Chris Froome returned to the scene of his first Tour de France stage win to lay down another important marker in his quest to win a fourth Tour de France. The Team Sky leader finished third on stage 5, with a performance that moved him into the maillot jaune.
Fabio Aru (Astana) won the stage atop La Planche des Belles Filles with a devastating acceleration mid-way up the climb. The move was decisive enough to propel Aru into third overall but it was Froome who took control of the race and now leads teammate Geraint Thomas by 12 seconds. Aru is a further two seconds in arrears.
The first test in the mountains at this year's Tour de France may not have provided Froome's typical all-out assault but there was enough to indicate that the three-time winner has moved on leaps and bounds from where he was in the mountains of the Dauphine last month.
With Aru up the road, Froome launched a vicious attack with just under two kilometres remaining – roughly the same point at which he hit the front in 2012 when riding for Bradley Wiggins. Only Richie Porte, Romain Bardet and Dan Martin could follow this time around, and all three were unwilling to take a pull when Froome eased off the gas. In the closing stages, just as the climb ramped up once more, Dan Martin kicked for home to take second place, with Froome securing third. Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana and several others lost time, although the gaps weren't significant enough to end any single rider's hopes of winning this year's race.
"I think it shows that we've had a little preview in terms of where everyone is at," Froome confirmed when he sat down to meet the press after the stage.
"Having said that, this final suits some guys more than others, with such a steep ramp to the finish, guys like Dan Martin, you'd always expect to be really punchy on those sort of finishes. He did a great ride but it's still a really close race. We've a lot of racing ahead of us."
Indeed ASO have designed a parcours to limit Froome's chances of blowing the opposition away. La Planche des Belles Filles is steep in parts but at under 6km in length it is a manageable ascent that only provides a glimpse into who has the legs to win the Tour. The sight of Fabio Aru going clear, followed by Froome leading Bardet, Martin and Porte told us everything. Contador and Quintana may have only lost a handful of seconds but they have plenty to ponder, at almost a minute down already.
That said, Froome admitted that Aru had been given too much rope. The Italian has been in inspired form in recent weeks and spoke with Vincenzo Nibali – an ex-teammate and the last winner on this climb in 2014 – about where and when to attack.
"I think that Fabio rode a great stage. He attacked at just the right moment, before it flattened out, before the last kick. If anything I think we gave him a little bit too much space. After I made my move and three or four guys followed me no one wanted to work on the flat part. That allowed Fabio to really open up the gap."
"Going forward we can't give him that kind of space again. He showed already in the Dauphine that he's in great shape and that was confirmed today."
Team Sky shoulder the responsibility
With the yellow jersey now on his shoulders, Froome can move back into his natural position of race leader. Although the time gaps remain small the indication is that Team Sky will take on the challenge of keeping yellow all the way to Paris, with no thoughts of relinquishing the lead to an opportunistic break. The parcours and chances to gain time back are so limited that the team are unlikely to take any risks.
Froome laid down the challenge for the sprinters' teams to do their part in nullifying breaks and controlling the race – as they did for most of Thomas' tenure in yellow – before the next summit finish on stage 8.
"For the last four days, we've not been on the front. The sprint teams have been controlling the race and as we saw today it was BMC who were controlling the race. I wouldn't look at is as we've been on the front for five days controlling. We've got a lot of work ahead of us but there will be opportunities, tomorrow, I'd expect the sprint guys to control but so far the guys have fantastic. We confirmed that by having the numbers in the final and with six guys. I don't think that there were any other teams with those numbers."
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