There’s still a week to go in the Tour de France but race leader Chris Froome insisted that “every second counts” after surprisingly reclaiming the yellow jersey.
Saturday’s stage wasn’t supposed to create gaps amongst the favourites with just a short 600-metre climb to the finish but it was the long, fast downhill section beforehand that made the difference as positioning into the final ascent was vital in a strung-out peloton.
But once again, as he had done last year, Briton Froome proved he has the panache to glean time wherever there’s an opportunity to do so.
He and his Sky team-mates will be far more wary on Sunday’s 15th stage from Laissac-Severac l’Eglise to Le Puy en Velay than previous leader Fabio Aru’s Astana outfit were on the run-in to Rodez, where the Italian was badly caught out.
Sunday’s 189.5km stage is perhaps the most beautiful on this year’s race, which organisers believe will showcase “exceptional landscapes that highlight the charm of France” as it passes through the stunning Massif Central mountain range.
It also has its fair share of difficulties and with the final rest day coming up on Monday, there’s no reason for the riders to hold anything back.
Four categorised climbs, including two first category ones, will encourage strong all-rounders to take off in the breakaway, but it may also give the overall contenders a chance to do battle and create gaps.
Froome is wary of such a scenario and said he expects his Sky team to control matters far better than Astana did on Friday’s short but thrilling 13th stage won by Frenchman Warren Barguil on Bastille Day.
“The race was in bits with Astana trying to control it,” said Froome.
“I’d like to think when we were controlling the race it was a bit calmer.”
He added of Sunday’s stage: “It will be all hands on deck because it will be a war.”
This year’s race has shown that big time gaps over a single stage are almost impossible to gain amongst the leaders, meaning they must seize every opportunity that comes along, no matter how small.
Aru is now 18 seconds behind Froome with Romain Bardet at 23sec and Rigoberto Uran at 29sec in one of the tightest yellow jersey battles in years.
Froome’s Sky team-mate Mikel Landa is fifth at 1:17 with Dan Martin sixth at 1:26, although he lost 1:15 of that in a crash last Sunday when he was wiped out by Richie Porte.
Martin has been on the charge and making small gains ever since, despite nursing the injuries from his spectacular fall.
“It’s still so close in the top five there, anyone within a minute is a potential threat,” added Froome.
“At this point, it’s fighting for every second.”
Froome retook time off all his rivals barring Uran and Martin.