Watched over by the gilded statue of the Archangel Michael slaying the devil that tops the spire of the monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel, Team Sky's Chris Froome today put his rivals for the overall title in the 100th edition of the Tour de France to the sword, the only rider close to the day's winning time set by world champion Tony Martin of Omega Pharma-Quick Step.
A strong performance by the Team Sky rider put more time into the riders already playing catch-up following his emphatic win at Ax 3 Domaines on Saturday.
Froome, who had been slightly ahead of Martin at each of the individual time checks, lost a handful of seconds to the world time trial champion in the closing part of the 33 kilometre stage from Avranches and finished second to the German, but in the context of the overall standings, today's ride is an emphatic victory for him.
He now has a commanding lead in the General Classification as his rivals proved unable to match his speed against the clock.
Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, second this morning, lost exactly 2 minutes to Froome today; Belkin’s Bauke Mollema, third at the start of the stage, only bettered the Spaniard’s time by 7 seconds; former Tour de France champion Alberto Contador, seen as the biggest threat to Froome before the race began, lost 2 minutes 3 seconds today.
The top 3 overall remain in the same order this evening, but Valverde now lies 3 minutes 25 seconds behind Froome, with Mollema a further 12 seconds down; there’s then a 17-second gap to Contador in fourth position.
Only Martin, who ten days ago on Corsica seemed unlikely to start the second stage of the race after twice losing consciousness on the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team bus following a crash towards the end of Stage 1, proved faster than the rider aiming to go one better than last year’s runner-up slot in Paris to team mate Sir Bradley Wiggins.
In last year’s race, Froome twice finished second to Wiggins in the two long individual time trials, while Martin punctured in the first of those and had abandoned by the time the second one came along.
At the Olympic Games in London in August, only Wiggins and Martin were able to go quicker than Froome, who took the bronze medal at Hampton Court.
The form book suggested that Froome would have an edge over his rivals, but as with the margin of his victory in the Pyrenees on Saturday, the time he put into them today will be further cause for satisfaction in the Sky camp as he finished almost 12 seconds down on Martin, but more than half a minute ahead of third placed Thomas De Gendt of Vacansoleil-DCM.
As for Martin, perhaps surprisingly given his strength in the discipline, this is only his second stage victory against the clock at the Tour de France – the first being on the penultimate day in Grenoble in 2011 on the same day Cadel Evans took the yellow jersey from Andy Schleck.
The German’s relationship with the race has often been an unhappy one, characterised by crashes and mechanical issues, and today he looked nervous as TV pictures showed him reacting to Froome going 1 second quicker at the first intermediate time check at 9.5 kilometres, and a little over 2 seconds quicker at the second check, which came at 22 kilometres.
He was all smiles, however, as Froome went outside his time of 36 minutes 29 seconds with the finish line in sight, and he wasn’t the only Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider celebrating today, with Michal Kwiatowski, fifth quickest, overhauling Movistar’s Nairo Quintana at the top of the best young rider’s classification.
One of their team mates had a less happy day, however – Mark Cavendish, under fire for yesterday’s controversial sprint finish in Saint-Malo in which some believe he deliberately brought down Argos-Shimano’s Tom Veelers, was jeered by fans and even sprayed with urine.
Besides getting the stage win, Martin also avoided receiving a fine from the race jury, which had sanctioned him after last week’s team time trial in Nice, which he rode on his usual TT bike complete with rainbow band colour scheme.
The rationale behind that fine handed to the German last week was that even though he was a member of the Omega Pharma-Quick Step line-up that won the world championship team time trial in the Netherlands last September, no rainbow jersey is awarded in the discipline – instead, the team gets to wear a logo on its kit.
As reigning individual time trial world champion, the UCI had no issues with Martin using his custom painted frame today, however.
The abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel that provided such a spectacular backdrop to today's finish line was itself closed to the thousands of fans who descended for the Tour's visit today, many of them from the UK, as a result of an ongoing strike.
The dispute is centred around the creation last year of a new park & ride system aimed at safeguarding the natural environment around the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is France's second most visited tourist attraction after the Eiffel Tower.
The new means of access has seen journey times increase for workers and tourists alike - one restaurant owner, also a member of the CGT union, told French daily Le Figaro that on average, travel time for employees had doubled.
The dispute has been ongoing for several weeks, and initially the abbey remained open, although visitors did not have to pay the usual 9 euro entrance charge; since Monday, however, the dispute has escalated, rendering the historic monument off limits to visitors.
Two men who did have a job of work to do there this afternoon, however, will come away satisfied with their efforts – Martin taking a stage which was always a big target for him and his team, and Froome taking another big step towards the top of the podium in Paris a week on Sunday.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.