CHORGES, France, July 17 — Chris Froome continued his march towards a maiden Tour de France title when he beat fierce rival Alberto Contador by nine seconds to win the 17th stage, a 32-km time trial on Wednesday.
Team Sky rider Froome, who has now three stage wins to his name in the Tour this year, clocked 51 minutes 33 seconds to extend his overall lead over second-placed Contador to 4:34 going into three gruelling stages in the Alps.
“It’s a surprise for me to win today,” Briton Froome told reporters.
“The first descent was dangerous and technical, I did not want to take risks.
“I was a bit down in the first two time checks but I feel the bike change helped me towards the end,” added Froome, who switched to a time trial bike just before the second time check.
Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez took third on the day one second behind Contador as Dutchman Bauke Mollema lost his third place overall to Czech Roman Kreuziger, who trails Froome by 4:51 after finishing fourth.
The time trial featured two second-category climbs and two descents, the first one being particularly tricky.
Contador went full throttle after opening a two-second gap on the first time check but Froome, who on Tuesday accused the Spaniard of careless riding, had more in the tank.
“I’m very happy to see that both Roman Kreuziger and Alberto Contador did such a stunning time trial and we have now conquered the two lower spots of the podium,” Saxo-Tinkoff sports director Fabrizio Guidi told reporters.
“Tomorrow and the next days we will continue our plan and follow our objective, which is to win the Tour de France.”
France’s Jean-Christophe Peraud, ninth overall before the start of the stage, had a nightmarish day. He broke his right collarbone in a crash during a training ride but decided to take the start, only to come off his bike again two kilometres from the finish.
Unsurprisingly, Peraud pulled out of the race.
Thursday’s 18th stage takes the peloton from Gap to l’Alpe d’Huez, with the 21 hairpins to the resort being climbed twice with the treacherous descent from the Col de Sarenne sandwiched in between.
Up to one million spectators are expected on the ascent, according to the local office of tourism quoted by French TV.
Froome bracing for battle
Froome is expecting Spanish rival Contador to give it all he has got to wrestle his way back into Tour de France contention on the iconic Alpe D’Huez.
Thursday’s 18th stage features two climbs of the famous mountain, with the treacherous descent from the Col de Sarenne sandwiched in between — a downhill Froome hopes will be cancelled should it rain as forecast.
“I expect it to be a fight tomorrow at l’Alpe d’Huez,” Team Sky rider Froome told a news conference after winning Wednesday’s time trial to extend his overall lead over Contador to four minutes 34 seconds.
“Contador is not a rider to give up. He is going to keep pushing me every day. It’s evident that the Spaniards and the Dutch guys are not going to stop racing,” the Briton added, referring to Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez and Dutch rider Bauke Mollema, who are sixth and fourth respectively.
Froome accused Contador of careless riding on Tuesday after the Spaniard crashed just ahead of him after attacking on a descent.
“No disrespect for Alberto but yesterday I felt he was a bit reckless in the descent. You’ve got to remember that it’s a bike race, you could end up leaving the Tour with a silly injury.”
Bjarne Riis, the road manager of Contador’s Team Saxo-Tinkoff, however, believes that taking risks is what bike racing is about.
“He should use his brakes more if he is too afraid, because we are going to attack everywhere, whether it’s uphill or downhill,” he told reporters.
Saxo-Tinkoff’s strategy is likely to consist in isolating Froome from his team mates with repeated attacks, then try to drop him in the descent or on the flat. They have already accepted that the Briton is too good a climber to lose ground on the ascents.
Froome’s Sky team mates appeared to take it relatively easy in the time trial in order to save some energy with Thursday’s battle in mind.
Contador’s lieutenant, Czech Roman Kreuziger, will have drained his resources, however, in finishing fourth to take third place overall.
“Having Alberto and Roman in second and third overall gives us more tactical options,” Saxo-Tinkoff sports director Fabrizio Guidi told reporters.
Contador has already shown that he is not racing for second.
In last year’s Vuelta, he launched a surprise long-range attack to overthrow Joaquim Rodriguez on the 17th stage and take the title.
With four gruelling climbs, descents and flat parts in the valleys, Friday’s stage to Le Grand Bornand is likely to present his best opportunity to repeat the trick.