Froome surprised to gain time on Nibali at Mûr de Bretagne

His Sky teammate Richie Porte had already dictated the pace at the base of the short climb to Mûr de Bretagne, and when Chris Froome himself moved to the front approaching the final kilometre, it felt the act of a man already demarcating his territory as the patron of this Tour de France.

As the Tour’s vigorous opening round draws to a close, the yellow jersey leads his direct rivals not just in real time, but also on a more hypothetical scorecard – of the Big Four pre-race favourites, he has been the most impressive thus far. In his post-stage press conference, however, Froome denied that there had been any attempt at psychological point-scoring in his cameo in the finale of stage 8.

"To be completely honest with you, it wasn’t really about trying to show my dominance over the race or anything like that, it was more about keeping an eye on things and making sure that none of my rivals got the jump on me," Froome said.

"The legs felt good, but given the conditions with the headwind up there and the fact that it was a relatively short climb, I didn’t think today was a day that would make big differences, it was more about staying at the head of affairs and staying out of trouble."

Certainly, the Breton Mûr did not separate the general classification contenders to quite the same extent as the Mur de Huy last Monday, as Froome, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) all finished together, 10 seconds down on stage winner Alexis Vuillermoz (AG2R-La Mondiale). Yet there was an unexpected dividend for that trio when Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) was shaken loose in the final 700 metres, conceding a further ten seconds to his overall rivals.

"I was very surprised to hear that actually, especially given that up the final it was predominantly cross-headwind up there, which made it relatively easier to stay on the wheels. So I was really surprised to hear that, especially with such a big group in front," Froome said.

Nibali remains 13th overall, albeit now 1:48 down on Froome. Contador lies 36 seconds behind in 7th place, while Quintana lingers dangerously at 1:56, having apparently steadied the ship following an uncertain start in the Netherlands.

"I expect Nairo will be strong on the climbs but he’s lost substantial amounts of time already," said Froome, who again hinted that Contador is the rival he rates the highest. "Alberto, I don’t think you can ever write him off until the race is over. We’re going to have to see how Vincenzo goes on the longer climbs, it hasn’t been a great start for him."

Froome aside, however, the galacticos have been quietly upstaged thus far by the flawless showing of Tejay van Garderen, who lies just 13 seconds down in third place. The American’s billing could be elevated as early as Sunday afternoon if his BMC team – world champions in Ponferrada last year – perform to their own expectations in the stage 9 team time trial from Vannes to Plumelec.

"We definitely need to include Tejay in the equation," Froome said. "I really do think Tejay has ridden a really impressive race up until now. There wasn’t much between us at the Dauphiné and I believe he’s in excellent condition, though time will tell once we get into the high mountains of the Pyrenees."

Team time trial

The 28-kilometre team time trial through the Morbihan département, one of the great heartlands of French cycling, could radically alter the tone of the general classification ahead of the first rest day. With eight days of racing already in their legs, teams are already operating at wildly varying levels of fatigue. It was notable that Sky’s Wout Poels and Peter Kennaugh were among those to sit up ahead of the Mûr-de-Bretagne in order to save themselves for Sunday’s effort.

"The team time trial tomorrow is going to be a very decisive stage in terms of GC," Froome said. "It’s very tricky as it’s very undulating. There could be substantial differences between the top teams and teams who don’t coordinate so well."

The stiff finale up the Côte de Cadoudal, where Alejandro Valverde claimed the first maillot jaune of the 2008 Tour and where Erik Zabel beat Frank Vandenbroucke in 1997, adds another layer of intrigue to the vexed question of how best to gauge the collective effort. Sky struggled on a similar course at the Critérium du Dauphiné last month, though Froome struck an optimistic note about their chances this time out.

"It’s tricky, typically in a team time trial you need big engines but tomorrow you need five climbers at the end to get up to the finish. I think we’ve got a good balance on our team," Froome said. "I think it’s going to boil down to that final climb and who can deliver five guys to do it well. It’s a very important stage, with maybe 20 or 30 seconds between the top teams."

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