AX-3-DOMAINES, France (Reuters) - After only the first mountain stage of the Tour de France, Team Sky’s rivals could already be aiming for second place.
They may well even end up racing for third after Chris Froome and Richie Porte looked in another league with an awe-inspiring one-two in Saturday’s eighth stage
Last year’s runner-up Froome sped away from a group of favourites in the final ascent to Ax-3-Domaines, leaving a clearly under-par Alberto Contador struggling for seventh, 1:51 off the pace.
Froome’s Australian team mate Porte was second 51 seconds behind with Spain’s Alejandro Valverde in third place, 1:08 further back.
“There are only several mountain-top finishes, we wanted to go for it, take advantage from a hard finish,” Froome told reporters. “I’ve been in a few leader’s jerseys this year but nothing compares to the yellow jersey of the Tour de France.”
Froome won the Tour of Oman, Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine stage races this season.
With two weeks left in the race, his Team Sky now need to control the race all the way to Paris.
“I‘m really confident in the team I have around me, especially with Richie Porte in second place,” said Froome.
Overall, Froome leads Porte by 51 seconds with Alejandro Valverde 34 seconds further back while Belkin riders Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam of the Netherlands were fourth and fifth after a surprisingly fine climb.
Double Tour champion Contador, who could not respond to Froome’s attack five kms from the finish, lies in seventh place overall 1:51 back.
Colombian Nairo Quintana, who snatched the young rider’s white jersey, attacked in the long out-of-category ascent to the Port de Pailheres, opening a one-minute lead at the top.
He was overtaken in the final 10 kms as Team Sky, helped by a long, brutal drag by Peter Kennaugh with Froome taking the lead ahead of Porte on a searing hot day during which temperatures reached over 30 degrees Celsius.
A few hours before the peloton started the climb to Ax-3-Domaines, tractors were sprinkling water on the road to prevent the tar from melting.
Some of Froome’s rivals, though, were still stuck on the road.
American Tejay van Garderen of the BMC team took the biggest hit as he lost 12:15, losing all hope of a podium finish in Paris.
BMC leader Cadel Evans, the 2011 champion, finished 4:13 behind while the Garmin-Sharp riders, who were hoping to cause chaos in the race, also lost badly.
Irishman Dan Martin and American Andrew Talansky crossed the line 2:34 behind Froome, their faces hollow with fatigue.
“I was surprised that more guys did not attack us. But it’s still a long way to Paris,” said Froome.
There was a question mark over Andy Schleck’s form after a painful season but the Luxembourg rider fared relatively well, losing 3:34 after cracking in the final climb, a 15.3-km drag at an average gradient of eight percent.
Sunday’s ninth stage takes the peloton over 168.5 kms from St Girons to Bagneres de Bigorre and is expected to suit the second fiddles while the favourites call a truce. (Editing by John Mehaffey)