The Tour de France threw the kitchen sink at Chris Froome: steep mountain ascents followed by daredevil descents at speeds exceeding 45 miles per hour that wiped out other riders, the loss of his top teammate in a crash, a breakdown on his bike, and rivals who tried to make him crack with bursts of acceleration.
But the most grueling, drama-filled day so far of this 104th Tour finished, yet again, with Froome still wearing the race leader’s yellow jersey. By surviving a Stage 9 that put 12 riders out of the race, and left others bloodied and bandaged, the three-time champion took a big step toward a fourth victory in Paris on July 23.
With seven ascents that together amounted to 15,000 feet of climbing — more than half the height of Everest — this was the “monster stage” that Froome had predicted it would be. It separated genuine contenders for victory from simple pretenders. At the start Sunday, eight riders had been within a minute of Froome in the overall standings. Now, just three are.
Among top names gone completely: Richie Porte and Froome’s teammate Geraint Thomas, who led the Tour for its first four days. Both crashed out.
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Porte, who had been fifth overall, was zooming downhill in pursuit of Froome when he missed a left-hand bend, cartwheeled across the road and bowled over another rider, Dan Martin, before slamming into a stony, vine-covered bank.
Medics first treated the Australian on the tarmac and then took him to a hospital where he was diagnosed with a fractured pelvis and collarbone.
Fabio Baldato, one of the directors of Porte’s BMC team, said the rider had shoulder pain but “was always conscious. He knew what happened and was asking for his helmet and his glasses.”
Thomas broke his collarbone.
The crashes took some of the shine off what otherwise was an impressive show of resilience from Froome. He placed third in the stage, narrowly beaten in a final sprint by Colombian Rigoberto Uran at the finish in Chambery, in the Alps. French rider Warren Barguil was just millimeters behind in second place — so close that he burst into tears thinking he had won, only to discover moments later that he hadn’t.
For his third place, Froome was awarded four bonus seconds that allowed him to consolidate his overall lead. With Thomas, who had been in second place, now out, Italian Fabio Aru climbed to second spot in the race rankings – 18 seconds behind Froome overall. French rider Romain Bardet, runner-up to Froome last year, is third overall, 51 seconds behind Froome. The only other rider within a minute of Froome is Uran, who jumped from 11th to fourth overall, 55 seconds behind the leader.
Uran thought Barguil had beaten him to the line. It was a moment of confusion aptly fitting for a day of racing so chaotic that it was difficult at times to keep track of all the drama, as riders scattered like leaves over the 181.5-kilometer (112-mile) stage – seven of them falling so far back that they missed the time cut and are now out of the Tour.
Toward the front, Froome had a crisis of his own. With awful timing, the Briton survived a breakdown of his bike gears on the last, hugely tough climb that forced him to change machines just when he was riding furiously in a bunch with other top contenders.
As Froome was frantically signaling to members of his team following in a car that he was in trouble, Aru choose that exact moment to accelerate away, followed by other top challengers, including Porte.
For a few moments, Froome’s Tour seemed to be hanging by a thread.
But Aru and the others then slowed rather than press home their advantage — apparently adhering to the Tour’s unwritten rule that challengers shouldn’t attack the race leader when he’s in difficulty not of his own making.
With a replacement bike and teammates who waited for him, Froome ground his way back into the pack. Higher up the climb, he appeared to swerve across the road and nudge Aru with his right shoulder.
But Froome said that was purely accidental, “a bit of a wobble,” not an attempt to reprimand the Italian for his earlier attack.
“It was in no way a swipe at Aru,” Froome said.
“I want to say ‘thank you' to the other riders for not attacking,” Froome said. “They waited until I had changed bikes. That’s sporting and pleasing to see.”
Aru was riding right behind Froome when the Tour leader raised his hand to show that he was in trouble. Still, the Italian insisted that he hadn’t seen Froome’s hand signal, and that it had always been his intention to attack at that spot on the climb, with about six kilometers (4 miles) left to ascend on the Mont du Chat.
“Then I heard on the radio that Froome had stopped,” Aru said. “When I heard it on the radio then I stopped.”
Of the day’s seven notable ascents, three had the toughest “hors categorie” (beyond classification) rating on cycling’s sliding scale of climbing difficulty. Not since 2011 had organizers shoehorned three such climbs into the same stage.
Froome summed it up in a word: “Brutal.”