LA PIERRE-SAINT-MARTIN, France (AP) Chris Froome used the first high-mountain stage of this year’s Tour de France to take control of the race, powering up a punishing climb in the Pyrenees on Tuesday at a pace none of his rivals could match.
Froome and his Sky teammates killed off the hopes of one contender after another, including 2014 winner Vincenzo Nibali, the first of the big favorites to crack on the final ascent of Stage 10 to the ski station of La Pierre-Saint-Martin.
As Sky led the way, with three support riders strung out in front of Froome to tug him up the gradients, the lead group shrunk to less than a dozen of the hardiest climbers.
Alberto Contador, the 2007 and 2009 winner, was the next former champion to wilt as Sky rider Richie Porte generated another burst of speed.
With six kilometers (four miles) to go, on some of the steepest sections, Froome tore away alone, out of the saddle as he accelerated. The last rider to stay with him, 2013 runner-up Nairo Quintana, couldn’t respond and finished third behind Froome and Porte.
“Froome has landed a hammer blow on the Tour,” said Nibali, the Astana team leader. “I have no more to give. I’m not even the younger brother of the Nibali from last year.”
Froome, who was already wearing the race leader’s yellow jersey after nine stages, is now nearly three minutes in front.
Closest is still Tejay van Garderen, an American on the BMC team. But he’s 2 minutes, 52 seconds behind Froome overall.
Quintana lost more than a minute to Froome on the ascent and is now trailing the British rider by 3:09, in third.
Contador rode in nearly three minutes behind Froome and slipped back to sixth overall, 4:04 behind the leader. Nibali is 6:57 behind Froome in 10th place and looking nothing like the champion who won last year. He lost 4:25 on the climb and was the 21st rider across the line.
“Dream, dream scenario just to hear all those big names being dropped,” Froome said. “I couldn’t have asked for it to go any better.”
Froome also won the first high-mountain stage in 2013 on his way to his first Tour victory. There are still two more climbing days in the Pyrenees, followed by ascents in the Alps.
“Froome rode away and showed his authority,” Contador said. “I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t get my legs to work. It really was a bad day.”
Riding like this, it’s hard to see anyone catching Froome on the last 11 stages to Paris unless he crashes, gets sick or has a disastrous off-day.
On the final 15-kilometer (9-mile) climb to the ski station, with steep gradients of between 9 percent and almost 11 percent, Sky showed itself to be the strongest climbing team at the race, which will help protect Froome on ascents to come.
Spectators who cycled up in the morning lined the road that snakes to an altitude of 1,610 meters (5,280 feet), in a moonscape of grey rocks and ski runs long devoid of snow. In cycling parlance, the climb is “Hors Categorie” – so tough that it defies categorization.
Porte’s second place at the finish sharpened the blow for Quintana, denying the Colombian six bonus seconds he would have got had he ridden in behind Froome. Instead, Quintana had to settle for 4 bonus seconds awarded for third place, while Froome got 10 seconds shaved off his overall time for winning.
Sky’s Geraint Thomas was sixth, making it the only team with three riders in the stage’s top 10.
The 167 kilometers (104 miles) ridden in 4 hours 22:07 by Froome, from Tarbes in the Pyrenees’ foothills, took the peloton through plunging valleys of great beauty with buzzards flying overhead. It also took riders past a reminder of the worst human ugliness: a concentration camp used by the pro-Nazi Vichy government during World War II to lock up Jews who were later deported to death camps.
The arduous final climb and searing summer temperatures were a rude awakening for riders coming off their first rest day Monday, following the Tour’s east-to-west swing over nine stages from the Netherlands through Belgium and across northern France.