CULOZ, France – When his rivals tried to unsettle the Tour de France leader in the punishing Lacets du Grand Colombier, Chris Froome just kept calm and carried on.
On a tough day through the Jura mountains featuring hardly any flat stretches, attacks from Fabio Aru, Alejandro Valverde and Romain Bardet on the final climb of Sunday’s 15th stage of the Tour left the British champion unfazed.
“I was in control,” Froome summed up at the finish.
So much in control that the Team Sky leader even teased his opponents, suddenly jumping out of the group of favorites near the summit in a fake attack, before stopping his move.
“I just wanted to get a feeling for how the group was, and who was reacting and who to look out for,” Froome said. “What reaction I would get, who would be looming to follow me?”
Froome’s short acceleration had no impact and the group crossed the finish line together, slightly more than three minutes behind stage winner Jarlinson Pantano.
But the cheeky move spoke volumes about his current supremacy at cycling’s biggest event. Aside from his crash in the Mont Ventoux due to a motorbike incident last week, Froome has been enjoying a quiet and effective fortnight.
Ahead of the final week of racing in the Alps, Froome kept his 1:47 lead over Dutch rider Bauke Mollema intact, with Adam Yates in third place overall, 2:45 back. Colombian climber Nairo Quintana lags 2:59 behind in fourth.
“When it looked Quintana was going to attack, he (Froome) threw a little dummy attack in and that just quietened everybody down,” said Richie Porte, who sits in seventh overall, 4:27 back.
Although Froome’s rivals tried their luck in the final ascent, none of them was able to create a gap as Froome’s lieutenants Woet Poels and Mikel Nieve did not panic, pulling their leader on the serpentine climb without losing any ground.
And when Quintana tried to accelerate after another attack from Bardet on the descent, once again the Sky riders shut down the move.
“Coming to the Tour, I said I was in a very privileged position because it was the strongest team that Team Sky ever sent to the Tour,” Froom said. “With me, I have riders who would be leaders in other teams. It must be quite demoralizing for other riders.”
Quintana and Mollema have four Alpine stages next week to make up for the lost ground.
“Sky were very strong yet again and they really made it hard for us,” said Valverde, who rides with Quintana at Movistar. “We’re going to try to do our best in the coming week. We’re definitely going to try something. I think people are expecting more fire and fight from us. We will fight in the coming stages.”
Pantano, a Colombian rider with the IAM team, posted the most important win of his career after a long breakaway, outsprinting Polish rider Rafal Majka to the finish line.
Majka, who started the breakaway soon after the start of the 160-kilometer (99-mile) trek in Bourg-en-Bresse, moved away on his own in the final of six climbs on the day’s agenda. A third-place finisher at the Spanish Vuelta last year, he accelerated in the punishing 8.4-kilometer climb to drop Pantano. But Majka made a mistake on the descent and allowed his rival to rejoin him.
The pair did not collaborate well on the flat roads to the finish, with Majka reluctant to take his share of the work. They were almost caught by Frenchman Alexis Vuillermoz, who finished third, six seconds back.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Pantano. “I had good feelings today, I knew that if I was able to join him on the downhill I had good chances. And in the end the best rider won.”
On a hot and sunny day, Majka and Ilnur Zakarin attacked on the first climb and a group of 30 riders gathered at the front. With no overall contender in the leading pack, Froome and his teammates did not chase.
On a constantly undulating course, Dutch rider Dylan van Baarle tried his luck soon after the feed zone but was quickly joined by Tom Dumoulin, who countered him in the Cote d’Hotonnes. The move sparked a reaction from former Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali, who jumped out of the chasing group alongside Pantano and Vuillermoz.
The group was caught at the foot of the grueling ascent of the Grand Colombier, with the peloton of main favorites 8:30 back. Featuring some steep slopes at an average gradient of 6.8 percent, the 12.8-kilometer climb was too much to take for Nibali, who immediately got dropped.
Majka and Zakarin once again accelerated and reached the summit with a 30-second lead over Julian Alaphilippe, who caught his rivals in the technical downhill to Anglefort but saw his hopes of victory destroyed by a crash. The Frenchman escaped unscathed and was back in the race with a spare bike.
Back in the pack of favorites, Astana riders moved to the front to set a faster tempo. The sudden change in pace left Froome unfazed while Yates was seen struggling at the back. American Tejay van Garderen could not follow and dropped to eighth overall, 4:47 behind Froome.
Monday’s 209-kilometer (130-mile) stage takes the peloton from Moirans-en-Montagne to Bern in Switzerland.