MENDE, France – With Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome sitting 1-2 in the overall standings, Team Sky has complete control over the Tour de France.
The two British riders took advantage of their powers in the hilly 14th stage in the Massif Central, allowing a large group of breakaway riders to build a lead of nearly 20 minutes, then fending off the few attacks thrown their way on the short but steep finishing climb.
“We can really just ride off each other,” Froome said. “I imagine for our rivals it’s making their lives quite difficult, having two guys to watch like that.”
While the Welshman Thomas is attempting to win the Tour for the first time, the Kenyan-born Froome is aiming for a record-tying fifth victory in cycling’s biggest race.
Fourth-placed Primoz Roglic was the only overall contender to gain time, finishing eight seconds ahead of Thomas, Froome and third-placed Tom Dumoulin – with all four riders finishing more than 18 minutes behind stage winner Omar Fraile, who remained far back in the standings.
Thomas leads Froome by 1 minute, 39 seconds. Dumoulin, the time trial world champion and last year’s Giro d’Italia winner, is third, 1:50 behind, and Roglic is fourth, 2:38 back.
When Dumoulin attacked with two kilometers remaining, Thomas chased him down with Froome towing along.
“(Dumoulin) can really pace himself,” Thomas said. “You don’t know if he is really suffering or just pacing himself. Hats off to him. It takes (courage) to do that with no teammate around.”
Fraile escaped from a large group of breakaway riders on the finishing climb, a short but steep three-kilometer ascent that was followed by a quick descent and flat finish on an air strip.
“When I saw that the breakaway was so big, I knew it was going to be a tough stage, but I picked my moment well and pulled it off,” Fraile said. “I knew that I still had another gear. … I have raced here before and I knew the course to perfection.”
Fraile had time to celebrate before crossing the line, finishing six seconds ahead of Julian Alaphilippe, the Frenchman wearing the polka-dot jersey awarded to the Tour’s best climber.
Jasper Stuyven of Belgium finished third, also six seconds back, and three-time world champion Peter Sagan came fourth.
It was the first career victory at the Tour for Fraile, who rides for the Astana team. His only other victory at a Grand Tour came with a stage win in last year’s Giro d’Italia. The Basque rider also won the mountains classification in the Spanish Vuelta in 2015 and 2016.
Fraile became the third Spanish winner of a Tour stage in Mende after Marcos Serrano in 2005 and Joaquim “Purito” Rodriguez in 2010.
The hilly 188-kilometer (117-mile) route from Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux in southern France passed through the Ardeche gorges, home to some ancient cave paintings.
Stage 15 on Sunday from Millau to Carcassonne is another hilly leg before the race’s second rest day on Monday. Then come the Pyrenees and a possibly decisive individual time trial in the penultimate stage before the traditional finish in Paris next weekend.
“We have a plan for the first mountain stage,” Thomas said. “If we go against each other and Dumoulin wins then we would look really stupid. It is the first time I have raced for three weeks as a GC (general classification) leader, so it is an unknown for me.”
The finishing climb on the Cote de la Croix Neuve (hill of the new cross) measured only three kilometers but was a steep challenge at an average gradient of slightly more than 10 percent – more than the 8.1 percent average gradient of the much longer Alpe d’Huez.
A sea of fans lined both sides of the road up the Cote de la Croix Neuve, and the crowd was disappointed when French contender Romain Bardet couldn’t keep up with the leaders.
Bardet crossed 14 seconds behind Thomas, Froome and Dumoulin and his gap behind the yellow jersey holder fell to 3 minutes, 21 seconds, in fifth place overall.
Strong crosswinds at the start in the Rhone Valley split the peloton into “echelons” – groups of strung-out riders fanned across the road.
Thomas and Froome were in the front echelon while Roglic, Bardet, Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde were caught behind.
Eventually, the peloton came back together, although by then a large group of 32 breakaway riders, including Fraile, formed ahead.
Stuyven surged ahead alone before the final climb but was passed by Fraile with two kilometers to go.
“In the last few kilometers,” Fraile said, “I knew that I could win.”
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