Plumelec - Race leader Chris Froome heads to the first mountain stages of
the Tour de France in confident mood - and with an unexpected main rival.
The British rider, seeking his second Tour win after his dominant victory in
2013, safely kept the yellow jersey after his Team SKY finished one second
behind American rider Tejay van Garderen's BMC in Sunday's team time trial, the
ninth stage of a crash-marred race.
Van Garderen is 12 seconds behind Froome in second place, putting him ahead
of Nairo Quintana of Colombia, the 2013 Tour runner-up and the Giro d'Italia
winner in 2014, as well as two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador of Spain and defending
Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali of Italy.
The 26-year-old van Garderen has never finished higher than fifth at the
Tour, but is so far riding like a contender.
"Those guys have that tag of 'Fab Four' which is getting a bit
irritating," van Garderen said. "All those guys in the top four have
won Grand Tours ... It doesn't mean I'm intimidated by them ... I'm not afraid
to beat them."
The most disappointing of the 'Fab Four' has so far been Nibali, who cracked
in a short climb at the end of Saturday's eighth stage and lost more time in
Sunday's TTT when his Astana team finished fifth, behind Contador's
Tinkoff-Saxo and Quintana's Movistar.
"I thought (Nibali) was going to be the one guy from the main
contenders who would gain time in this first phase of the race," the
30-year-old Froome said. "I am surprised."
Contador, who entered the Tour on the back of his second Giro d'Italia win
and seventh Grand Tour title, is in fifth place - 1 minute, 3 seconds behind
Froome - while Quintana is 1:59 behind in ninth and Nibali sits 2:22 behind in
"It's one thing not to lose any time to your rivals but it's another to
gain time on them," Froome said. "The pressure's certainly not on my
Following Monday's rest day, Tuesday's 10th stage snakes up the Pyrenees
There is only one significant climb, right at the end. But it is a notable
one - 15.3km up La Pierre-Saint-Martin, a mountain resort hosting a stage for
the first time. The ascent is classed as Hors Categorie (Beyond Classification)
- the rating given to the toughest climbs.
Wednesday's 11th stage features a climb up the Category 1 Col d'Aspin and
then an HC trek up Col du Tourmalet, a famed Tour climb.
A few riders might crack on Thursday's 12th stage: featuring two Cat. 1
climbs and an HC up Plateau de Beille to top things off.
Froome has identified van Garderen, second behind him at last month's
Criterium du Dauphine race, as his main Tour rival.
"(The Pyrenees) will be the test who is fit enough to win the Tour and
the Alps will (show) who has enough stamina to get to the end," van
Garderen said. "With the way I was climbing at the Dauphine, compared to
Froome, I think I'm pretty close."
Before Sunday's 9th stage, van Garderen was 13 seconds behind Froome in
third place, meaning his BMC team - world champions in the discipline - needed
to win the TTT by 14 seconds for the American rider to take the yellow jersey.
The 22 teams started the TTT within five minutes of each other over a
28km trek that ended with a short and sharp hill of 1.7km. Teams have to
get five riders over the line with the overall time credited to the fifth rider
BMC's team featured four riders from the team that won last year's worlds:
van Garderen, Rohan Dennis, Daniel Oss and Manuel Quinziato. The Australian
rider Dennis won the Tour's opening individual time trial in a record average
At the Criterium du Dauphine, BMC won the team time trial with Froome's Team
Sky placing sixth, 35 seconds behind - but on a less challenging course.
Thousands of fans, many waving the black-and-white flag of the Brittany
region, packed the undulating route. Starting in Vannes and rolling past
Chateau de L'Hermine, a resplendent castle residence for Dukes of Burgundy
between the 14th and 16th century, it ended in Plumelec.
BMC and Sky were level at the first time check, Sky one second ahead at the
Wearing a tailor-made yellow skin suit, Froome hammered down on the pedals
as his team reached speeds of 70 kph (43.4 mph) approaching the final climb.
But then they lost time.
Belgian rider Greg Van Avermaet - a BMC rider - is third overall behind
Froome, 27 seconds behind, while Slovak sprinter Peter Sagan is fourth, 38
But neither is a contender for the Tour win.
"Right now, the biggest threat is Tejay van Garderen," Froome