Sky captain's confidence builds with stage win, GC lead
The Dauphiné's stage finish to Montée de Valmorel may have been nothing more than a teaser for this year's Tour de France fanfare, but for Chris Froome it was a demonstration of his growing confidence and stature as a team leader.
The British all-rounder had his Sky team set a fierce tempo on the lower slopes of the climb and although Movistar, and then Alberto Contador, briefly attempted to derail the procession, Froome had plenty to spare, taking the stage and the overall lead in the race.
When Contador made his expected attack inside the final few kilometres, Froome didn't panic. Instead he allowed teammate Richie Porte to burn his last energies in holding the gap before Froome lifted the pace to make the juncture on his own.
Contador may not be the in peak condition but it was still an impressive performance, especially when Froome turned the tables and made his own late attack to distance the Spaniard and breakaway survivor Matthew Busche (RadioShack Leopard).
It led one veteran of the European press room to turn to his colleagues and say he had seen enough, and that barring illness, the Tour was already won.
As expected there was no such talk from Froome during his post-stage press conference. The softly spoken rider is a work in progress when it comes to leadership, both on the bike and at times during his own press gatherings, but he has a canny understanding not to put a foot wrong when it comes to answering questions surrounding his status as a Tour de France favourite, constantly playing down that position while at pains to quell any final rumblings of leadership battles.
"Today was a good gauge for me to test myself against someone like Alberto who has multiple Grand Tours already," Froome said.
"To finish in front of someone like him, it gives me a lot confidence, especially three weeks out from the Tour de France. Yesterday we had a big test in the time trial and I'm happy with the result yesterday and today, which was a different kind of test in the mountains. Coming away with a stage win, that definitely wasn't the plan so to get that result was fantastic and I'm just really happy that I can reward my teammates with a win because they did a super job of looking after me today, especially Peter Kennaugh and Richie Porte in the final."
The subject of leadership at Sky has dominated the press ever since the stage to La Toussuire in last year's Tour de France. Frankly it was the story of the Tour, a race which rarely came to life, but in the months that followed as both Froome and Wiggins laid down their race schedules Sky's leadership quandary rumbled on.
With Wiggins out for the count due to a knee injury, Froome at least now has a clear path towards the Tour de France.
"It's a position that I've been adjusting to this year. It's a position that still feels quite new, to have a whole team of guys riding for you and sacrificing themselves for you, but so far the guys have done it throughout my racing programme, starting in Oman, Critérium International, Romandie, Tirreno and now the Dauphiné. Naturally they must have some confidence in me but it's a good feeling and I feel really privileged."
As for Froome's rivals, primarily Contador at this stage, they must deal with the blow of losing ground to Froome as they play catch up ahead of the Tour.
"I'm actually hoping to improve my form before the Tour. I don't feel that I'm in 100 per cent condition yet but I'm where I need to be at this stage.
"But I'm quite sure it's going to be about more than two riders. There's a group of six or seven who are in with a chance of being in contention. At Sky we're in a really fortunate position where we have two riders who could be in that seven."
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