recalibrate your goals and go again … He showed great ability and courage today to ride the cobbles the way he did.”
In fact, it was the first time Porte had ridden the cobbles near Roubaix. Thomas noted he and Porte were able to go all out the last two sectors, and help erase some of the time lost.
“The fight in the mountains lies ahead. Richie is up there,” Brailsford said.
Porte is 1:54 back of Nibali, and there is a different weight upon him now. Asked if the no. 2 was ready to lead the Sky machine, Thomas was to the point. “He better be,” Thomas said. “He is.”
Some riders looked forward to this day, and others dreaded it. As the team that paid the highest price for ASO’s inclusion of such a stage — no, Froome didn’t crash on the cobbles but a peloton riding toward them is certainly unhinged — Sky didn’t voice any true qualms.
“Well it was exciting, wasn’t it? It was exciting,” Brailsford said. “It might not have worked out for us but when you watch the way that Nibali rode, if you’re a bike fan and you watch what Nibali did — fair play to him. That was pretty impressive. I thought it was unbelievable what he did. To ride away from [Fabian] Cancellara and [Peter] Sagan on the cobbles, you know, that was exciting and we’ll remember that for a long time.”
Inevitably, questions turned to the non-selection of 2012 Tour winner Bradley Wiggins, but Brailsford insisted the team had done the right thing.
“We picked a team at the time with all the data we had. Chris was the best bet to try to win this race, he was in better shape than last year,” said Brailsford.
Wiggins himself was in no mood to gloat. Speaking via his agent, he said: “It’s a tough day. I never like to see a great racer go down but Chris will be back. Today has showed how hard it is to win the Tour de France, but the team will have prepared for this and they’ll deal with it.”