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Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) struggles on the final kilometer
Spaniard left reeling on Mont Ventoux
On the barren slopes of Mont Ventoux on Sunday, Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) came face to face with the arid truth of this Tour de France, as a torrid afternoon in Provence ended with his admission that Chris Froome (Sky) is the strongest man in the race.
Froome's exhibition at Ax 3 Domaines last weekend had suggested as much, of course, as had his display in the subsequent Mont-Saint-Michel time trial, but Contador's inventive repossession of over a minute on Friday had reignited hopes that he could yet rage against the dying of the light.
The combination of the formidable Ventoux and a seemingly other-worldly Froome served to destroy those ambitions on stage 15, however, as Contador was left floundering when the yellow jersey accelerated viciously six kilometres from the summit.
Froome stayed seated during his attack, but rather than burn Contador off his wheel slowly, he simply careered clear at a startlingly high cadence, giving the impression that his legs could simply not turn quickly enough. It appeared as if Froome were riding in fast forward while Contador remained stuck on pause.
"Froome is far superior to every else in the mountain stages – he's shown it here and in the Pyrenees," Contador said. "I did what I could by trying to ride up at my own regular rhythm, but in each head-to-head we've had, he's distanced me a bit more on general classification.
"On the form he had today, nobody can beat him unless he has a bad day. We'll see what happens in the Alpine stages, which have several climbs in a row and might cause his team to suffer. We'll see what the options are."
Mont Ventoux formed the perfect natural amphitheatre for Contador and Froome's duel and the Spaniard appeared to be at least breaking even in the early rounds of the prize fight, as he bobbed up and down menacingly behind the yellow jersey's rear wheel.
Although Froome's Sky team set a fierce tempo through the forest at the base of the climb, he was left with just Richie Porte for company with 9 kilometres to go, as they breathlessly chased earlier attacker Nairo Quintana (Movistar), while Contador still had Saxo-Tinkoff teammates Roman Kreuziger and Michael Rogers by his side.
The situation quickly changed once Porte upped the ante however, and while Contador was the only man to resist when Froome himself took over with 7 kilometres to go, his act of defiance was short-lived. Contador was quickly dropped and he lost ground all the way through the exposed final section of the mountain to cross the line 1:40 down in 6th place.
"I was trying to go up the climb with Froome as a reference," Contador said. "He was able to stay [at a pace] above the rest and even though I tried to withstand that for as long as I could, he finally reached an impossible rhythm and I realised that I had to go more steadily and go up at my own pace."
In July 2011, Contador was the pre-eminent stage racer in world cycling, albeit fighting a doping sanction, while Froome was not even part of Sky's Tour de France line-up (he would finish a low-key 45th in that month's Brixia Tour), and the climb of Mont Ventoux provided a graphic illustration of just how remarkably the pendulum has swung over these past two years.
Contador now lies 4:25 down in third place overall but as he faces into the Tour's second rest day, he confessed that he is reluctant to downscale the summit of his ambition to ousting Bauke Mollema (Belkin) from second place when there is still a week of racing to come.
"I've been thinking about winning – that's the goal – but every day there is a head-to-head where he takes more time," Contador said. "But we'll see. The Tour doesn't finish until Paris, even if the gap on general classification is very, very big."