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After beating up his rivals in the mountains on Saturday, Chris Froome took to the flat and pulverised all his major contenders in a short, fast test both against the clock and his own screaming legs in the individual time trial to move 3min 25sec clear of the field.
Chris Froome - extends his lead
Was this a knock-out blow, Froome was asked and, just as at Ax 3 Domaines following his magnificent triumph on Saturday, the ever-patient thin man just protested: “No, no. There’s still a long way to go.” Then a moment of satisfaction. “But I’m very happy with the advantage I have.”
It was only the rest of us who felt just the tiniest disappointment that Froome, so impressive in this 11th stage from Avranches to the rocky island, should be beaten by Tony Martin by a mere dozen seconds and that he did not add a second stage win to the one he annexed so majestically in the Pyrenees. That, though, was just being greedy.
In the all-yellow skinsuit so irresistibly reminiscent of Bradley Wiggins powering to his decisive victory in the time trial in the penultimate stage in Chartres last year, there was just a moment as the yellow wonder hammered towards the ‘Wonder of the West’ and one of the iconic sports photos of the year that it looked as if the perfect script would be written.
Martin’s time of 36min 29.87sec for the 33km course had withstood 180 challenges for about five hours, but Froome was ahead of the time-trial specialist at the course’s two checkpoints only to tire slightly over the final kilometres on the sea front and lose out by 12 seconds to the world champion.
Tony Martin shows his injuries from stage 1
Nobody was about to begrudge Martin this particular garland, least of all Froome, considering that 11 days earlier in the opening stage in Corsica, after taking the most horrific fall of anyone in the crash just before the finish, the German had spent a sleepless night suffering from contusions to the lung, concussion and serious skin abrasions. This was a victory, then, astonishing for its resilience and courage.
Anyway, how could Froome be peeved when he looked at the damage he had just done to the men who have ambitions of beating him to the title?
Alejandro Valverde, the Spaniard whom Froome believes is now his major rival, lost two minutes to the Briton; Alberto Contador gave up 2min 3sec (3:54 now overall), Nairo Quintana 3:16 (5:18) and Joaquim Rodríguez 3:17 (5:48). This was a rout, one the climbers ill-suited to this hateful trial had feared.
A scene of rare beauty had greeted Froome for his gentle morning recon with Richie Porte. “It really was picturesque, amazing round Mont Saint-Michel,” Froome said.
Yet in the race itself? Behind his black helmet visor, looking for all the world like Darth Vader in primrose, he was locked in a world of his own, head still and not a trace of his Paula Radcliffe-on-a-bike impression.
“You don’t take any of the pictures in. You just go into tunnel vision.” To start with, it looked pretty plain sailing for the 28-year-old as, last to roll off the start ramp in Avranches, all the work testing his trialling position in the wind tunnel at Southampton University paid off.
Only vaguely aware of the din of thousands along the route, including those Britons who had popped here to Normandy after Tuesday’s stage in Brittany, Froome’s real test, the moment when the trial lived up to its billing as ‘the race of truth’, occurred as he hit a strong headwind along the bay with 2km left.
“I was struggling to turn my legs. I was just trying to get to the finish,” he said. “I had given it everything. I’m going to need every second I can get the way everyone is riding.”
If there was an element of frustration for Sky, it came with the sight of Porte powering to fourth in the time trial, just 1:21 down on Martin. He would now be lying in a strong second place but for his calamitous Sunday in the Pyrenees. “Richie showed today he’s certainly not out of this race. I’d expect him to be there in the mountains when we go into Alps,” Froome said.
Already, even with three stages to go before Mont Ventoux, he cannot help thinking of the assaults ahead because Wednesday’s race has left no other option for Sky’s pursuers. “Teams are just going to throw everything they’ve got at us,” he said.