Tour de France: Froome claims first mountain scalp on Ax-3 Domaines

Chris Froome put his stamp on the Tour de France, claiming the win in the first high mountain stage of this year's race. He soloed to finish at Ax 3 Domaines after a five kilometer solo flight to claim not only the stage but also the leader's yellow jersey. It was a double win for Team Sky, as Richie Porte finished second at 50 seconds, with Alejandro Valverde taking third at 1:08.

Most of the other favourites suffered and showed weaknesses on the climb in high summer temperatures. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was the best of the bunch, with Belkin's Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam putting in surprisingly strong performances, but Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck, and Cadel Evans all lost much time.

“I couldn't be happier,” said Froome after the stage. “It has been a nervous week leading up to this.” He thanked his teammates and said that he wanted to win today “to pay them back.”

Froome now leads the race by nearly minute over Porte, with Valverde third at 1:25 down. Mollema and Ten Dam jumped to fourth and fifth, with Kreuziger one spot ahead of his captain in sixth, both with a time of 1:51. Former race leader Daryl Impey lost 7:50 and dropped out contention in 31st place overall.

It was an impressive show by Froome, who along with Porte, appeared not to struggle at all on the closing climb, when compared to the rest of the field. One by one, Froome's rivals dropped back, but the two Sky riders pedaled along easily and quickly.

Contador lost a surprising 1:45, with Schleck at 3:34 down and Evans losing more than four minutes. It was a brutal shake-up of the GC and the favourites on only the first real climbing test.

How it unfolded

It was a hot and sunny day for the opening mountain stage beginning in Castres. Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) attacked just as the flag was dropped for the stages's sharp start, and was soon joined by Jean-Marc Marino (Sojasun), Christophe Riblon (AG2R) and Rudy Molard (Cofidis). Their gap soon jumped to nine minutes on the flattish opening two-thirds of the stage.

The only interesting happening in the early part of the stage came at the day's only intermediate sprint at km 119.5. The four escapees took the top points but there was quite the sprint out of the field. Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol) took the honours of fifth place, followed by green jersey Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).

That sprint seemed to mark the beginning of the serious racing. Sky moved up towards the front for Froome, as did Belkin for Bauke Mollema and Saxo-Tinkoff for Contador. The gap started to come down as they all started up the gradual ascent towards the race's first hors categorie climb, the Col de Pailhères.

With just under 50km to go, the gap at the two minute mark and the actual ascent still to come, Hoogerland attacked out of the lead group – but without success.

The foursome had only a 1:06 lead when the climb officially started, and almost immediately Riblon attacked in hopes of repeating his success of the last time the Tour de France used this route for a stage finish in 2010. Hoogerland and Marino gave chase, while Molard was not up to the challenge. The Frenchman quickly built up a lead over his former escape companions, while at the other end of things, the sprinters and other non-climbers quickly started forming the gruppetto.

Robert Gesink of Belkin was the first to attack out of the peloton. He quickly pulled away, as the three former escapees faded back into the field. Inevitably, the next to attack was Thomas Voeckler of Europcar.

Many big names were dropped, including Damiano Cunego (Lampre Merida). The group got smaller and smaller, with yellow jersey Daryl Impey struggling to hang on to the end of the field. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) was the next to launch an acceleration, and he soon caught Voeckler, who was struggling, and left him behind.

Quintana moved easily up to Gesink, and soon dropped the Dutchman. With 34 km to go, he also caught Riblon, but by this time the chase group, which contained about 30 riders, was only some 45 seconds back.

That wasn't enough for Quintana, who continued to ride smoothly and easily, and dropped Riblon. Former mountains classification leader Pierre Rolland (Europcar) was the next to attack out of the field, and was soon followed by Igor Anton (Euskaltel). Rolland passed Riblon before the mountain ranking, as did Anton, and eventually, the chase group.

Meanwhile, Quintana, who had been given the OK by team captain Alejandro Valverde to keep going, was one of the few who looked comfortable on the climb.

Froome, Cadel Evans (BMC), Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), and Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Leopard) were amongst those still in the first chase group, while Tejay van Garderen (BMC) was dropped surprisingly early.

The passage was lined with fans all the way to the top, and Quintana crossed over with a 27 second gap over Riblon. Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel) was the next, a few seconds ahead of the chase group at 55 seconds.

Quintana lost time on the descent, perhaps looking to make it up again on the closing climb. There was no chance to catch one's breath, as that next climb started again almost immediately. In fact, Rolland caught him at the bottom, with the Froome group only 22 seconds back. but the Colombian again pulled away on the closing climb. Evans, Schleck, Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky (Garmin Sharp) were the next victims, both riding alone and being dropped.

That left about 10 riders in the Froome group with some 6.5km to go, including Froome, Contador and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana). But the Dane was one of the next to be dropped, along with Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha).

Five riders – Froome, Valverde, Contador, Porte and Kreuziger – were left. Contador was difficulty keeping up with the Sky train, which not so slowly had rolled its way up to Quintana.

The Colombian was caught with 5 km to go, as Contador, Kreuziger and Valverde dropped back. That was the cue for Froome to attack, and away he went. Quintana tried to hold on to his wheel, but soon dropped back to Porte.

Evans was going backwards, passed by rider after rider. Up front, Valverde had fought his way up, giving Porte the impulse to take off. Contador still had Kreuziger with him, but their gap to Froome was getting larger and larger.

With 2 km to go, Froome continued on alone, pushing hard to build up as much of a lead as possible, knowing that his rivals were weakening. Porte rode happily behind him, looking back occasionally to make sure the was still ahead of the others.

Contador had many problems, falling further and further back, but Froome just flew along, with plenty of time for a joyous celebration at the finish.

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