Sky’s Froome tightens his grip on ‘maillot jaune’

AP, MONT VENTOUX, France

Tue, Jul 16, 2013 - Page 20

From now on, let him be called Chris Vrooooom.

In a display of cycling power that flabbergasted seasoned observers of the sport, Chris Froome tamed the mammoth mountain climb up Mont Ventoux in Provence, France, on Sunday to tighten his grip on the maillot jaune in a relentless ride toward victory at the 100th Tour de France.

On France’s national Bastille Day holiday, he became the first British stage winner on the mountain where his countryman, Tom Simpson, died from a lethal cocktail of exhaustion, heat and doping on the 1967 Tour.

The final burst of acceleration Froome used to shake off his last exhausted pursuer, Colombian Nairo Quintana, was close to a stone memorial to Simpson on the mountain’s barren upper reaches.

Mouth agape from the effort, filling his lungs with the thinning mountain air, Froome thrust his right arm upward in victory as he became the first rider since the legendary Eddy Merckx in 1970 to win a Mont Ventoux stage while also wearing the race leader’s maillot jaune.

“It was incredible today, incredible. This is the biggest victory of my career,” Froome said. “I didn’t imagine this, this climb is so historical. It means so much to this race, especially being the 100th edition. I really can’t believe this.”

Froome required oxygen at the summit, 1,912m up, to recover, but it was his rivals who were knocked out. The closest four riders to Froome are now more than four minutes behind — a lead that should comfortably carry him over the final six stages and 836km to the finish on Sunday on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

“It’s over,” predicted Greg LeMond, the only US winner of cycling’s greatest race after both Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong were stripped of their titles for doping.

In a sport where so many exploits of recent decades later proved to have been drug-assisted, Froome has been asked during this year’s race if he is riding clean. Not only does he insist he is, he also says his success proves that cycling’s sustained anti-doping efforts are working and leveling the playing field.

If so, then the extravagant superiority, grit, strength and speed Froome demonstrated on Ventoux, one of the most respected and storied ascents in cycling, deserve a special place in the sport’s collective memory because this was, as Froome said, “an epic ride.”

More impressive than the size of Froome’s race lead is that at no point over the past two weeks, even at times when his Sky Pro Cycling teammates wilted around him, has he looked physically vulnerable in the way he made his rivals look on Ventoux.

Quintana said he got a nosebleed during the climb and “I didn’t feel well when I got to the top.”

Froome said it was the first time he had needed to breathe oxygen at the end of a climb. He coughed violently at the top and his voice sounded croaky.

“It really was a full gas effort up until the finish,” he said. “I was feeling quite fainted and short of breath at the top.”

Alberto Contador, the 2007 and 2009 champion stripped of his 2010 win for a failed doping test, stamped on his pedals, but immediately understood he could not keep up when Froome accelerated away as though he was on a motorbike. That was below the tree line, still 7km from the moonscape summit of white rocks and an old weather station.

After riding past the words “Sky” and “Froome” painted in big yellow letters on the asphalt, and after his wingman Richie Porte pulled to one side having led him up part of the ascent, scattering their rivals with the exception of Contador, Froome put his head down and, still sitting on his yellow saddle, frantically whirred his pedals.

Contador rose out of his saddle and tried to match Froome’s acceleration, but he was gone. Commentators on French public television said they had never seen an attack like it.

“As Richie started coming to the end of his turn, I thought: ‘OK, now’s the time. I don’t want to start playing games, and sitting up and looking at each other,’” Froome said.

Soon, he was catching Quintana, who had ridden off ahead.

The crowds were huge, tens of thousands of strong, with spectators’ camping vans strung out like a long white necklace on the roadsides up to the summit. With less than 2km to go, Froome rose out of the saddle and accelerated again, leaving Quintana. He then pedaled solo to the line.

“He thought I was stronger than I was really feeling and that’s why he talked to me, telling we should keep pushing to leave Contador behind and he’d let me win the stage,” said Quintana, who rode in 29 seconds after Froome. “I knew it was a bit of ‘fake agreement,’ because I saw how strong he was and I had to fool him a bit to get that far into the climb.”

Froome has said he understands, given the doping marred-history of his sport, why there have been questions about his performances and says he is happy to answer them. Sky Pro Cycling boss Dave Brailsford said he expects renewed scrutiny following Froome’s Ventoux exploits.

“We have a great performance and 10 minutes later, you know, I jump for joy like this, and then 10 minutes later I guarantee you I’ll be answering all these questions and allegations of doping for the next few days,” Brailsford said.