MONTPELLIER, France (AP) — Over the space of five days, Chris Froome’s reputation has evolved from the most calculating of riders to a master tactician on the bike.
First came his daring solo downhill attack and stage victory in Stage 8 in the Pyrenees.
Then the British rider used the wind to his advantage and slipped into a four-man breakaway Wednesday to gain more time on his direct rivals as he attempts to secure a third Tour de France title in four years.
“This is bike racing at its best,” Froome said. “I’m just enjoying my racing, attacking every opportunity I can.”
World champion Peter Sagan won the windy 11th stage by easily edging Froome in a sprint finish.
“For sure it was not a boring stage,” Sagan said. “It was always dangerous wind.”
With crosswinds of 40 kph (25 mph) sweeping across the road, cyclists rode with their heads crouched down all day to reduce resistance.
With 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) remaining in the mostly flat 162.5-kilometer (101-mile) leg from the medieval city of Carcassonne to Montpellier near the Mediterranean coast, Froome and Geraint Thomas, one of his top support riders on Team Sky, joined the Tinkoff duo of Peter Sagan and Maciej Bodnar in the lead.
“Again it was just another one of those spur of the moment kind of things,” Froome said. “When Sagan went I thought, ‘Well, why not? Let me go after him and see what happens.’ The four of us worked well together. It was in all of our best interests to work together.
“Peter wanted the stage and we wanted to gain time on the GC (general classification, or overall) guys,” Froome added.
It was Sagan’s second victory in this Tour and his sixth career win in cycling’s biggest race.
Bodnar crossed third.
“It was a surprise also for me,” Sagan said. “We don’t plan that. We are like artists. ... It just happens. With this wind it was dangerous every moment in the stage.”
Getting a six-second bonus for his second-place finish, Froome gained 12 seconds on all of his main opponents who finished in the peloton six seconds behind.
While winning the 2013 and 2015 Tours, Froome relied mostly on uphill attacks and his time trialing skills, and was often criticized for a lack of creativity. Perhaps realizing that he can’t pull away from his rivals in the mountains anymore, he has become more unpredictable.
“We really are looking for every opportunity,” Froome said. “It’s our mentality this year to try our luck every time it’s possible, even on the flats.”
The bigger gaps also made Froome more comfortable in the yellow jersey ahead of Thursday’s mountain finish at Mont Ventoux on Bastille Day.
Froome moved 28 seconds ahead of fellow British rider Adam Yates.
Dan Martin of Ireland is third overall, 31 seconds behind, and two-time runner-up Nairo Quintana of Colombia is fourth, 35 seconds back.
“I was wondering if it was worth spending that energy but I was thinking, ‘I’m going to try and get anything I can, knowing that Nairo is really strong in the third week,’” said Froome, who lost some time to Quintana during the final week en route to last year’s title. “If I can take any seconds, I will.”
Quintana lamented that narrow roads played a role in the stage. Caught far behind in the peloton when Froome made his move, the Colombian made no effort to bridge the gap.
“It was a difficult day for me,” Quintana said. “There was a lot of wind and it was all flat. ... Organizers are thinking about the show but we take chances with our lives every day and especially in stages like this.”
On paper, the stage had appeared to set up well for sprinters. But the wind made it into a more tactical finish.
At times, the wind split the peloton into several small groups — known as echelons — that swept across the road in fan-like formations.
Even midway through the stage, Froome rode hard at the front of the peloton, perhaps sensing that some of his rivals were having trouble keeping up.
“Everyone knew the wind would be a factor and everyone rode at the front all day,” Froome said. “But just at the end, that’s where the legs were a little bit (tired) and we got away.”