MONT VENTOUX, France — From now on, let him be called Chris Vrooooom.
In a display of cycling power that flabbergasted seasoned observers of his sport, Chris Froome tamed the mammoth mountain climb up Mont Ventoux in Provence on Sunday to tighten his grip on the yellow jersey in a relentless ride toward victory at the 100th Tour de France.
On France’s national Bastille Day holiday, he became the first British stage winner on the mountain where his countryman, Tom Simpson, died from a lethal cocktail of exhaustion, heat and doping at the 1967 Tour. The final burst of acceleration Froome used to shake off his last exhausted pursuer, Colombian Nairo Quintana, was close to a stone memorial to Simpson on the mountain’s barren upper reaches.
Mouth agape from the effort, filling his lungs with the thinning mountain air, Froome thrust his right arm upward in victory as he became the first rider since the legendary Eddy Merckx in 1970 to win a Mont Ventoux stage while also wearing the race leader’s yellow jersey.
“It was incredible today, incredible. This is the biggest victory of my career,” Froome said. “I didn’t imagine this, this climb is so historical. It means so much to this race, especially being the 100th edition. I really can’t believe this.”
Froome required oxygen at the summit, 6,722 feet up, to recover. But it was his rivals who were knocked out. The closest four riders to Froome are now more than four minutes behind — a lead that should comfortably carry him over the last six stages and 520 miles to the finish next Sunday on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
“It’s over,” predicted Greg LeMond, the only U.S. winner of cycling’s greatest race after both Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong were stripped of their titles for doping.
In a sport where so many exploits of recent decades later proved to have been drug-assisted, Froome has been asked during this year’s race if he’s riding clean. Not only does he insist he is, he also says his success proves that cycling’s sustained anti-doping efforts are working and leveling the playing field. If so, then the extravagant superiority, grit, strength and speed Froome demonstrated on Ventoux, one of the most respected and storied ascents in cycling, deserve a special place in the sport’s collective memory. Because this was, as Froome said, “an epic ride.”
More impressive than the size of Froome’s race lead is that at no point over the past two weeks, even at times when his Sky teammates wilted around him, has he looked physically vulnerable in the way he made his rivals look on Ventoux.
Quintana said he got a nosebleed during the climb and “I didn’t feel well when I got to the top.”
Froome said it was the first time he’d needed to breathe oxygen at the end of a climb. He coughed violently at the top and his voice sounded croaky.
“It really was a full-gas effort up until the finish,” he said. “I was feeling quite fainted and short of breath at the top.”
Alberto Contador, the 2007 and ‘09 champion stripped of his 2010 win for a failed doping test, stamped on his pedals but immediately understood he couldn’t keep up when Froome accelerated away as though he was on a motorbike. That was below the tree line, still four miles from the moonscape summit of white rocks and an old weather station.
After riding past the words “Sky” and “Froome” painted in big yellow letters on the asphalt, and after his wingman Richie Porte pulled to one side having led him up part of the ascent, scattering their rivals with the exception of Contador, Froome put his head down and, still sitting on his yellow saddle, frantically whirred his pedals. Contador rose out of his saddle and tried to match Froome’s acceleration, but he was gone. Commentators on French public television said they’d never seen an attack like it.
“As Richie started coming to the end of his turn, I thought, ‘OK, now’s the time. I don’t want to start playing games, and sitting up, and looking at each other,’” Froome said. Soon, he was catching Quintana, who had ridden off ahead. The crowds were huge, tens of thousands of strong, with spectators’ camping vans strung out like a long white necklace on the roadsides up to the summit. With under a mile to go, Froome rose out of the saddle and accelerated again, leaving Quintana. He then pedaled solo to the line.
“He thought I was stronger than I was really feeling, and that’s why he talked to me, telling we should keep pushing to leave Contador behind, and he’d let me win the stage,” said Quintana, who rode in 29 seconds after Froome. “I knew it was a bit of ‘fake agreement’, because I saw how strong he was and I had to fool him a bit to get that far into the climb.”
Froome has said he understands, given the doping marred-history of his sport, why there have been questions about his performances and says he is happy to answer them. The Team Sky boss, Dave Brailsford, said he expects renewed scrutiny following Froome’s Ventoux exploit.
“We have a great performance and 10 minutes later, you know, I jump for joy like this, and then 10 minutes later I guarantee you I’ll be answering all these questions and allegations of doping for the next few days,” he said.
Five things to know as the Tour de France enters its second and final rest day on Monday:
1. ONE DAY, TWO JERSEYS: Chris Froome of Britain finished Sunday with the stage victory, the yellow jersey still on his back and an even bigger lead over his main rival Alberto Contador. He also got a bonus: The red-and-white, polka-dot jersey awarded to the top climber. Froome picked up enough points on the massive 13-mile ascent up to Mont Ventoux to take it from Frenchman Pierre Rolland, who started Stage 15 with it. “For the moment, he’s the best climber in the world, it’s simple,” said Dave Brailsford, manager of Froome’s Sky team. Froome now leads the climbing classification with 83 points — 17 more than Colombia’s Nairo Quintana and 30 clear of Spaniard Mikel Nieve. Rolland dropped to fourth. Because Froome has the yellow jersey and Quintana holds the white jersey for the best young rider, Nieve will wear the polka-dot jersey on Tuesday’s 16th stage after the second and final rest day on Monday.
2. LIMITLESS SKY? Brailsford, the mastermind of the British team who’s gunning for a second-straight Tour victory after Bradley Wiggins’ triumph last year, summed up why Froome is currently head and shoulders above his rivals at this Tour: Along with “amazing” physical abilities, Brailsford said Froome uses his energy more efficiently than anyone else in the peloton. “This efficiency issue is something ... I haven’t seen anybody picking up on it.”
3. FANS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN: Men in mankinis, another running with a plastic wild boar under his arm, inflatable outfits and animal costumes, and countless thousands of fans screaming at the top of their voices. Yes, it’s another crazy mountain climb at the Tour de France. Ascents in the Alps, Pyrenees and, on Sunday, the legendary Mont Ventoux in Provence always draw giant crowds. It’s partly because the riders go slower uphill, so there’s more for the spectators to see than on a flat stage, when the peloton zips past in a few blinks of the eye. Also, the climbs are where the race can be won and lost, so the sporting drama is more intense. And, finally, because of the wild party atmosphere on the ascents. At times on the 13-mile ride up Ventoux, the riders almost were parting the crowd with their front wheels. Race organizers regularly remind spectators to make way and stay safely on the side of the road. Yet there are always those who cannot resist the temptation to run alongside the riders as they labor uphill, and get themselves on television.
4. LEMOND VENTOUX: Greg LeMond believes Froome has the Tour victory locked up. LeMond, the only American winner of cycling’s greatest race after Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong were stripped of their titles, was on hand at the finish Sunday. LeMond, who won in 1986, 1989 and 1990, said Froome is “too strong” and “would have to have a really bad day” to not be in the yellow jersey when the race ends July 21 in Paris. LeMond said he wasn’t surprised about Froome’s success in this Tour, and suggested that the Briton’s riding strategies reminded him of his own era: “That’s what you did when you were really good,” he said. LeMond also said he’s encouraged that young riders are winning stages and races — a “positive sign” that cycling is “going in the right direction ... There is real talent.”
5. RICHIE THE ROCKET: Although his buddy and team leader Froome got the win, Richie Porte actually landed many of the knockout punches on the way up Ventoux. With 5 miles of ascending still to go, the Australian took position at the front of the yellow jersey’s group, and stepped on the gas. His accelerations spat out rivals from the back, unable to keep up with the upped ante. About a mile later, the only rider left other than Froome and Porte was Alberto Contador of Spain, a two-time Tour winner. Porte then pulled over and looked at Froome, who lit up his afterburners and left Contador in his dust. Ciao, Alberto! “That’s how Chris likes it — nice and punchy. That’s suits me,” said Porte, who finished second behind Froome in the first Pyrenees stage. “I would’ve liked to have gone a little bit up further, (but) at the end of the day, Chris is so strong.”