ROMANS-SUR-ISERE, France (AP) — Ahead of two grueling Alpine stages likely to decide the outcome of the 104th Tour de France, Chris Froome and his teammates have sent a clear message to their rivals with another impressive display of collective strength.
Amid heavy crosswinds that played havoc in the finale of Tuesday’s 165-kilometer (102.5-mile) Stage 16 between Le Puy-en-Velay to Romans-en-Isere, Team Sky riders tried to unsettle their opponents by setting a frenetic tempo that split the pack like a jigsaw puzzle.
After relentless work from Vasil Kiryienka and Michal Kwiatkowski, only 22 riders including Froome and teammate Mikel Landa managed to stay in the reduced bunch at the front.
Also among them were Fabio Aru, Romain Bardet and Rigoberto Uran, who avoided the trap. But Dan Martin lost 51 seconds after getting caught in a split in the finale. He dropped to seventh place overall, 2:03 off the pace.
At some point, it looked like Bardet was going to be left behind but he was helped back in the leading group by Oliver Naesen. Australian Michael Matthews won the stage in a sprint to the line.
With the race now in money time, with stages set to decide the final podium, Froome went straight to the point with his aggressive racing. He appears in great shape and has the best team surrounding him in his bid to win a fourth Tour title.
“Everyone knew it was going to split at some point,” said Froome. “For us it was more about just being on the right side of it. Knowing it was going to kick off on that open section in the last 20 kilometers to go, the guys committed to that and we saw the gaps opening out straight away.”
Froome, the defending champion, has an 18-second overall lead over Aru, with Romain Bardet 23 seconds back in third place. Colombian Rigoberto Uran completes the leading quartet, 29 seconds off the pace.
Landa, who has been impressive since the start of the Tour despite dedicating himself to Froome, moved back to fifth overall, 1 minute, 17 seconds back.
“Myself and Mikel Landa are feeling great,” said Froome. “The next two days are the biggest consecutive days in this year’s Tour de France. And the goal of my preparation for the Tour de France was to head into the third week feeling the way I’m feeling now.”
The battle for the yellow jersey will resume on Wednesday during the first of two Alpine stages in high altitude. It will lead riders to the ski station of Serre Chevalier through a grueling 183-kilometer trek featuring four climbs, including the Col du Galibier — one of the Tour’s most fearsome and famed climbs at 18 kilometers (11 miles), with a 10-percent gradient at the top.
Next will be the daunting Stage 18 to the Col d’Izoard , which features a final 14.1-kilometer ascent to the top of the mountain, at an altitude of 2,360 meters.
“I’m looking forward to the Alps,” Froome said.
Three days after his victory in Rodez, Matthews reduced the gap with green jersey holder Marcel Kittel to 29 points in the best sprinter’s classification with his second stage win.
He made the most of a slightly uphill section 500 meters from the line and accelerated after Greg Van Avermaet launched the sprint. Matthews then resisted Edvald Boasson Hagen’s late surge to prevail by a wheel’s length. John Degenkolb completed the podium.
Tempers frayed after the stage. Matthews claimed Degenkolb grabbed him by the neck out of frustration and accused him of going into his line during the sprint.
“I did a clean sprint, I did not change my line,” Matthews said. “After the finish, I was waiting for the results, he came past and grabbed my neck. It was not very sportsmanlike.”
On a difficult terrain with constant up-and-downs across the lush forests of Massif Central, several attacks had taken place during the first hour of racing. Kittel was dropped in the first climb and struggled at the back throughout the day.
The German ace sprinter could not count on teammate Philippe Gilbert to bring him back — the former world champion did not start the stage in Le Puy-en-Velay due to gastroenteritis. Standing 12th overall, Lotto NL Jumbo rider George Bennett had a bad day and dropped out about 100 kilometers from the finish.