Froome has tough stage 15, but keeps the yel­low jersey

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - JOHN LEICES­TER AND SAMUEL PE­TRE­QUIN

LE PUY-EN-VE­LAY, FRANCE — If Chris Froome rides into Paris next Sun­day with the Tour de France’s famed yel­low jersey still on his shoul­ders, it will be im­pos­si­ble to ar­gue that he didn’t earn the win.

In an­other day of drama Sun­day in a 104th cy­cling Tour full of twists, Eng­land’s Froome broke a back-wheel spoke on stage 15 — just as his top ri­vals were pick­ing up speed in front of him go­ing into an­other pun­ish­ing climb, but he re­cov­ered enough not to fall out of over­all lead­er­ship.

Froome now takes the jersey and an 18-sec­ond lead over Fabio ARU into Mon­day’s rest day, the last of two at the Tour, ahead of a cru­cial last week of rac­ing in the Alps and with a time trial in Mar­seille. The stage it­self was won by Bauke Mollema of the Nether­lands, with a coura­geous solo break­away at the front of the race.

Ear­lier in the day, by the time Froome had stopped, taken a wheel off his team­mate Michal Kwiatkowski and got go­ing again, they were long gone, al­ready about one minute down the road.

Froome had two choices: pour all his en­ergy into catch­ing them or lose his over­all race lead and its yel­low jersey that has al­ready changed hands three times since the Tour started in Ger­many on July 1.

“Panic sta­tions,” he said. “I re­ally thought that that could be the yel­low jersey chang­ing shoul­ders again.”

Like a hound chas­ing prey, Froome hared off af­ter Ro­main Bardet, ARU and Rigob­erto Uran — the three rid­ers all within 30 sec­onds of Froome in the over­all stand­ings of the Tour that, af­ter a ho-hum be­gin­ning, has be­come thrillingly close.

Ear­lier at the Tour, Froome’s ri­vals had waited for the race leader to catch them back up when he suf­fered an­other me­chan­i­cal prob­lem, that one with his gears. There was no such po­lite­ness this time. Cheered on by par­ti­san crowds on the 8.3-kilo­me­tre slog up the steep Col de Peyra Tail­lade — scaled for the very first time by the Tour — Bardet’s French team AG2R put the ham­mer down.

Fur­ther back, Froome re­al­ized that if he didn’t catch them by the top, he might never do so.

The race was on.

Helped first by team­mates Mikel Nieve and then by Mikel Landa, and booed by some spec­ta­tors as he laboured past them, Froome worked fu­ri­ously on the climb to reel in Bardet’s group.

“They all emp­tied them­selves to get me back into the race,” Froome said of his team­mates.

“I had to get back by the top of the climb. Other­wise it was game over for me.” “It was a stress­ful mo­ment,” Froome said. “I thought I might not get back to the front,” he added.

Froome said the back-wheel prob­lem seemed to be a bro­ken spoke. “The wheel wasn’t straight any­more,” he said.

Mollema, a top-10 fin­isher at the Tours of 2013, ’14 and ’15, sped away on the de­scent from the Peyra Tail­lade climb and en­dured over the last 30 kilo­me­tres in front of a group of four rid­ers who laid chase.

They couldn’t catch the Trek-Se­gafredo rider, who was de­ter­mined to se­cure his first-ever win at the Tour.

Mollema held his arms out in a cross shape as he sped across the fin­ish in Le Puy-en-Ve­lay, the start of a famed Chris­tian pilgrimage route to Spain. Cham­pagne would be un­corked in cel­e­bra­tion, he promised.

“I’ve never rid­den so many kilo­me­tres alone in my life,” Mollema said. “But I made it!”

The ar­du­ously bumpy 189.5-kilo­me­tre stage from the cat­tle-mar­ket town of Lais­sac-Sévérac L’Église, past rocky out­crops and patch­work fields on the high plateaus of cen­tral France’s Mas­sif Cen­tral moun­tains, of­fered two im­por­tant in­sights go­ing into the fi­nal week: Froome’s ri­vals haven’t given up try­ing to unseat him, and he still has en­ergy to burn.

Rid­ing back into Bardet’s group re­quired a big ef­fort, es­pe­cially since the French rider and his AG2R team­mates were scal­ing the as­cent at a brisk pace roared on by the crowds. “I had to go very deep,” Froome said. The top four stand­ings re­mained un­changed: ARU, 18 sec­onds back in sec­ond place; Bardet 23 sec­onds be­hind the leader in third; Uran, 29 sec­onds off the lead, in fourth.

CHRIS GRAYTHEN, GETTY IM­AGES

The lead group rides through the coun­try­side dur­ing stage 15 of the 2017 Le Tour de France on Sun­day.

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