Chris Froome has reached the final week of the 2017 Tour de France still in the lead but, once again, his grip on the race teetered on the edge of real trouble.
Froome’s problems arose because of a mechanical issue with his back wheel at the foot of the most difficult ascent of the stage, the first category ascent of Col de Peyra Taillade.
By the time the Team Sky rider had changed wheels he was nearly a minute back, and – provisionally at least – out of the race lead.
Tour de France 2017
Crucially archrivals AG2R La Mondiale had already staged a mass attack approaching the Peyra Taillade. So rather than the other contenders having to wait for the Briton – as unwritten race etiquette requires if a Tour leader has a mechanical problem or crash when there is a lull in the action – at this point the racing was ‘on’ and his rivals could therefore legitimately continue to push out the time gaps.
AG2R La Mondiale and their top challenger Romain Bardet did exactly that, with four of his team-mates increasing the pace on the grinding, narrow ascent, whilst Froome could only rely on three, Colombian Sergio Henao, together with Basques Mikel Nieve and Mikel Landa.
In what effectively became a battle between the two strongest climbing teams on the 2017 Tour – Sky and AG2R – Nieve eventually dropped back exhausted. On the steepest part of the climb Froome had to call back Landa from the group of a dozen favourites to ensure he regained contact.
But by then AG2R’s brown and blue cohorts were flagging too in the immense heat, and Froome – ignoring some boos from what appeared to be a few fans on the climb – could, at last, latch onto the back end of the group. The Briton was still strong enough after such a draining pursuit to close down an attack by Bardet, but he admitted at the finish it had been a narrow escape.
It was a stressful moment. I wasn’t sure if I’d get back on again,” Froome said afterwards.
“AG2R rode their race and rode fast. Just before the climb I had a problem with my back wheel, it was damaged. [Team-mate Michal] Kwiatkowski gave me his wheel because the team car was stuck behind.”
The stage itself, a hilly trek through the Massif Centrale, was won by Holland’s Bauke Mollema, going solo 30 kilometres from the finish.
After Monday’s second rest day and a likely straightforward stage on Tuesday with a bunch sprint finish, Wednesday sees the Tour head into the Alps for the final mountain showdown of this year’s race.