GAP, France – 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 ago on exactly the same descent, Joseba Beloki shattered his leg, elbow and wrist 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 was, Alberto Contador didn’t. Against his better instincts, Froome chased after his Spanish rival who sped down the treacherous stretch with asphalt made gooey and slippery by the July heat.
“All teams are starting to get desperate now and they’re taking uncalculated risks,” Froome said. “In my opinion it was a bit dangerous from Alberto to ride like that, it’s not good.”
Just like Armstrong, flirting with disaster nearly cost Froome the Tour. Contador crashed as he rounded a right-hand corner, forcing Froome to swerve 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, the drama on Tuesday’s Stage 16 proved a point that Froome and his Sky team have made time and again: Despite his big lead, Froome won’t savor victory until he’s 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 Saxobank (Contador’s team).”
Opportunities for Froome’s rivals to claw back are fast running out. The finish line in Paris is now just 415 miles and five days away. To their credit, they aren’t simply accepting defeat but are harassing Froome all the way.
“Sometimes you have to go for it, whether it’s at the start or the end of a stage,” said Contador, who sits in third overall, more than four minutes off the lead.
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.
Until Contador’s spill, it seemed as if the 104-mile trek to Gap from Vaison-la-Romaine would be one of those Tour stages that don’t amount to much.
Apparently preparing 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.
Today’s Stage 17 is a 20-mile individual time trial from Embrun to Chorges. It features two category-2 hills, including a long climb to the finish.