Amidst a full-scale offensive by Romain Bardet’s AG2R team, Chris Froome survived a puncture at the foot of the key climb of Sunday’s stage across the Massif Central, won by the Dutchman Bauke Mollema. The Team Sky leader held on to his narrow lead, while conceding a few seconds to the Irishman Daniel Martin, but critically he and the other contenders for overall victory eliminated Nairo Quintana, who lost 3min 54sec and dropped out of the top 10.
These are nervous days, with the Tour poised on a knife-edge and in the gorge of the river Allier, Froome could potentially have seen his chances of victory prejudiced when his back wheel broke just as Bardet and his team-mates had decided to pile on the pressure going into the technical valley roads leading to the 8.3 kilometre climb of Peyra Taillade.
The race leader had to pull in to the right side of the road and swap wheels with his team-mate Michal Kwiatkowski, as AG2R set the pace with five riders on the front. Froome lost about 50sec, and had to chase hard with his team-mates Sergio Henao and Mikel Nieve, with the small group around the race leader dodging its way past groups of backmarkers who had been ejected from the main group due to the searing pace.
“AG2R rode their race,” Froome said. “I had a problem with a broken back wheel, my team car was stuck behind so I had to take a wheel from Michal Kwiatkowski. I had to give it my maximum to get back to the front of the race, I panicked a little bit, it was a bit of a stressful moment. I thought perhaps I wouldn’t get back to the front.”
With Mikel Landa dropped back from the Bardet group to help him in the final metres before he regained contact, Froome caught up with Bardet and Fabio Aru and company a couple of kilometres from the top of the Peyra Taillade – which rose up like the side of a house with slopes as steep as 14% – and immediately had to respond to an attack from the Frenchman, who was racing on his home roads in front of his home crowd.
Going into the rest day on Monday, Froome still has a lead of 18sec over the Italian Aru, 23sec over Bardet and 29sec on the Colombian Rigoberto Uran, with Martin closing to fifth place, 1min 12sec behind, and Froome’s team-mate Mikel Landa in sixth at 1min 17sec, making this the closest the Tour has ever been at this stage of the race.
The Sky leader said after the stage that he felt that it was now down to his rivals to make the running in next week’s Alpine stages if they wanted to have time in hand before Saturday’s time trial stage in Marseille, where he will be the favourite. “It is up to Bardet and Aru to attack now, if they want to gain time before the time trial.”