Chris Froome (Team Sky) has come through his first genuine test in yellow at the Tour de France, finishing safely in the main field on stage 8 despite an incident that saw him briefly forced off the road. Now all eyes turn to stage 9 on Sunday, a day that could significantly change the complexion of this year's race.
Many are calling stage 9 from Nantua to Chambery the hardest day of this year's Tour de France, and with seven categorised climbs on the route, Froome is expecting the general classification to dramatically change by the end of the day.
Froome safely navigated a potentially tricky stage 8, with his Sky teammates put to work for the first time in this year's race. On a day that finished well ahead of schedule – such was the ferocity at which the peloton rode – Team Sky were forced to chase a dangerous break containing AG2R La Mondiale's Pierre Latour, the highly talented young Frenchman who started the stage just a minute off the yellow jersey.
Froome sent two men up the road to mark the break before setting the rest of his squad to work at the front of the main field. It was a relentlessly tough stage, and although it pales in comparison to stage 9 in terms of profile, there was no let up in pace. In the end, Latour's aggression was neutralised and Froome continues to lead his teammate Geraint Thomas by 12 seconds, with Fabio Aru (Astana) and several other contenders waiting in the wings.
There are currently 14 riders within 90 seconds of the race lead, and that will almost certainly change on Sunday. The profile will determine not just who can't win this year's race but also who is a genuine threat to Froome's well-established throne.
There are several points at which Froome could be tested, but the final ascent of the day – the brutally tough Mont du Chat – will be decisive. The stage finishes several kilometres after the highly technical descent but the ascent in itself, with its pitches of 15 per cent, will cause havoc. Froome was briefly dropped on the climb during the Criterium du Dauphine in June, and for the last two days, he has talked up the climb's significance. This could be where he tries to win the race – his new first mountain summit of the race, if you will.
"Given where the Mont du Chat is in the stage, coming after four big climbs already, and especially after the stage that we had today, I think that it could be a very decisive climb," he said after stage 8.
"When you're climbing, most of the climb is around 10 per cent. It's not a short climb either and it takes around half an hour to get up there. I think that we'll see some really big differences and from there it's basically descending and just over 10 kilometres of flat to the finish. I'm expecting the general classification to get blown wide open."
Aru, who surfed the wheels on stage 8, is Froome's closest challenger but he is not the only danger. Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) is quietly confident, having matched Froome's main acceleration on stage 5, and his intent to weaken Team Sky was clear when he sent Latour up the road. BMC Racing are assured that Richie Porte's form is close to, if not better than, his condition at the Dauphine, and Daniel Martin (Quick-Step Floors) continues to impress. The Irishman was the only GC contender to attack on stage 8, and although he was pegged back, he does not need an excuse to attack at the moment.
A lucky escape
While a third of Froome's three-question post-stage press conference was taken up by talk of Mont du Chat, the other topic of discussion revolved around an incident that almost saw the race leader crash and his thoughts on a Grand Depart in Norway.
Froome rode off the road as the maillot jaune group hurtled down the last descent and towards the final climb. Thomas was also involved and came off his bike, reopening the wounds he sustained in an earlier crash from week one. Froome, meanwhile, was forced to stop and escaped the fall. It was a timely reminder that the Tour can dramatically change in the spin of a wheel.
"One moment you're in of the race and the next thing you're in a ditch with a teammate over the barriers and lying on the floor," Froome said. "That's the nature of the race and it's pretty scary. You think about all the things that could happen in a race and you can never foresee anything like that popping out that could end your race. It's scary when that happens, but fortunately, Geraint is alright and I didn't come down. I just came off the road and had to get back on again."
And he found it interesting: A Grand Depart in Norway. In case you wanted to know.