Forty-six years and one day after the first British rider to lead the Tour de France, Tom Simpson, lost his life on Mont Ventoux, the latest one to wear the yellow jersey, Chris Froome of Team Sky, rode away from his rivals on the same mountain to take a huge step towards ensuring he will keep it all the way to Paris next Sunday.
Having attacked and dropped Saxo-Tinkoff's Alberto Contador with around 7 kilometres of the ascent of the mountain nicknamed the Giant of Provence left, Froome bridged across to Movistar's Nairo Quintana, the pair working together until Froome kicked again and dropped the Colombian with a little over a kilometre remaining.
Contador would roll across the line more than a minute and a half after Froome, finishing sixth on the stage and remains third overall. Belkin's Bauke Mollema remains in second position on General Classification, but is now 4 minutes 14 seconds adrift of the race leader, a potentially decisive cushion for Froome ahead of some big mountain stages in the days ahead.
At 242 kilometres, today's stage from Givors was the longest of the 100th edition of the Tour, but the real action was confined to that brutal climb that comprised the final 20.8 kilometres of the stage. Sylvain Chavanel, the last survivor of the day's break, led the race onto it, with Jan Bakelants of RadioShack-Leopard and Mikel Nieve of Euskaltel, who would finish third, attacking off the main bunch and bridging across, the latter immediately finding himself out alone in front.
Behind, big names including past champions Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans were getting dropped from the group containing the overall contenders as first Peter Kennaugh then Richie Porte set a punishing pace on behalf of Froome.
Quintana, who had made his move with 13 kilometres remaining, was out in front on his own by the time Froome made the move that distanced Contador, and while the Colombian was unable to stay with the Team Sky man for the whole climb, he has the consolation of getting back into the white jersey of best young rider.
The pace of those 220 kilometres raced under the sun ahead of the climb of the Ventoux meant that even on the shallower, lower slopes, some riders carrying hopes for a home stage win on Bastille Day were dropped from the main group, including mountains classification leader Pierre Rolland of Europcar – he drops to fourth, with Froome now leading the contest – and FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot, a stage winner last year, but who has been struggling with flu in recent days.
It was a Frenchman, however, Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel, who led the race onto the mountain. He had no chance of still being ahead by the top of the climb, but riding alone was greeted by a wave of cheers from the estimated 1 million fans lining the slopes.
The ten-man break that Chavanel, three times victorious in Tour de France stages, had got into early on included a number of French riders looking for glory on the Fête Nationale, including four-time stage winner Pierrick Fedrigo of FDJ, AG2R’s Christophe Riblon, who won a stage in 2010, plus Sojasun’s Julien El Fares and FDJ’s Jeremy Roy. Rolland spent much of the day trying to get across, without success, and would pay for those efforts later.
Also in the group was Cannondale’s Peter Sagan, who took the day’s intermediate sprint at Maulaucène, just 34.5 kilometres from the finish, unopposed – although he drifted back through the group shortly beforehand to ensure that the rest of the men he had spent most of the day riding alongside were on message.
Sagan, winner of the green jersey in the points classification in last year’s race, now has a lead of 99 points over Mark Cavendish, and needs only to stay upright until the finish in Paris to become the first back-to-back winner of the competition since Erik Zabel, who won it six times in succession between 1996 and 2001.
The intermediate sprint, though, was merely a brief distraction from the looming presence of Mont Ventoux. The route had headed due south under bright sunshine from Givors until the village of Bédoin, where it swung round onto the 20.8 kilometre final climb, which has an average gradient of 7.5 per cent but barely dropping below 9 per cent for the final 16 kilometres, the last six played out in a barren landscape above the treeline.
Ahead of the climb of the Ventoux, Sky had moved to the front of the peloton, which up until that point had been controlled by Movistar.
On Friday, the Spanish team’s leader Alejandro Valverde plummeted down the overall standings, but Quintana clearly had his eyes on getting back into the white jersey.
The pace of those 220 kilometres raced under the sun ahead of the climb – the speed of the front group topped 50 kilometres an hour during the second hour of the stage – added to the suffering on the mountain itself, as one by one riders were shed from the group containing the overall contenders.
Sky, already missing Edvald Boasson Hagen and Vasil Kiryienka, saw their numbers further depleted early on as Geraint Thomas, who fractured his pelvis on the opening day on Corsica, Ian Stannard and Spanish climber David Lopez, were tailed off.
Next to go was Kanstantsin Sistou, dropped with a little more than 15 kilometres left, and with Saxo-Tinkoff and Belkin, among others, still retaining numerical superiority in the lead group, it appeared that Froome might risk becoming isolated, just as had happened last Sunday in the Pyrenees.
Kennaugh, who had crashed on that stage to Bagnères to Bigorre, and Porte, who had begun that day second overall but cracked and slid out of overall contention, each put in huge turns to keep the riders up ahead in check while simultaneously setting a pace that saw rivals drop out of the group, one by one.
Then there were three; Porte, Froome and Contador, the latter sitting on the wheel of the man in the yellow jersey, as he had done since the start of the ascent.
As the trio caught Nieve, leaving only Quintana further up the road, Froome, looking down at his power meter, made his move shortly ahead of a bend; he went into it with Contador still clinging desperately onto his wheel, and out of it with a decisive margin over the Spaniard.
Once again, Sky had executed a plan to perfection, and as Froome headed towards the top of the mountain, Porte, his job done, beamed with satisfaction at his role in helping his friend and team leader to a stage win that more than offsets the time lost to Contador on Friday, and which ultimately may have sealed the overall win.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.