Froome takes yellow in virtual GC as TTT reveals some cracks

Sky captain is the big winner in Nice and a number of his rivals find themselves on a back foot before the Pyrénées

Photo: Graham Watson

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NICE, France (VN) — The battle for the yellow jersey saw its opening salvos on Tuesday, with BMC Racing favorites Cadel Evans and Tejay van Garderen surprisingly ceding time in the stage 4 team time trial.

Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) snagged the yellow jersey by the narrowest of margins — 0.57 seconds to be exact — but he won’t be anywhere near the podium when the Tour ends July 21 in Paris.

On the top end of the classement virtuel is Sky, which “won” the 25-kilometer team time trial, finishing just three seconds off Orica’s winning time and taking gains on some important rivals, among them the dangerous BMC pair.

Evans and van Garderen ceded 23 seconds to Sky on a day when they were expecting to be bucking for yellow.

“That’s too much [time to lose]. It’s important to gain every second, and losing time wasn’t what I had hoped for and not what we expected,” said Evans, the 2011 Tour winner. “The simple analysis is that we were not fast enough. I would have preferred to make some seconds. Instead, we’re on the back foot, and we have to make it up somewhere.”

Giving up time so early in the race will only complicate things for BMC and the other GC contenders that slid backward in the time trial. Other favorites fared even worse.

Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) was 25 seconds slower than Sky while RadioShack-Leopard, which started last, with the yellow jersey on the shoulders of Jan Bakelants, also ceded 26 seconds to Sky, time that an unproven Andy Schleck could not afford to give up.

Bauke Mollema (Belkin) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) bled even more, at 34 seconds and 53 seconds slower than Sky, respectively. Europcar’s Pierre Rolland saw his podium hopes take a significant blow when the French team gave up 1:10 to Sky.

In such a mountainous Tour, those losses might not mean much when the differences are likely to spin into minutes rather than seconds. But the gains are invaluable because it’s always better to defend a position than to have to attack to recover lost time.

Sky boss Dave Brailsford expressed satisfaction with the ride and even suggested that the team was happy it did not win and claim the weight of the yellow jersey too soon.

“If we had the jersey, we’d be happy for a half hour, then we’d have something to worry about,” he told VeloNews. “In the context of today — three, six, 10 seconds — and compare that to the differences of what we will see on top of the mountain, it won’t be that important. It is nice the GC effort went well, but you cannot read too much into it.”

Everyone knows taking time on Froome and Co. will require some heavy lifting. When he’s on his game, Froome will be the one attacking when the Tour hits the mountains, so losing time so early puts Sky in a much stronger position against several key rivals.

Froome has already proven he’s in top shape, providing a glimpse of his form when he shot away over a small, third-category climb late in Sunday’s second stage in order to safely descend the other side. No one could stay on his wheel.

Van Garderen, who rode to fifth and the white jersey last year, couldn’t hide his disappointment at the finish line.

“That’s a bit below our expectations. It’s always good to start out with a buffer of time rather than a deficit. In the end of the day, it doesn’t change a whole lot,” he said. “I guess it was the rhythm. We should have taken shorter, faster pulls than longer pulls.”

On the other end of the spectrum, others came away enthused.

Top among them were Alberto Contador, whose Saxo-Tinkoff team powered to fourth on the stage, just six seconds behind Sky.

That will give Contador and his troops a boost, especially following doubts about the Spaniard’s form coming into the Tour after he lost nearly three minutes to Froome during the individual time trial at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June.

“Six seconds is nothing, so we are encouraged by the ride,” Contador said. “It’s always better to be in front of your rivals. We took some time on others, and the most important thing is that I am feeling good.”

The first major test comes this weekend in the Pyrénées with two mountain stages, including this Tour’s first of four mountaintop finishes. As Brailsford suggested, the time differences today might not mean much on top of Ax 3 Domaines on Saturday, but taking time is always better than losing time.

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