FINHAUT-EMOSSON, Switzerland (AP) — Nairo Quintana was expected to celebrate Colombia’s national holiday with a major offensive in the Alps that would see him close in on Tour de France leader Chris Froome.
It didn’t happen.
Despite being a specialist in mountain stages, Quintana surrendered to the defending champion in the first Alpine leg of this year’s Tour - won by Russian all-rounder Ilnur Zakarin on Wednesday.
Froome made the most of a brutal final ascent to the artificial lake of Finhaut-Emosson to tighten his grip on the race and take another step toward a third title in four years at cycling’s biggest event.
“It’s been a very difficult Tour for Nairo,” said Froome, after the Colombian lost another 28 seconds. “He’s still a great rival and a big challenger for me, but he lost more time today. I think for him to re-enter into the game again he’s going to have to do a real good time trial tomorrow.”
Having already lost a considerable amount of time during the two first weeks of racing, Quintana was expected to be in the thick of the action in the Alps. Instead, he was powerless to do anything but watch when Froome accelerated with less than two kilometers left.
“My yellow dream is over, but I’m just 26, and the riders in front of me have more experience,” said Quintana, who finished twice runner-up at the Tour behind Froome in 2013 and 2015. “I have many years left to realize that dream.”
While Quintana struggled, Froome reasserted his superiority over his direct rivals in the sizzling heat that hit the Swiss Alps.
“I’m feeling better than I’ve ever felt in the third week of a Grand Tour before,” Froome said. Given the big gaps which the Kenya-born rider has already opened up, the news does not bode well for his rivals.
With four stages remaining before the finish in Paris, Froome leads Bauke Mollema by 2 minutes 27 seconds overall. Adam Yates is third, 2:53 off the pace and Quintana sits in fourth place, 3:27 behind his British rival.
Once the stage reached the mountains, Froome’s teammates deployed their usual tactics, moving to the front to set a sustained tempo and tire his rivals. Riding several minutes behind the breakaways, Richie Porte finally attacked from the yellow jersey group around two kilometers from the finish.
On the steep ramps leading to the line, Quintana, Yates and Mollema were unable to respond, and Froome accelerated. Quintana first followed the defending champion’s frenetic pace but cracked after a few hundred meters.
Porte — who rode in support of Froome at Team Sky before he joined BMC this season — crossed the finish line with his former leader. Along with the 28 seconds lost by Quintana to Froome, Mollema reached the summit 40 seconds behind the defending champion.
“I really want to be on the podium, so these are the moves you have to pull,” said Porte, who moved to sixth overall, 4:27 back. “I thought Quintana was the one who was going to go, so I sat on his wheel. It was a good attack and Froome was the only that came with me. I think it’s a good day.”
Zakarin was part of a breakaway that formed early in the 184.5-kilometer (114.6-mile) stage starting in Bern. It featured two major climbs in the final 30 kilometers: the Col de la Forclaz, a 13-kilometer climb with an average gradient of 7.9 percent, and the brutal beyond-category 10.4-kilometer ascent to the finish line.
The day began with an early crash involving Quintana’s teammate Gorka Izaguirre, who was forced to abandon with a suspected fractured collarbone.
After several breakaway attempts, a group of 14 riders including world champion Peter Sagan formed at the front of the race. Froome’s teammates did not chase and the leading pack built a 13-minute gap.
The scenic route near Mont Blanc took the peloton up and down serpentine roads between neatly arranged vineyards with snowcapped peaks in the distance. Once the pack reached the mountains, Sagan got dropped at the bottom of the Col de la Forclaz.
Rafal Majka and Jarlinson Pantano jumped out of the pack on the descent and started the final climb with a small lead of 30 seconds. Zakarin joined them and launched a furious attack on the last climb with 6.5 kilometers left.
Zakarin, who was suspended in 2009 for two years after testing positive for the forbidden anabolic steroid methandienone, finished 55 seconds ahead of Pantano. Majka was third, 1:26 back.
The race now crosses back into France for Stage 18 on Thursday, a 17-kilometer individual time trial from Sallanches to Megeve.