After three tough days in the Pyrenees, Chris Froome (Team Sky) and the other podium contenders would have had the long haul from Murat to Rodez earmarked as a transitional stage, but at the modern Tour de France, it seems, such luxuries no longer exist.
The day began promisingly enough in that regard, when an early break featuring régional de l'étape Alexandre Geniez (FDJ) sallied clear amid soaring temperatures, but as the puncheurs’ teams laboured to peg them back in the finale, the yellow jersey and his rivals were compelled to assume their habitual positions at the front.
Froome was present and correct when the peloton fragmented on the sharp final rise to the finish on the Côte Saint-Pierre, and he went on to place sixth on the stage, seven seconds down on winner Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), and at the head of a small group that included Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
“What started as easier day turned into a mad dash to line as the peloton panicked when it hadn’t caught the break,” Froome said. “It definitely ended being a selective day, a hard day, and there were tired legs given the last three stages we’ve done. Everyone was hoping for an easy day but it didn’t happen.”
The Tour reached the fringe of the Massif Central by day’s end. The roads in this region are both undulating and notoriously heavy, though the greatest obstacle of all turned out to be the extreme heat. The canicule sweeping across France exacted a toll on the peloton. In sepia-tinted eras, they might have stopped to cool themselves in the Agout river en route, but the television age offers no such respite.
“The heat was a big factor, it was 40 degrees,” Froome said. “We were sending guys back to the car to get drinks every 10 to 15 minutes and even that wasn’t enough.”
The sweltering conditions are forecast to continue on Saturday, when the race treks deeper into the Massif Central on the road to Mende, historically the site of ambushes on the maillot jaune. Miguel Indurain endured the most torrid afternoon of his five-year reign when he scrambled to quell one Laurent Jalabert’s insurrection in 1995. Five years ago, meanwhile, Alberto Contador began to plant seeds of doubt in Andy Schleck’s mind by snatching back a handful of seconds in the finale.
“Today we had a 500-metre climb in the finale and we saw gaps opening already, so that gives an indication of what to expect in Mende,” Froome said. “It will be a very selective day.”
The finale of Saturday’s stage features the Côte de Sauveterre, Côte de Chabritis and Côte de la Croix Neuve (which since the 2013 French Senate Report on doping no longer seems to be referred to by its nickname of the “Montée Laurent Jalabert”). Froome, untroubled by a late flurry of attacks on Plateau de Beille on Thursday, said that he anticipates a sustained offensive on the road to Mende.
“I do expect guys to try, someone seems to try every day,” said Froome, who remains 2:52 clear of van Garderen in the overall standings. “Mende is a lot tougher than today’s stage so I expect people to try. But my legs feel good and I hope we can get through it well.”
The performances of Geraint Thomas – still a surprising fifth overall, one place ahead of Contador – have garnered more attention but Froome had words of praise, too, for the part played by Richie Porte in the Pyrenees, where he placed such a weighty down payment on final overall victory.
“Anyone who watched the stage saw the work that Richie did yesterday,” Froome said. “Having Richie riding for me and neutralising attacks by Contador and [Vincenzo] Nibali, that’s massive and a privilege, and not many have that.
“In 2013 Richie played a massive role on a daily basis in my win. He feels he’s getting stronger. He’s played a massive part in setting up my stage win at La Pierre-Saint-Martin and I seem him playing a massive role in the Alps.”
Next season, of course, Porte will no longer be part of Froome’s entourage at Sky, with his transfer to BMC expected to be confirmed after August 1, as per UCI regulations. Although Porte has already confirmed that he will leave Sky at the end of the season, Froome pleaded the fifth when asked what it would be like to race against the Tasmanian in 2016.
“I’m not really too sure about that,” Froome said. “I’m not really supposed to comment on transfers until after August so I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave that one.”