Sky rider hopes Sarenne downhill is neutralised on Thursday
Given his repeated appeals for caution on descents over the past two days at the Tour de France, there was a certain irony that Chris Froome (Sky) took advantage of the drop from the Côte de Réallon into Chorges to claim victory in the stage 17 time trial on Wednesday.
The day's second intermediate time check was taken at atop the climb and when Froome crested the summit shortly after switching from a road bike to his time trial machine, he found himself 11 seconds down on a resurgent Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff).
For the first time in this Tour, Froome looked set to concede some ground at a major rendezvous, but over the final 12 kilometres of the course, he pegged back Contador and stopped the clock 9 seconds faster than his rival. Afterwards, Froome suggested that he began the final descent confident of overhauling Contador, the very man whose wholehearted approach to descending he had criticised via Twitter the previous evening.
"I was 15 seconds down at the second time check after changing my bike. I was happy to hear that, and that pushed me on," said Froome. "I went into the time trial determined to give it a really good shot and I'm over the moon with today's results."
The 32-kilometre time trial was arguably the most technically demanding such test in the Tour since the Saint-Etienne time trial in 1997, won by Jan Ullrich and just as the German did 16 years ago, Froome opted to ride a road bike on the day's climbs before switching to his low-profile bike for the finale. Contador and his Saxo-Tinkoff stable-mate Roman Kreuziger were of a competing school of thought, and opted not to make any change. Froome felt that the results had clearly justified Sky's call.
"I think that the bike change definitely helped me, as I had better gearing for the last part and it helped aerodynamically too," Froome said. "I don't know about Saxo-Tinkoff's bikes, maybe they had wider gearing options but changing bikes really helped me."
The stage win was Froome's third of this Tour and continues his startling domination of the race.
The Contador threat
Contador's strong showing in the time trial has moved him up to second place overall, 4:34 behind Froome, and although defeated on the day, the Spaniard sounded a defiant note after running the yellow jersey so close, promising to carry the battle into the Alps over the next three days.
Irritated by Contador's attempts to put him under pressure on the descent of the Col de Manse on Tuesday, Froome took the unusual step of issuing a warning via social media that evening, saying: "Almost went over your head @albertocontador.. Little more care next time?" Quite what Contador – who shrugged off the Twitterings of Lance Armstrong in 2009, after all – made of it all is unclear, but Froome denied that his message had been disrespectful.
"I have tremendous respect for Alberto but yesterday I thought he was taking risks purposely on the descent to get away. Because of that, I laid off his wheel to give him a gap and around two bends later he was on the ground and I was put at risk," said Froome.
The great selling point of Thursday's first stage in the high Alps is the double ascent of Alpe d'Huez but given his impregnability when the road goes uphill, Froome understandably appears more concerned by the sinuous descent of the Col de Sarenne that serves as an interlude between the two climbs.
His apprehension is doubtless accentuated both by the rain forecast over the next twenty-four hours and Contador's willingness to explore this particular avenue of inquiry in his probing of Froome's credentials, particularly given the apparent futility of going head-to-head uphill with a man whose manager Dave Brailsford incredibly insisted "could have gone quicker" on Mont Ventoux on Sunday.
"I think it would be sad not to do the whole parcours and the two climbs of Alpe-d'Huez, especially because it's the 100th edition of the Tour. But at the same time, safety comes first and if it's raining as heavily as this tomorrow, then I hope the organisers neutralise it," said Froome. "At the end of the day, all of the riders will have the same conditions but it is a very dangerous descent and the surface is appalling."