This time around, the Tour de France’s trek over the cobblestones was not so much hell as a form of purgatory for Team Sky's Chris Froome, who conceded the yellow jersey of race leader but emerged having cleared a major obstacle to overall victory and exorcised many of the demons of a year ago in the process.
Like the seven terraces of Dante’s Purgatorio, there were seven sectors of pavé on stage 4, and as he ticked off each one, Froome must have felt as though he were shedding a little more of the psychological baggage accumulated in the wake of 2014’s disappointment, when he nervously crashed out of the race before even reaching the first stretch of cobbles.
Indeed, with each passing sector on Tuesday, Froome’s confidence seemed to swell as, aided by a remarkable display from Geraint Thomas, he succeeded in withstanding the repeated onslaught of the Astana team of Vincenzo Nibali. Perhaps only once, at sector five at Quérénaing, was Froome truly on the back foot, but he responded by leading off the final sector of cobbles when Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) was briefly distanced.
“It wasn’t really about trying to show I was strong on the cobbles, but more about just staying out of trouble,” Froome said after warming down outside the Sky bus. “In the last section I was with Geraint Thomas on the front and we just thought ‘Why not try and do something here?’ The legs felt good, so yes, we gave it a go, but it all came back together, I think Saxo closed it behind us.”
Froome finished the day alongside Contador, Nibali and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in the chasing group that came home three seconds behind stage winner Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) and it was telling that there was no response from the Sky riders when the German spirited off the front with three kilometres remaining. Froome is now second overall, 12 seconds down on Martin, but still 36 ahead of Contador, 1:38 up on Nibali and 1:56 clear of Quintana.
As they trudged back to the press room from the finish line, a pair of British journalists could be heard reaching for martial metaphors as they looked to instruct their editors of how best to explain the situation to a mainstream audience back home. “It was really a case of Froome losing the battle but winning the war,’” one said down the phone. “How about a heading like ‘On Froome’s Longest Day, G-Man comes to the rescue,’” the other offered.
In the event, it was rather a case of finding a reliable ally of circumstance, and Froome admitted that he was almost relieved to yield the maillot jaune QuickStep and Martin for the coming days. “Tony’s a great time triallist, but he’s not going to be there when we hit the mountains so definitely happy to see it go to him than any of the other big contenders at this point,” he said. “Hopefully it means my guys can have a bit of a rest in the next few days, stay on the wheels a bit more than normal.”
Froome had no pedigree to speak of on the cobbles prior to Tuesday’s stage and considering his – relative – decline against the watch compared to 2013, it was something of a surprise to see him ride so strongly in the finale at the head of a group that included Paris-Roubaix winner John Degenkolb.
“The legs are feeling good, and I think when got over 200k it was more about who had the legs at that point,” Froome said by way of explanation. “I was pretty happy with the feeling just have to thank my teammates, with even little Richie Porte getting stuck in and involved. It was a great day for everybody.”
Froome’s day could have had a rather different complexion, of course, had he not somehow managed to avoid falling after touching shoulders with Katusha’s Jacopo Guarnieri with 26 kilometres and three cobbled sections still to come. An illustration of how his Tour has begun with fewer ill auguries than it did twelve months ago, even if Froome himself claimed not to have even noticed the danger.
“I can’t actually remember that moment, but riding on the cobbles is hairy. I think all the GC contenders will sleep better tonight,” he said, adding that he had not been perturbed either when Nibali had threatened to forge clear of the other overall contenders.
“A lot of those cobbled sections had a lot of headwind on them, so it was very difficult to stretch it out and make a difference and on one or two of the sections, I thought I’d sit on the wheels a little bit here. I didn’t really feel under a lot of pressure at any point.“