Chris Froome (Team Sky) beat the rain and all of his GC rivals to take victory in the punchy individual time trial on stage 17 of the 2013 Tour de France.
The yellow jersey holder beat Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), who rode the whole race on a conventional road bike, by nine seconds after switching to his time trial bike on the final descent to better the Spaniard’s time.
Froome, slowed on roads soaked by a passing shower on some of the route’s tricky bends, stopped the clock in 51’33” to extend his overall lead to 4’34”.
The Kenyan-born Brit said: “I went in today trying to limit my losses, thinking of the days to come.
“To go through the finish line with the fastest time – I did not see that coming.”
France’s highest placed GC rider, Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale), was forced to abandon, however, after a crashing two kilometres from the finish just hours after fracturing his clavicle on a training ride.
Given the pair of category two climbs on the route from Embrun to Chorges, it was never going to be an ordinary time trial. Riders struggled from the first. Svein Tuft, the lanterne rouge, and so the first man from the starting house, was the first to battle with the demands of the parcours, despite his status as a seven-time Canadian time trial champion.
With most riders opting for standard road bikes, adapted by some with clip-on time trial bars, the early pace was instead set by Sojasun’s Jonathan Hivert, who ascended the category tw Cote de Puy-Sanieres to the first time check in 16’21”.
He maintained his speed on the descent, passing checkpoint two in 23’26”, and reaching the second summit in 41’29” to set an early bench mark for the course of 55’56”.
His lead did not last long however as Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) took the final descent quicker to finish six seconds faster and veteran Stuart O’Grady (Orica-GreenEDGE) beat Hivert’s times at all three checks before finishing in 55’24”.
Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM) set a blistering pace up the first climb, and despite losing time on the descent found himself one second quicker than O’Grady through 13.5km.
Romain Sicard (Euskaltel-Euskadi) also attacked the first climb well, crossing the first time check 26” off Westra’s before descending better to cut the gap to six seconds at the second time check.
Westra climbed well again to reach the top of Cote de Reallon 42” quicker than O’Grady had, while Sicard maintained his form to enter the final descent 14” off the Vacansoleil man’s pace.
This time Westra, having changed to his time trial bike, descended at a fast pace, reaching the finishing line 13’36” later to record a time of 54’02” and move into the lead.
Sicard maintained his second place, but was unable to match Westra’s pace into Chorges and posted a time 59” slower.
Cannondale’s Mareno Moser was another to match Westra through the intermediate time checks before losing time in the final descent, finishing 51” off the pace.
World time trial champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), the stage 11 individual time trial winner, was 22” slower than Westra up the first climb but made up that time on the descent.
Racing on a standard road bike, he lost time on the final climb, however, and even after switching to a time trial bike for the subsequent descent, which he took in 13’29”, he came in 37” slower than Westra.
Meanwhile, Cannondale’s Alessandro De Marchi set a new fastest time through 13.5km and 20km but, like the others before him, lost time in the final 12km to finish 13” off Westra’s pace.
Westra’s Vaconsoleil-DCM team-mate, Thomas De Gendt, also set a blistering pace up the two climbs, but lost time on the final downhill section, as did Rene Taaramae (Cofidis).
Jon Izaguirre (Euskaltel-Euskadi) also lost time on the final descent, but having been comfortably faster than Westra through the three time checks he just beat Westra’s time to move into first.
Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), who has struggled with his form during this year’s Tour, was third quickest up and down Cote de Puy-Sanieres before racing up Cote de Reallon to set a new quickest time.
The American then jumped onto his time trial back and flew down the descent, to cross the finishing line 34 seconds quicker than Izaguirre.
He finished just as the rain began pouring onto the first half of the stage, making the tricky, technical first descent even more difficult.
Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar) were among the riders caught in the heavy rain, but to the relief of many of the GC contenders it dried as quickly as it came down.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) took full advantage of the drying conditions too, setting new fastest times through the three timing points before descending in just 13’15” to beat van Garderen’s mark by 1’51”.
His lead was only temporary, however, as Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Roman Kreuziger and Alberto Contador (both Saxo-Tinkoff) all set about beating his intermediate times.
And Rodriguez set a new bench mark, stopping the clock in 51’43”, having also switched to a time trial bike for the final descent.
Contador, typically, rode out of the saddle for much of the route, as opposed to the standard time trial position, and after setting the fastest time through each time check, El Pistolero beat Rodriguez by less than a second.
Bauke Mollema (Belkin) was the biggest loser among the leading GC riders, visibly struggling to match his rivals’ time, before crashing into a barrier on the final bend and losing two minutes to Contador.
Further back, the rain had returned to slow Froome’s progress down the mountain and it looked for a time that it would cost him the stage victory.
However, in his maillot jaune and having switch to his Pinarello Bolide time trial bike, he continued to race down the descent and crossed the line nine seconds quicker than Contador to take his third stage win of the 2013 Tour.
In any other race, victory for Froome might now look assured, but the road to Paris across the remaining four stages will be among the most challenging of the Tour’s hundred editions.
Tomorrow, the riders will tackle a double ascent of l’Alpe d’Huez for the first time in the history of the race. Having found himself isolated on stage nine, distance by Contador and Saxo-Tinkoff in crosswinds on stage 13, and momentarily off the road on stage 16, Froome will take nothing for granted.
Tour de France 2013 – stage 17 – result
1 Christopher Froome (GBR) Sky Procycling 0:51:33
2 Alberto Contador (ESP) Team Saxo-Tinkoff +9″
3 Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) Katusha +10″
4 Roman Kreuziger (CZE) Team Saxo-Tinkoff +23″
5 Alejandro Valverde (ESP) Movistar +30″
6 Nairo Quintana (COL) Movistar +1’11”
7 Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) Omega Pharma-Quickstep +1’33”
8 Jakob Fuglsang (DEN) Astana +1’34”
9 Andrew Talansky (USA) Garmin-Sharp +1’41”
10 Tejay van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team +1’51”
1 Christopher Froome (GBR) Sky Procycling at 66:07:09hrs
2 Alberto Contador Velasco (ESP) Team Saxo-Tinkoff +4’34”
3 Roman Kreuziger (CZE) Team Saxo-Tinkoff +4’51”
4 Bauke Mollema (NED) Belkin Pro Cycling +6’23”
5 Nairo Alexander Quintana Rojas (COL) Movistar +6’58”
6 Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (ESP) Katusha +7’21”
7 Laurens Ten Dam (NED) Belkin Pro Cycling +8’23”
8 Jakob Fuglsang (DEN) Astana +8’56”
9 Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) Omega Pharma-Quickstep +11’10”
10 Daniel Martin (IRL) Garmin-Sharp +12’50”