ARCALIS, Andorra (AP) — Through hail, heat and constant pressure from some of his main rivals, Chris Froome rode strong during the toughest stage in the Pyrenees of the Tour de France on Sunday.
The British rider’s furious pedaling in an uphill finish padded his lead over several opponents and put him in control with the yellow jersey entering the race’s first rest day.
“That was a tough stage and the weather made it even tougher,” Froome said. “One minute we were pouring water over our heads and ice packs down our backs and the next minute there was ice falling from the sky.
“We were just trying to ride face down so the hail didn’t hit our faces,” added Froome, who took the yellow jersey with a downhill attack and stage win a day earlier. “It was pretty difficult out there.”
Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin won the ninth leg with a solo breakaway on the beyond-category finishing climb.
Froome crossed 11th, 6:35 behind Dumoulin, right behind fellow British rider Adam Yates and immediately ahead of top rival Nairo Quintana of Colombia.
“In the back of my mind I was waiting for (Quintana’s) attack all the way up the last climb,” Froome said. “I thought he was saving it for one big one. But that never came. I would like to think he was on his limit. It was a tough day out there. He just stuck to my wheel like glue.
“He seems to be going well but right now he’s not showing any more than anyone else,” Froome added.
In the overall classification, Froome holds a 16-second lead over Yates, with Dan Martin of Ireland third, 19 seconds behind, and Quintana fourth, 23 seconds back.
“It’s a very open race at this point but I’m very happy to have the lead going into the first rest day,” Froome said.
Two-time champion Alberto Contador pulled out with a fever midway through the stage.
Among those who couldn’t keep up with Froome on the final climb were French favorite Romain Bardet, top American hope Tejay van Garderen and Fabio Aru of Italy.
Bardet is sixth overall, 44 seconds behind, Van Garderen is 11th with a gap of 1:01 and Aru is 13th at 1:23.
Still, Froome hasn’t fully shaken Yates, Martin and Quintana.
“I feel that this is going to be the biggest battle of my career,” said Froome, who won the Tour in 2013 and 2015. “By no means did I expect this to be easy and that I would ride away from everyone. The level is higher.”
Part of an early breakaway, Dumoulin attacked with 12 kilometers remaining in the 184.5-kilometer (115-mile) leg from Vielha d’Aran, Spain, to Arcalis in the principality of Andorra.
“A few days ago if you said I would win maybe the hardest day in the whole Tour de France this year, I would say you were crazy,” said Dumoulin, who was sick last week. “But sometimes it all comes together and the legs were feeling good today.
“I’m a time trialist so if I have a gap it’s difficult to close it on me,” Dumoulin added.
The stage featured five demanding climbs, including an uphill, beyond-category finish in Arcalis.
“We went through all states,” Bardet said. “In the valley, the heat was suffocating. Then in the finale it was apocalyptic.”
On Team Giant-Alpecin, Dumoulin won the opening time trial in this year’s Giro d’Italia and wore the overall leader’s pink jersey for six stages before withdrawing midway through the race with saddle sores.
He also won two stages in last year’s Spanish Vuelta.
Approaching the finish line Sunday, Dumoulin turned around to make eye contact with his team director in a car behind him and then, on the verge of tears, stuck his tongue out and raised his arms in celebration.
Rui Costa, the former world champion from Portugal, crossed second and Rafal Majka of Poland was third, each 38 seconds behind.
Contador crashed in each of the opening stages and had already dropped significant time to the other overall favorites. He was in 20th position at the end of Saturday’s eighth stage, 3 minutes, 12 seconds behind Froome.
“It was quite a surprise to hear on the radio that he was in the car,” Froome said. “It’s a shame. He’s a great rider and he would have only added to what is already quite an exciting race.”
For the second consecutive day, there was an incident involving a spectator. George Bennett of New Zealand knocked down a fan blocking his way while coming around a tight turn.
Monday is the race’s first rest day. Then there is one more stage in the Pyrenees on Tuesday, a 197-kilometer (122-mile) leg from Escaldes-Engordany, Andorra, to Revel, France.