PLUMELEC, France (AP) — Race leader Chris Froome heads to the first mountain stages of the Tour de France in confident mood — and with an unexpected main rival.
The British rider, seeking his second Tour win after his dominant victory in 2013, safely kept the yellow jersey after his Team SKY finished one second behind American rider Tejay van Garderen’s BMC in Sunday’s team time trial, the ninth stage of a crash-marred race.
Van Garderen is 12 seconds behind Froome in second place, putting him ahead of Nairo Quintana of Colombia, the 2013 Tour runner-up and the Giro d’Italia winner in 2014, as well as two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador of Spain and defending Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali of Italy.
The 26-year-old van Garderen has never finished higher than fifth at the Tour, but is so far riding like a contender.
“Those guys have that tag of ‘Fab Four’ which is getting a bit irritating,” van Garderen said. “All those guys in the top four have won Grand Tours ... It doesn’t mean I’m intimidated by them ... I’m not afraid to beat them.”
The most disappointing of the ‘Fab Four’ has so far been Nibali, who cracked in a short climb at the end of Saturday’s eighth stage and lost more time in Sunday’s TTT when his Astana team finished fifth, behind Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo and Quintana’s Movistar.
“I thought (Nibali) was going to be the one guy from the main contenders who would gain time in this first phase of the race,” the 30-year-old Froome said. “I am surprised.”
Contador, who entered the Tour on the back of his second Giro d’Italia win and seventh Grand Tour title, is in fifth place — 1 minute, 3 seconds behind Froome — while Quintana is 1:59 behind in ninth and Nibali sits 2:22 behind in 13th spot.
“It’s one thing not to lose any time to your rivals but it’s another to gain time on them,” Froome said. “The pressure’s certainly not on my shoulders.”
Following Monday’s rest day, Tuesday’s 10th stage snakes up the Pyrenees mountains.
There is only one significant climb, right at the end. But it is a notable one — 15.3 kilometers (9.5 miles) up La Pierre-Saint-Martin, a mountain resort hosting a stage for the first time. The ascent is classed as Hors Categorie (Beyond Classification) — the rating given to the toughest climbs.
Wednesday’s 11th stage features a climb up the Category 1 Col d’Aspin and then an HC trek up Col du Tourmalet, a famed Tour climb.
A few riders might crack on Thursday’s 12th stage: featuring two Cat. 1 climbs and an HC up Plateau de Beille to top things off.
Froome has identified van Garderen, second behind him at last month’s Criterium du Dauphine race, as his main Tour rival.
“(The Pyrenees) will be the test who is fit enough to win the Tour and the Alps will (show) who has enough stamina to get to the end,” van Garderen said. “With the way I was climbing at the Dauphine, compared to Froome, I think I’m pretty close.”
Before Sunday’s 9th stage, van Garderen was 13 seconds behind Froome in third place, meaning his BMC team — world champions in the discipline — needed to win the TTT by 14 seconds for the American rider to take the yellow jersey.
The 22 teams started the TTT within five minutes of each other over a 28-kilometer (17.4-mile) trek that ended with a short and sharp hill of 1.7 kilometers (1.1 miles). Teams have to get five riders over the line with the overall time credited to the fifth rider to finish.
BMC’s team featured four riders from the team that won last year’s worlds: van Garderen, Rohan Dennis, Daniel Oss and Manuel Quinziato. The Australian rider Dennis won the Tour’s opening individual time trial in a record average speed.
At the Criterium du Dauphine, BMC won the team time trial with Froome’s Team Sky placing sixth, 35 seconds behind — but on a less challenging course.
Thousands of fans, many waving the black-and-white flag of the Brittany region, packed the undulating route. Starting in Vannes and rolling past Chateau de L’Hermine, a resplendent castle residence for Dukes of Burgundy between the 14th and 16th century, it ended in Plumelec.
BMC and Sky were level at the first time check, Sky one second ahead at the next.
Wearing a tailor-made yellow skin suit, Froome hammered down on the pedals as his team reached speeds of 70 kph (43.4 mph) approaching the final climb. But then they lost time.
Belgian rider Greg Van Avermaet — a BMC rider — is third overall behind Froome, 27 seconds behind, while Slovak sprinter Peter Sagan is fourth, 38 behind.
But neither is a contender for the Tour win.
“Right now, the biggest threat is Tejay van Garderen,” Froome said.