Hurtling too fast for comfort down a twisty, turning foothill of the Alps, Tour de France leader Chris Froome faced a high-speed choice between risk and reward.
The Briton knew that 10 years previously on exactly the same descent, Joseba Beloki shattered his leg, elbow and wrist bones rounding a corner too fast and Lance Armstrong plowed into a field to avoid the prone Spaniard howling in pain.
So Froome wanted to go easy. Trouble is, Alberto Contador did not.
Against his better instincts, Froome chased after his Spanish rival, who rode hell for leather on the treacherous downhill with asphalt made gooey and slippery by the heat.
Just like Armstrong, flirting with disaster nearly cost Froome the Tour. Contador crashed as he rounded a right-hand corner, forcing Froome to swerve around him off the road, onto the grass and to put a foot down to stay upright.
Unlike Contador, who bloodied his right knee, Froome escaped with just a fright. Still, this drama on Tuesday’s Stage 16 proved a point that Froome and his Sky Pro Cycling team have made time and again — despite his big lead, Froome will not savor victory until he is on the cobbles of the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Sunday.
“One second you could be going for the finish and about to win a race, and the next you’re lying in a ditch somewhere with a broken bone,” Froome said. “I knew it was the descent where Beloki crashed, so I was purposefully laying off a little bit and trying to take it easy, but at the same time also trying to keep touch with the Saxobank guys, who were really pushing the limits.”
By that, Froome meant Contador and his Saxo-Tinkoff teammate Roman Kreuziger of the Czech Republic, who are third and fourth in the overall standings, but more than four minutes off the lead.
Opportunities for them to claw back time are fast running out. The finish line in Paris was just 668km away.
To their credit, they are not simply accepting defeat, but are harassing Froome all the way. If Froome wins, the way his rivals have repeatedly tested the British rider over the three weeks should give him the extra satisfaction of a victory hard-earned.
Stage 16 wound from Provence past vineyards, lavender fields and villages clinging to hillsides to the town of Gap, a staging post for what promises to be a grand finale in the Alps for the 100th Tour.
For a while, it seemed that the 168km trek to Gap from Vaison-la-Romaine, France, a charming town with old ruins near Mont Ventoux where Froome won on Sunday, would be one of those Tour stages that do not amount to much.
Apparently keeping their powder dry for the Alps, Froome and other main protagonists allowed 26 riders — none of them a podium threat — to escape far ahead. The stage winner, Rui Costa, later emerged from that group, riding away on the day’s last climb, a 9.5km ascent to the Col de Manse, and then zipping down to Gap.
Although the Manse climb is less arduous and less steep than the Ventoux, where Froome blasted past Contador, the Spaniard and Kreuziger used to it test the Briton and his Australian wingman, Richie Porte.
Several times, Contador tried accelerating away, Kreuziger did, too, but Porte and then Froome alone would not let them get away.
To cool the asphalt, authorities doused the top of the climb with water, but Porte said the road down from there was sticky and slippery — just as it was in the heat wave of 2003, when Beloki’s back wheel slid away from him on a bend, hurling him to the ground. Armstrong went on to win that Tour — only to have that and all six of his other victories in cycling’s premier race stripped from him last year for doping.
On Tuesday, touching their brakes caused wheels to slip, Porte said.
“All of us had a bit of a moment coming down there, losing the front wheel, back wheel,” he said.
Yet Contador was flying, with Froome in his wake.
Rounding a sharp right-hander, “the bike got away from me,” Contador said.
“It was really difficult. In normal conditions I wouldn’t have slipped like that, but it was very difficult terrain,” said the 2007 and 2009 champion, who was stripped of his 2010 title for a failed doping test. “Sometimes you have to go for it, whether it’s at the start or the end of a stage.”
Froome said Contador “was taking too many risks.”
“All teams are starting to get desperate now and they’re taking uncalculated risks,” he said. “In my opinion, it was a bit dangerous from Alberto to ride like that, it’s not good.”
Worryingly for Froome, there is worse to come. Today’s Stage 18 not only includes a double ascent to the ski station of Alpe d’Huez, with its 21 hairpin bends, but also a harrowing descent that several riders have voiced concerns about.
Having seen that Froome was not completely comfortable chasing after Contador on Tuesday, the risk now is that his rivals could try to unsettle him again on today’s downhill from Col de Sarenne.
“It is a very dangerous descent. The road surface is not great and there aren’t any barriers on the corners, so if you go over the corner, then you will fall down a long way,” Froome said. “It’s a dangerous descent and I hope the riders are aware of that, that they don’t take risks like they did today.”