Chris Froome increased his lead at the top of the general classification of the Tour de France to almost two-and-a-half minutes yesterday, with the race increasingly looking like a battle for second place.
The Team Sky leader looked awesome again on the steepest slopes and, with the help of his erstwhile teammates, they ruthlessly saw off the challenge of several riders who attempted to put the yellow jersey under pressure.
Chief among the aggressors on the final climb to the summit finish at Finhaut-Emosson in Switzerland was Ireland’s Dan Martin, who accelerated clear of a select group with less than two kilometres to go in the 184-kilometre stage.
The Etixx-QuickStep man put in a powerful surge which nobody could initially match, but there to reel him in less than a kilometre later were Wout Poels and Mikel Landa, two of Froome’s top domestiques.
Froome’s former teammate Richie Porte (BMC Racing Team) was next to try and surge clear in an effort to improve his seventh place on GC. He put some daylight between himself and the rapidly-diminishing group of overall contenders.
Froome, nonchalant as ever, zipped across to him and sat on his wheel all the way to the line, gaining a few more valuable seconds and tightening his grip on the jersey.
“I’m pretty happy with my day,” said the two-time winner. “It’s always difficult to know what will happen after a day of rest, but I felt pretty good.
“I was completely surrounded by teammates. I wanted to stay up with the best and watch everyone, it was not planned to attack, but I saw the opportunity to take time on my rivals and it worked, so I’m in a good position.
“Richie is one of the very best riders in the world. Yesterday, he again proved that he is in his place when he is fighting for a place on the podium. He made an incredible race.
“Things can still happen and today the time trial will be a big deal.”
Two of those expected to challenge yesterday, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) both struggled to respond to the change of pace and could not go with Froome. While they lost precious seconds, they still remain second and fourth overall.
Briton Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) was best at limiting his losses, giving up just eight seconds, while Frenchman Roman Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) lost 11 and Quintana 28.
Mollema lost 40 seconds and now trails by 2:27, with Yates at 2:53 and Quintana at 3:27. Martin is 5:50 down, and three minutes off the podium, though he has today’s uphill time-trial to try and improve his position.
While the GC battle was waging back the road, stage honours were being fought for up ahead and it was Russian Ilnur Zakarin who won the day after soloing to a marvellous win.
He was the last remaining survivor of the day’s break and stayed out front on his own after dropping Sunday’s stage winner Jarlinson Pantano (IAM Cycling).
It was arguably the finest moment of the Katusha rider’s career and few could have begrudged him the victory following his horrific, high-speed crash at the Giro d’Italia in May which threatened to derail his season.
Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18) came across the line in a group almost 40 minutes down and is the last man on general classification.
His only goal now is to make Paris in four days, when he would become just one of a few Irish riders to finish the race.
Today’s 17-kilometre time-trial will just be about making the time limit, before he tackles two more days in the Alps ahead of Sunday’s final showdown.
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