CHORGES, France – Even when he expects to lose, Tour de France champion-in-the-making Chris Froome cannot help but win. He’s that strong and he’s making it look easy.
On a day when the British rider was planning to save some energy for upcoming mountains, Froome still brushed aside the field and took his third stage win of this 100th Tour.
Alberto Contador, Froome’s Spanish rival still trying to make a fight of this one-sided battle, gave his all in Wednesday’s Alpine time trial. His face contorted in a grimace of effort as he sprinted out of the saddle to the line, while spectators whipped up a thunderclap of noise by banging their fists on the barriers.
Froome, having set off behind Contador, sped in a few moments later. He, too, rode hard but looked more comfortable with his easy-on-the-eye pedaling style, perched on his saddle, legs pumping underneath him like pistons in an ocean liner’s engine room.
Contador shook his head and shrugged his shoulders when television flashed that Froome beat his time by 9 seconds. This was another opportunity lost for Contador – 4 minutes, 34 seconds back in second place in the overall standings – to make victory for Froome in Paris on Sunday at least feel less inevitable.
“Froome is in impressive shape,” was the understated assessment of the 2007 and ’09 winner who was stripped of his 2010 victory for a failed doping test.
The last Tour champion – now ex-champion – to carry as many stage wins as Froome to Paris was Lance Armstrong. That was in 2004, when Armstrong won five stages and declared he’d be giving “no gifts” to his rivals. That is all just a bad memory now. This Tour is the first since the serial doper’s name was erased last year from the race’s honor roll.
Froome swears that won’t happen with him. He has repeatedly said when asked at this Tour that he is riding clean – an assurance that seemingly has limited value in the poisonous atmosphere of doubt that is a legacy of the Armstrong years from 1999-2007.
In four days, as long as he gets through the Alps, Froome will be able to sip champagne in the saddle on the final ride to the Champs-Elysees, unusually staged in the evening this year. That would make it two victories in a row for Britain and for Team Sky, after Bradley Wiggins’ win last year.
With wins in the Pyrenees and on famed Mont Ventoux, Froome has shown excellence going uphill. It would be a big surprise if he wilted on the three days of Alpine climbs that start today.
But there are questions about how comfortable Froome is speeding downhill. He appealed to race organizers to cancel the Col de Sarenne descent and make the pack ride just once to L’Alpe d’Huez if it rains today.
“Rain isn’t the enemy of the cyclist – it’s part of the sport!” event director Jean-Francois Pescheux responded.
Froome covered the 20 miles of Wednesday’s Stage 17 in 51 minutes, 33.66 seconds.
“I went into today thinking: ‘OK, I’m going to give this a really good shot, but I’m not going to empty myself,” Froome said. “I really expected to lose at least 30 seconds to a minute to some of the best riders.”
Contador’s gutsy ride bumped him up from third to second in the overall standings, although he is more than four minutes back from Froome.