Chris Froome (Team Sky) navigated through another stage of the Tour de France without incident to carry on his near-faultless defence of his title to this point. The two-time winner crossed the line safely in the pack as Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) took the stage and sits 5th overall, 18 seconds behind race leader Peter Sagan (Tinkoff).
Froome warned, however, that stage 5 from Limoges to Le Lioran, with its uphill finish, would be the most decisive of the race so far.
"Tomorrow it's a tricky final and there will definitely be more action from the GC guys," Froome told Cyclingnews after he crossed the line at the end of stage 4 in Limoges.
Froome and Team Sky are likely to deploy a similar tactic to that of the last uphill finish on stage 2, where they threw men at the front and Froome finished with the leaders after an impressive climbing display.
"We've not looked at the finish but I've only seen it on paper. I think it's harder than stage 2 but the objective isn't really to gain time. I'll stay at the front and try not to lose time. That might mean I end up gaining time. We'll see."
Froome sits 5th in the overall, 18 seconds behind race leader Peter Sagan (Tinkoff). It's possible that the world champion retains his lead but with Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) all within 18 seconds, the maillot jaune could move to another rider. Froome could be that man but he tipped Valverde – currently four seconds ahead of him – as the leading candidate should Sagan falter.
"Valverde shouldn't get dropped on a finish like that and if anything he'll be up there fighting for the win. He'll be the main favourite, or Alaphilippe maybe," Froome said.
Back at the team bus Froome echoed those words to the rest of the press corps, stressing that after two long days in the saddle riders were beginning to feel the effects of the race.
"There will be a few tired legs out there. These have been 250k stages. I think it's going to be more selective. I think it's too early to see a real GC battle but it’s somewhere where we'll see time gaps and it won't be a bunch sprint."
As for Valverde, who came into the race to support his teammate and last year's runner-up, Froome was cautiously aware of the strength within the Movistar camp.
"He [Valverde] seems to be in good nick and I wouldn't be surprised to see him ride for GC and looking after himself, and then have a two-pronged approach with Nairo [Quintana]. They've definitely got the team to do it. Until he loses time I've got to treat him like a rivals."
Dave Brailsford played down the talk of Froome taking yellow at such an early stage in the race, and preached the old adage of taking the Tour day by day, telling Cyclingnews that the team had not yet discussed the possibility of taking yellow.
"We'll take one hurdle at a time," he said. "If you start thinking about hurdle 7 when you're just at hurdle 5 chances are you'll fall over. It's one stage at a time and you've got to concentrate on what you do each day."
Asked if this was the most impressive version of Froome he had seen in an opening week of the Tour, he said: "He rode exceptionally well at the start last year in the first ten days in what were potentially trickier circumstances. Talk of yellow is hypothetical at this stage and we'll take it from there."
- Tour de France: Kittel wins stage 4 in Limoges
- Tour de France: Sagan defeated but happy in Limoges
- Tour de France stage 4 finish line quotes
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