Chris Froome (Sky) would once again be the right hand man to team captain Bradley Wiggins.
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Sky duo combine on Peyresourde
As Cadel Evans' guttering challenge was snuffed out and Vincenzo Nibali's attacks failed to discommode Bradley Wiggins, all eyes turned to Chris Froome (Sky) on the Col du Peyresourde on stage 16 of the Tour de France.
Second overall and 2:05 off his teammate's yellow jersey as business resumed on Wednesday morning, Froome and Sky had spent the rest day in Pau insisting that the their two strongmen would continue to operate in harmony as the race entered its endgame in the Pyrenees.
Even so, the temptation to dig out the comparisons to Hinault and LeMond or to Roche and Visentini remained as the yellow jersey group traversed the daunting "Circle of Death" on a muggy day that saw the Tour finally bask in the white heat of a French July.
Whatever his chances of taking yellow himself, Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) had the unwitting role of potential kingmaker as the favourites hit the final climb of the Peyresourde. An attack from the Sicilian was a nailed on certainty, but if he could drop Wiggins, then Froome – apparently the stronger climber – would be left with the dilemma of deciding whether to pace his teammate or follow the move.
Four kilometres from the top, Nibali duly delivered his lines, punching his way clear of the yellow jersey group. He immediately opened a gap, but his staccato pedalling was soon reined in by the metronomic tempo of Froome, who dutifully brought Wiggins across the gap. Even as recently twelve months ago, it would have been hard to believe that the Sky pair could be so dominant in the mountains of the Tour de France.
"He can attack but he may not," shrieked one commentator, almost willing Froome to dispense with the team hierarchy.
The reality was somewhat different, however. Froome's accelerations remained steady even as he tracked Nibali's sharper bursts, while Wiggins himself closed down Nibali's final attack near the summit.
The trio reached Bagnères-de-Luchon together, 7:09 down on stage winner Thomas Voeckler (Europcar). Another day in a Tour high on calculation but low on suspense. Wiggins headed for the podium to collect another maillot jaune and a kiss from the podium girls. Froome headed for the Sky team bus to do another warm-down and a softly-spoken television interview.
"I actually felt pretty good," Froome said. "That was a big day. It was hot out there. A lot of people really suffering and obviously you can see that with the time gaps there so it's another one we can tick off and it's another day closer to Paris for us. It's a good day for us."
With his polite smile and shy demeanour, Froome seems perhaps an unlikely man to defy the ground rules laid down by Sky before the race. He looked almost relieved when the framing of the questions allowed him to discuss the collective might of a team regularly compared to US Postal rather than his and Wiggins' relative strength.
"I think we've just proved that we're a really solid unit," he said. "It's not just about one guy on the team being really strong. All the way through each and every rider on the team has done an amazing job and it's hard to see on television but it really is hard out there when those guys are riding.
"They peel off and then the next one does exactly the same thing. It just sets us up in such a perfect position that it's hard for someone to take time out of us."
During the rest day, Nibali had suggested that Sky was a rather colder and less homely team than his own Liquigas outfit. Asked if he was having fun on the cols, Froome said it was too simply too stressful. The fun, if that is the word, has been had mainly by those speculating on the leadership of his team.
"You've really got to pay attention and there's not much time to have fun as such," Froome said. "There'll definitely be a bit of fun after this."
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