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Chris Froome (Sky) in yellow
Sky rider extends overall lead at Mont-Saint-Michel
Although he was denied stage victory by a flying Tony Martin, the pre-Tour de France form lines held true as Chris Froome made another down payment on final overall victory in Wednesday's 33-kilometre time trial to Mont-Saint-Michel.
The time trial is the race of truth, so the adage goes, and if events in the Pyrenees last weekend were open to all sorts of interpretation, there was no arguing with the verdict issued in Normandy.
In spite of leading through the intermediate checks, Froome lost out on stage victory by twelve seconds but he had the considerable consolation of putting two minutes into Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), 2:03 into Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and gaining over three minutes on Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
Halfway through the race and with another time trial to come in the final week, Froome's overall lead is already some 3:25 over second-placed Valverde, while Contador lies almost four minutes back in 4th place. In his matter-of-fact way, Froome glossed over the significance of such positive mid-term figures.
"I haven't had much time to think about it but I'm happy with how the stage went," he said simply. "A time trial is always one of those nervous days for GC riders because there are a lot of things that could go wrong.
"I'm not sad at all about losing to Tony, because he showed why he's world champion. The objective was to take the maximum advantage that I could on the other riders in the general classification and I'm happy with the advantage that I took today."
In a test of similar length at the Critérium du Dauphiné last month, Froome put almost three minutes into both Valverde and Contador, although the Spanish pair insisted that it would be a different story come July. True to their word, they showed a slight improvement at Mont-Saint-Michel, but it appeared that Froome's own levels had increased another few notches in the intervening period.
"I don't think I was too far off my best at the Dauphiné but I feel great now," said Froome. "I can't put a percentage on it but my form's gone up. I felt a lot better today than at the Dauphiné."
Prior to the race, the Tour was billed as a duel between Froome and Contador. While one imagines that Sky will be loathe to allow Contador out of their sight when the mountains return, it is his fellow countryman Valverde – backed by a strong Movistar outfit – who is perhaps of greater concern to Froome for the time being.
"At the moment, I'm looking at my rivals as they are on general classification," Froome said. "At this point, we have to take care of Alejandro Valverde but there are a few guys within striking distance of the yellow jersey."
Froome's teammate Richie Porte had appeared the second strongest man in the race after the opening stage in the Pyrenees before he lost almost 18 minutes the following day. The Tasmanian showed signs that he is recovering from that défaillance by placing fourth on the stage, and Froome struck an optimistic note about the support Sky might provide him in the third week.
"Richie showed today that he's certainly not out of this race and I'm certainly expect him to be up there with Pete Kennaugh to help me in the mountains," said Froome, who also expressed his sadness at the news that a spectator had thrown urine at Mark Cavendish during Wednesday's stage.
"Mark is one of the big characters in the sport. Some people love him and some people hate him but to do something like that is obviously very sad for the whole atmosphere," said Froome. "It leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth. Or, a bad taste in Mark's mouth."