GAP, France – Hurtling too fast for comfort down a twisty, turning foothill of the Alps, Tour de France leader Chris Froome of Sky Procycling faced a high-speed choice between risk and reward.
The Briton knew that 10 years ago on the same descent, Joseba Beloki shattered his leg, elbow and wrist rounding a corner too fast and Lance Armstrong plowed into a field to avoid the prone Spaniard who was howling in pain.
Thus Froome wanted to go easy. Trouble was, Alberto Contador of Team Saxo-Tinkoff didn’t.
Against his better instincts, Froome chased after his Spanish rival who sped down the treacherous stretch on asphalt made gooey and slippery by the heat.
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Flirting with disaster nearly cost Froome the Tour. Contador crashed as he rounded a right-hand corner, forcing Froome to swerve off the road, onto the grass and to put a foot down to stay upright.
Unlike Contador, who bloodied his right knee, Froome escaped with merely a fright. Still, the drama Tuesday during the 16th stage proved a point Froome and the Sky team have made time and again: Despite his big lead, Froome won’t savor victory until he is on the cobbles of the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Sunday.
“One second you could be going for the finish and about to win a race and the next you’re lying in a ditch somewhere, with a broken bone,” Froome said.
“I knew it was the descent where Beloki crashed so I was purposefully laying off a little bit and trying to take it easy but at the same time also trying to keep touch with the Saxobank guys who were really pushing the limits.”
By that, Froome meant Contador and a Saxo-Tinkoff teammate from the Czech Republic, Roman Kreuziger, who are third and fourth in the overall standings but more than four minutes off the lead.
Opportunities for them to claw back seemingly are running out. The finish line in Paris is 415 miles and five days away. To their credit, they aren’t simply accepting defeat but are harassing Froome all the way.
The stage wound past vineyards, lavender fields and villages clinging to hillsides to the town of Gap, a staging post for what promises to be a grand finale in the Alps for the 100th Tour.
For a long while, it seemed as if the 104-mile leg to Gap from Vaison-la-Romaine, a charming town with old ruins near the Mont Ventoux where Froome won Sunday, would be one of those Tour stages that don’t amount to much.
Apparently preparing for the Alps, Froome and other protagonists allowed 26 riders — none considered a podium threat — to escape far ahead.
The stage winner, Movistar rider Rui Costa of Portugal, later emerged from that group, riding away on the day’s last climb, a 6-milelong ascent to Col de Manse, and then zipping down to Gap.
Although the Manse climb is less arduous and less steep than the Ventoux, where Froome blasted past Contador, the Spaniard and Kreuziger used to it test the Briton and his Australian wingman, Richie Porte.
Several times, Contador tried accelerating away. Kreuziger did, too. But Porte and then Froome alone wouldn’t let them get away.
To cool the asphalt, authorities doused the top of the climb with water. But Porte said the road down from there was sticky and slippery — just as it was in the heat wave of 2003, when Beloki’s back wheel slid away from him on a bend, hurling him to the ground. Armstrong went on to win that Tour — only to have that and all six of his other victories in cycling’s premier race stripped from him last year for doping.
On Tuesday, rounding a sharp turn, “the bike got away from me,” Contador said.
“It was really difficult. In normal conditions I wouldn’t have slipped like that, but it was very difficult terrain.”