The riders and staff at Team Sky celebrated their total dominance of the first mountain finish at the Tour de France at Ax 3 Domaines in their usual modest way, exchanging smiles, handshakes a few hugs but their huge satisfaction was palpable as they warmed down on the rollers or quickly ate some recovery food inside the team's camper van just past the finish area.
Richie Porte arrived a little after several of his teammates because he had been selected for anti-doping control and he gave Pete Kennaugh a special huge and beamed a huge smile. The pocket-sized Tasmanian set up Chris Froome on the climb to the finish and then had the strength to also accelerate away and finish second on the stage himself and secure place overall, 51 seconds behind Froome.
"The day worked absolutely to plan. We expected [Nairo] Quintana to attack and maybe he attacked too far out and so we used our team perfectly. I think Chris showed that he's the strongest guy, he's here to win, so it's an incredible day," Porte told the media that had gathered at the black camper van.
"I think I've shown this year that I'm thereabouts. I was second in most of the races I've done. This is the big one, we can't get too carried away, it's a long way to Paris but I enjoyed today. It's such an advantage riding on the front, taking everything and putting the guys behind to the sword."
"When I saw Quintana and [Alejandro] Valverde were pretty tired, it made sense to set off at my own pace. It was one of those days that went to plan. I just hope the next two weeks are like that too."
Porte did not seem worried about defending the yellow jersey all the way to Paris.
"There's a lot of pressure but we showed it's possible. We've got a good strong team here and it’s also nice to be at the front and dictate the pace. It's a long way to go but let’s enjoy it," he said.
Praise for Kennaugh
Porte praised Kennaugh for his strong team performance. The young Manxman was part of the Great Britain track team in recent years and won a gold medal in the team pursuit at the London Olympic Games last August. He initially struggled to switch back to stage racing but secured his place at the Tour de France with a strong ride in the Critérium di Dauphiné. On the climb to the finish, he set up Froome and Porte with a long turn of speed on the front that put their rivals in the red.
"For me I think the standout rider was Pete Kennaugh. He stepped up and I was able to save myself until the finale," Porte said.
Kennaugh talked to the media while on the rollers. He had completed the stage on his lowest gear, savouring his own performance and that of Froome and Porte.
"I'm pretty pleased with myself and with the way Richie and Froomy were able to finish it off," he said.
"Getting selected for the Tour de France was a big thing and I was always a bit nervous about how I as going to perform and if I'd be able to live up to the job that I had to do. Today I proved why I selected. It's great for the team and for my own confidence."
100% dedication to Froome
Kennaugh said he was inspired by Froome's ability as a rider and team leader.
"It's so easy to commit to Froome because of the way he handles everyone. He has respect for everyone on the team no matter what the job is," he said.
"Every time you go out on your bike, you give 100% for him because you get 100% back from him. He's the most consistent rider I've ever met in my life. I've never seen him have a bad day all season. He's an incredible physical guy. The way he goes up hills is amazing and the way he controls his effort is very logical. He's not emotional, his attacks are very precise and he's able to hold and sustain that power."
Kennaugh showed he has the physical and mental strength to perform on the big mountain stages at the Tour de France.
"It's always a battle against yourself in your head. You ask yourself how much you can last but then a little later you feel better. You've got to keep positive and keep the negative thoughts out of your head," he said.
"It's almost a relief when it comes to your turn and you set the pace. When you get on the front and you can set your own speed, even if it’s faster, it's mentally easier."
"I was Olympic champion (in 2012) but everything else was pretty shitty for me. This is much better. It took me a while to find my form this year. I was down to ride the Giro but I was riding Catalunya and I rang Rod (Ellingworth – the Team Sky head coach) and said I didn’t feel fit enough. Then I proved myself in the Dauphiné."
Like Froome, Porte and the rest of Team Sky, Kennaugh is happy that the Tour has finally had a good shake down and that Team Sky has take a firm grip on the yellow jersey and the general classification. As a product of the Team Sky and Great Britain development programme, he loves to be in control and ride a measured effort.
"It's good to be able to now control the race and ride how we want to ride," Kennaugh said.
"The first week has been stressful with the respect thing and everyone bickering at each other. Hopefully now it'll down a bit and we can take our control of the race and do it how we want to do it."
The British team finished the day with the stage win and the yellow jersey courtesy of Chris Froome and Richie Porte finishing first and second, as the remaining Tour team leaders fought to keep their slim hopes of winning alive.
Alberto Contador lost 1:45, Joaquim Rodriguez 2:06, Andy Schleck 3:34, Cadel Evans 4:13 and Tejay van Garderen a shocking 12:15. Only Alejandro Valverde, who finished third at 1:08 managed to salvage something on a day when Sky took control and then some.
"It's an unbelievable stage. Froome, he's just so strong and the problem is maybe it's taken a lot of interest out of the Tour now because Froome has proved that he's so strong," said former professional Sean Kelly.
"If you have one of the big favourites, maybe two who lose more time than expected but when you see van Garderen, Evans losing huge time, Contador losing massive time, it's really looking like the race could be over already."
The race is far from over, however, and several difficult days lie between a Froome win and Paris. Stage 9 offers the opposition a chance to fight back and the lack of a summit finish may in fact help them break Sky's pattern of systematic, metronomic suffocation whenever a stage finishes on a climb.
"You can always crack but if you look at the strength in depth of Team Sky and the way they rode the race, and how Richie Porte rode, how Froome took it up…when you have that depth in the team unless Froome has a disastrous day but that is looking highly unlikely," Kelly said.
"We could see riders going on the attack from a long way out, that's the only possibility because if you wait for the final mountain you can do nothing against Team Sky. They're so powerful as a team."
Unlikely as it may prove perhaps Sky have shown their confident hand too soon.
"That's something we'll have to see. That is always the risk and you never know. It's a long way to Paris and depending on what way the other teams ride because they're so far down they're going to have to try and do something much further out in the stages."
Froome and teammate Richie Porte dominated the final climb to the Ax-3-Domaines ski station on stage 8. Froome is now almost a minute clear of the field. Porte – instrumental in shredding the lead group on the lower slopes – is 51 seconds down, while Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is third at 1min 25sec.
Such was the thrashing the black and blue team handed to other general classification rivals including Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Leopard) it raised a question about whether people could be confident that the result had been obtained cleanly. 100 percent, Froome said.
“It’s normal that people ask questions in cycling given the history of the sport,” he said in the winner’s conference.
“I know the sport has changed,” said the 28-year-old. “There’s absolutely no way I’d be able to get these results if the sport hadn’t changed. If you look it logically, we know that the sport’s in a better place that it has been for the last 20 or 30 years, so I think the results now are definitely a lot more credible.
“For me it is a bit of a personal mission to show that the sport has changed and I certainly know that the results I’m getting are not going to be stripped 10, 20 years down the line – rest assured it’s not going to happen.”
Froome said months of hard work – including training camps at altitude – and support from Team Sky staff and his fiancée had helped him arrive at the Tour in top condition.
“I think if people got more of a look into that they would see that that work equals these results and it’s not something that’s so wow, so unbelievable. It does actually add up if you look and see what actually goes into this.”
Team Sky’s strategy didn’t deviate from controlling the pace on the final two critical climbs on Saturday. On the penultimate Col de Pailhères, Sky looked unflappable, setting a steady tempo on the front of the main group. Even an attack from Nairo Quintana – who Sky identified as a danger man pre-Tour – failed to elicit a response. On the descent, Peter Kennaugh maintained Sky’s presence at the head of the peloton before Porte took over on Ax-3-Domaines and broke apart the race. Froome hit out alone with about 4km remaining and powered through the steep hairpins to gain every second possible.
“This is the Tour de France and every second counts. I definitely wasn’t trying to save myself there in any respect,” Froome said.
And on taking his first yellow jersey – which he assumes from former Barloworld teammate Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEdge) he said: “To have the yellow jersey really is amazing. I’ve been in a few leader’s jerseys this year and nothing compares to the Tour de France.”
Will fight for best young rider's jersey until Paris
Thirteen months after Nairo Quintana (Movistar) proved to be the one rider Sky could not control in the 2012 Criterium du Dauphine - when he attacked on the Col de Joux Plane in the Alps and won at Morzine - the 23-year-old Colombian was back giving Sky extra work to do on the mountain stages of the Tour de France.
Seemingly unaffected by his three crashes in the first week, Quintana attacked on the Col de Pailhères some seven kilometres from the summit, an attack that helped split the field and which saw overnight yellow jersey wearer Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEdge) out the back.
In a move which looked deeply reminiscent of the devastating attacks by legendary Colombian mountain climbers like Fabio Parra, Lucho Herrera and Oliverio Rincón in the 1980s and 1990s, Quintana soared past stage leader Christophe Riblon five kilometres from the summit, and had a gap of a minute by the top of the Pailhères.
A superb fightback by Sky's Pete Kennaugh, as the British rider led the pack over the top of the Pailhères and then on the long drop down to Ax-les-Thermes, saw Quintana's lead whittled away to just 25 seconds. Quintana is not a poor rider technically - as witnessed last year by the way he came off the Joux Plane, which has one of the most twisting, difficult descents of the entire Alps - but the rolling, ‘pedallable‘ descent to Ax-les-Thermes made it difficult for the flyweight climber to maintain his advantage at the head of the race..
Briefly joined by Pierre Rolland (Europcar) at the foot of Ax 3 Domaines, the Colombian then set off up the climb alone after Rolland was unable to collaborate, but as he began to run out of gas, Quintana was caught and dropped by Froome, like the rest of the field. Finally the Colombian had to settle for ninth, finishing in the same group just behind Contador and equally he is one place behind the Spaniard overall, in eighth, two minutes and two seconds down on Froome.
Although his yellow jersey on the road never became yellow for real, Quintana has now taken over from Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) - dropped at the foot of Ax 3-Domaines - as the race's Best Young Rider, with Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) in second place, 46 seconds behind.
Riding in his first ever Tour de France, Quintana admitted that he had thought at some points he was going to win, "but the Sky riders were too strong and I couldn't do it. It's been a good day, nonetheless. I ran out of energy on the final climb, but I had my Movistar teammates behind and thought they would be able to take over," - as indeed was, up to a point, the case with Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) who finished third.
1987 Vuelta winner Herrera was one of Quintana's childhood heroes, and so too, was Mauricio Soler, the 2007 King of the Mountains in the Tour who is still suffering from the injuries caused by his very bad crash in the 2011 Tour de Suisse's stage six, when he was lying second overall after winning the second stage to CransMontana. Quintana used his French tv post-race interview to send Soler his best wishes and greetings.
So what's next for Quintana, who also defeated Sky's Richie Porte in the Tour of the Basque Country and won the Route du Sud in 2012 and the Tour de L'Avenir in 2010? "Sky are strong, but I will be thinking about another big attack and we will see what we can do to break them," Quintana promised.
Regarding other possible objectives, like the Best Young Rider's classification, Quintana says that, "I'd like to go with this all the way to Paris." As for the King of the Mountains jersey, in which Quintana is currently fourth, six points down on Froome, "that depends on the race, I'll take it on the day by day."
Too early to think about change in strategy, says Riis
Alberto Contador suffered at the hands of Chris Froome and Team Sky on the first mountain stage of this year's Tour de France. The Spaniard was simply unable to follow when Sky blew the race apart on stage eight's final climb of Ax 3 Domaines and lost 1:45 to Froome. He now sits seventh overall in the race, 1:51 off Froome's lead and with his chances of a third Tour de France title severely dented.
He barely spoke after crossing the line, only telling reports that, "we went up very hard, and I'm not in a good way at all."
Contador was paced by his teammate Roman Kreuziger after he lost contact with the leaders on the final ascent.
"I have to thank Kreuziger, but I need to eat well and recover for tomorrow," he said before vanishing into a Saxo-Tinkoff team vehicle.
Several hours later and back at the team hotel, Cyclingnews managed to reach the rider's press officer, who echoed Contador's words from earlier.
It was left to team boss Bjarne Riis to give a more elaborate explanation.
"We didn't expect it to happen, it's a real surprise. Perhaps Alberto had some breathing problems but I'm not sure about that."
However, Contador has been beaten several times by Froome already this year with the British rider taking wins at the Tour of Oman and the Dauphine at Contador's expense. Since that last win the Spaniard had been at pains to stress that he was not in top form but Saturday's performance was consistent – although the large deficit in time was still a surprise.
"The Tour's not over, the hardest part of the race are still to come.
"It's still too early to think about a change in strategy and Alberto is still our team leader. We're going to carry on with the same strategy as we planned."
Evans finished 4:13 behind Chris Froome, going deep and fighting to limit his losses for much of the climb up to the finish.
Van Garderen seemed to throw in the towel much sooner, suffering from the heat. He quickly gave up tying to limit his losses and finished 12:15 down.
Evans tired to recover in a BMC van but was pursued and filmed by a pack of television cameras. After cleaning himself up he accepted it had been one of the worst days of his career.
"It was my worst day at the Tour while I'm healthy. I was nowhere in the mix and with a few little problems. I knew I wasn't at my best but I didn’t expect to be this far off the best. I was too far away to even know what was going on up front," Evans said.
Evans tried to fight back, true to his never-die temperament, but revealed he had already gone deep on the Col de Pailhères after Team Sky set an infernal pace.
"Sky rode a tempo that was really consistent from when they started on the Pailhères until they hit the bottom of the climb Ax 3 Domaines. Not many people could match it," he said.
"I was already having a hard time on the Col de Pailhères and that's always cause for concern but Ax 3 Domaines isn't quite that high and when you're in the running for GC, a seven-kilometre climb isn’t usually a place where you have problems.
"I had a few physical problems getting into the mix and I couldn't push myself to my max. When you see 20 guys riding away from you, you know that you're a long way off the pace."
Van Garderen suffers in the heat
Evans is 4:36 down on Froome in the overall classification. He is 23rd overall but van Garderen hopes his team leader can climb back up the GC and perhaps finish in the top ten overall.
"We’ve just got to keep morale high and still take something out of this Tour. We still have a strong, motivated team and we can try to win some stages and try to get Cadel up there in the top ten."
The 24-year-old American revealed he suffered in the heat.
"On the first climb we did, the heat really started to get to me," he said, clearly despondent after such a blow to his own Tour de France ambitions. He is 44th overall, 12:38 behind Froome.
"It was strange because I'd done a lot to prepare for the heat with a sauna and I'd done good rides in the heat in San Luis and at the Tour of California, which were all really hot. I didn't think it'd be an issue but for some reason today it really seemed to affect me.
"There's nothing serious, it just felt like I couldn't have the power. I got a little bit of chills but I wasn't massively dehydrated. I felt my normal self minus 30 percent. We can’t miss that 30 percent when it's the Tour."
Team and former rider in discussions well ahead of public dumping
The news that Fränk Schleck had been officially dumped by his former RadioShack Leopard squad should not have come as a "surprise" to the Luxembourger, according a statement released by Leopard SA - the team’s management company. Schleck was informed he would not be offered a position back on the team when his suspension ends on 14 July and told RTL Luxembourg that he had not approached other teams assuming he would find a home alongside his younger brother Andy.
"I'm surprised by the decision. I have always done my work and have not been looking around in the meantime for other teams," said Fränk.
Andy also announced his surprise at the news and voiced his intention to ride in the same team as his brother next season - as they have done their entire careers. Considering the close relationship between the two siblings one could assume, going off official team communications, that Andy should have been aware Fränk was unlikely to be offered his old position back.
A number of RadioShack Leopard riders including Maxime Monfort voiced their support of Fränk but the team’s PR line has been prompt to dispel any notion that his the former rider was left out of the loop during his ban following a positive control for Xipamide from the 2012 Tour.
"Leopard would like to clarify that Fränk Schleck nor his counsellors can be surprised over the decision taken by Leopard, as several meetings with Fränk Schleck have taken place between the date when the options to appeal the verdict expired and the present date," read a team statement.
"The decision that has been conveyed to Fränk Schleck on Wednesday corresponds perfectly to the atmosphere of these meetings."
Andy stated that it would be difficult for him to continue at the Tour de France but the official winner of the 2010 Grand Boucle was amongst the front runners in the first mountain test at this year’s edition. While struggling to stay in contact with the infernal pace set by Sky on Ax 3 Domaines, his condition has undoubtedly returned to a level which is closer to what many expect. He eventually finished in 21st place, 3:34 down on stage winner Chris Froome (Sky).
Cannondale rider talks "Hulk" SuperSix Evo and more
In this exclusive Cyclingnews video Peter Sagan talks about the nicknames his bike supplier and team's headline sponsor Cannondale has created for him during his two Tours de France. Sagan's elaborate and arguably 'cocky' victory salutes thrown in his first Tour in 2012 led the Slovak to develop a reputation for being creative when he crosses the line in first place.
The "Hulk" nickname and specifically painted Cannondale SuperSix Evo for this year's edition stems from his win in the 2012 Tour when he took out the bunch sprint into Metz on Stage 6, relegating Andre Greipel and Matt Goss to second and third respectively.
"Last year it was my last celebration at the Tour de France, the Hulk. Cannondale wanted to show I'm strong and hungry for the victory. They did a new bike for me, it's an Evo but the design is the Hulk. The green and with the eyes, It's a very angry bike," he told Cyclingnews.
Sagan currently leads the points classification with a tally of 234 and has a commanding advantage over the next best placed Greipel (141 points) with Mark Cavendish further behind in third spot (128). With a week of the Tour already completed and Sagan already accumulating points on medium mountain days, it looks highly likely the young rider will carve his name into the points classification table for the second year in a row when the race wraps up in Paris.