Britain’s Chris Froome tightened his grip on the Tour de France’s maillot jaune after beating Spanish rival Alberto Contador in the 17th stage time trial on Wednesday.
Froome, taking his third stage win of the 100th edition, finished the hilly 32km stage against the clock in a time of 51 minutes, 33 seconds to beat former two-time champion Contador by nine seconds.
Contador’s efforts moved him up to second place overall at the expense of Dutchman Bauke Mollema, but the Team Saxo-Tinkoff leader saw his deficit go from 4:25 to 4:34 a day ahead of a crucial 18th stage in the Alps.
After stepping off the podium, where he made three visits for the stage win, the overall leader’s maillot jaune and the king of the mountains polka dot jersey, Froome said his win was unexpected.
“I’m really happy with the result from today. I wanted to hold back a little bit for the days ahead and I was actually prepared to lose a little bit of time, so I’m quite surprised I won the stage,” Froome said.
Coupled with the threat of rain for the late starters, many riders faced the dilemma of deciding whether to swap their habitual road race bikes for time trial machines at the summit of the day’s second climb, which was followed by a far less technical descent than the descent of the Puy-Sanieres climb at the 25.5km mark.
Contador was one of the few favorites who opted to use his normal bike, albeit with aero bars fitted to the handlebars.
Having led Froome over the first three time checks, the Saxo-Tinkoff rider’s time of 51:42 — one second faster than compatriot Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha — looked good enough for the win, but after Froome jumped on a time trial machine just before the summit of the Cote de Reallon, he powered over the remaining 12km to overhaul the 11 second deficit he had to Contador at the summit.
“I felt that the bike change definitely helped me,” Froome said.
Contador, who on Monday was accused by Froome of trying to make him crash — as the Briton followed the Spaniard on a dangerous descent into Gap — could only watch in frustration as Froome crossed the line in triumph.
“It’s a shame because my time trial was good, but Froome is impressive, he is the best both on the climbs and in the time trials,” the Spaniard said. “I did what I could. I will keep trying starting with tomorrow’s [Thursday’s] stage.”
The only consolation for Contador’s team was seeing Roman Kreuziger finish just 23 seconds slower than Froome to move up to third at 4:51 overall as Dutchman Mollema flattered to deceive in a discipline known as the “race of truth.”
Mollema’s solid campaign so far had left him in second place overall overnight, albeit at 4:14 behind Froome, and had revived hopes in his native Netherlands of a rare podium finish in Paris.
However, the Belkin team leader struggled to match the leading contenders and he lost further time when he took the final bend too fast and, while remaining on his bike, crashed into the barriers.
“I’m a little disappointed to have lost second place overall,” said Mollema, who nevertheless was hoping yesterday to give the thousands of Dutch fans who traditionally turn up on Alpe d’Huez a show of strength. “I’ve still got some fuel left in the tank and I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
The 18th stage yesterday was a 172.5km race beginning in Gap and featuring six climbs, including two ascensions of the legendary Alpe d’Huez, which will also host the finish.
Despite his significant advantage, Froome believes Contador and Mollema have not conceded defeat just yet.
“I think it’s evident that the Spanish guys are not gonna stop racing, neither are the Dutch guys,” he said. “It’s going to be a race all the way to Paris. There are three really tough stages, starting tomorrow [Thursday].”