Yesterday’s rest day was marked by photos of Froome posing like someone at rest (whilst, presumably, failing to do so in front of thronging paparazzi), and also by the shocking news of Ivan Basso’s ill health. Basso has been diagnosed with testicular cancer, discovered and diagnosed by chance when doctors treated him after a fall on stage five of this tour. Reports on Basso’s health that detail the crucial role he was to play in Contador’s tour are woefully missing the fact of this tragedy. Basso has been a central figure and key personality in cycling for as long as I’ve been watching, and was in his day a fine general classification rider himself. All the best to him.
As for today’s stage, the rested riders will be emptying their muscles of carbohydrate all over again on the tour’s first serious climb — and what a climb. Falling into the absurd category of ‘hors categorie‘, the La Pierre-Saint-Martin climb is over 15km of uphill at an average of 7.4%, which is absolutely brutal. Froome called it ‘the real start of the race’ during his race day press conference, and it’s certainly a climb he will have had earmarked for attack, given his history of going big on the first climbs of grand tours. It was also important for Quintana, Contador, and Rodriquez, who were all lagging on the general classification.
The day started with an early break by Pierrick Fedrigo and Kenneth Vanbilsen — unsurprising that a French rider should try for the break on this, Bastille day. Regrettably, the best placed French rider, Warren Barguil, came off worst in a crash after 70 or so kilometres. You could imagine the collective sigh of despair across the pond. Nevertheless, the break went on to mop up the three points available for the cat 4 climbs, and maximum for the intermediate sprint. Greipel led the pack across in third, and the green jersey Sagan lagged in seventh — effectively handing the jersey over to Greipel for the time being.
The break held just 3 minutes over the peloton at the foot of the final climb. Teklehaimanot was amongst the first to lose touch with the peloton, waving good by to his polka dot jersey as he went. Other big names went straight out the back door, including former fine climbers Michal Kwiatkowski, Rui Costa, and Wilco Kellerman. By the time Pierrick Fedrigo was enveloped by the group, it had whittled down to around 20 or 30 elite riders.
A big shock came at 10.6km to go when Nibali began to slip out of the back of the bunch, with Gesink gunning for glory at the front of the race. He was swiftly joined by Rafael Valls for Lampre-Merida. Nibali, sweat pouring down his face, was looking the picture of dejection, with little choice to watch the group dance away from him. Further surprising casualties came in the forms of Rigoberto Uran and Joachim Rodriguez, who were being out-climbed by the likes of the young Brit Adam Yates, the punchy Gallopin, and, incredibly, the recently injured Warren Barguil. Clearly, Bastille day flicks a switch in the minds of the French riders.
The next big attack came at 8km to go from Alejandro Valverde, who had both himself and team mate Quintana to ride for. But more surprising, on a day of surprises, was that Contador rapidly lost ground at 6km to go, as Porte, Froome, and Quintana increased the pace. Froome, noticing that they were dropping the strong Spaniard, made his big move at the 6.5km mark. Quintana chased, but lost contact almost immediately as Froome powered away, rarely even raising himself out of the saddle. Over the remaining kilometres the order of the day was becoming established, with Froome leading Quintana towards the line. But the gaps between riders kept stretching, and there was a veritable chasm opening between Froome in first and the Nibali group.
By the last kilometre Froome had established a minute lead over Quintana, and minutes more over rivals like Contador and Nibali. But there was one more surprise in store for this stage. Richie Porte had, with Geraint Thomas, been leading the Sky train ahead of Froome up the climb, had recovered enough to regain ground on Quintana. He managed to get to Quintana’s wheel, hold it up until the last 300m, and race past the fatigued Quintana and took the line ahead of him. Sky managed a stunning Froome-Porte one-two, with Quintana in third. The gaps back to the others were huge.
Froome now has a lead of 2.52 off his nearest competitor, the brilliant Tejay Van Garderen. Tejay’s looking like a very strong candidate for the podium overall. Meanwhile, Geraint Thomas, after superb effort, holds fifth overall. Completing the triptych of Sky successes, Richie Porte is now second in the King of the Mountain contest, and will wear the polka dots on behalf of Froome, whose win today easily handed him first place. It looks like James Murdoch will be adequately recompensed for his sponsorship money this season. It also looks like Froome will be wearing yellow for a while to come in this tour.