Chris Froome re­takes the yel­low jer­sey af­ter Stage 14 of the Tour de France.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - TOUR DE FRANCE BY SA­MUEL PE­TRE­QUIN AND JOHN LE­ICES­TER

rodez, france — There is only one thing cer­tain at the Tour de France: Noth­ing is cer­tain.

Fol­low­ing two fre­netic days of racing in the Pyre­nees, no one would have bet a cent on a change of lead­er­ship on Satur­day af­ter Stage 14, a rolling 181.5-kilo­me­ter (113-mile) ride with no ma­jor dif­fi­culty.

But a short and steep climb to the fin­ish in the south­ern town of Rodez was enough for Chris Froome and his mighty Sky team to re­cover the yel­low jer­sey they lost two days ear­lier in the moun­tains.

The day’s big loser was Fabio Aru, the As­tana leader, who cracked in the last 500 me­ters and re­lin­quished the cov­eted tu­nic to the three-time cham­pion.

While the Team Sky train hit the front in the tech­ni­cal and twist­ing fi­nal kilo­me­ters at high speed, Aru was at the back and didn’t come back be­fore the pelo­ton split in the climb. He lost touch with the lead­ers in the sharp as­cent of the Cote de Saint Pierre and crossed the line 25 sec­onds be­hind stage win­ner Michael Matthews.

Froome was well po­si­tioned and had no prob­lem tack­ling the fi­nal climb. He fin­ished hot on the heels of Matthews.

“It’s a beautiful sur­prise to­day,” said Froome, who lost his jer­sey af­ter en­dur­ing a bad day on the road to the ski sta­tion of Peyragudes.

Froome said he had no ex­pla­na­tion for Aru’s break­down. But As­tana team di­rec­tor Dmitry Fo­fonov said the Ital­ian climber sim­ply paid for his ef­forts in the pre­vi­ous days.

“He was on his own, iso­lated,” Fo­fonov said. “We had cross­winds the whole day, we needed to be up front all the time to avoid the splits. Then the fin­ish was ex­plo­sive, with sprint­ers climb­ing very fast. Not Fabio’s fa­vorite ground. To­day we lost a battle, but not the war.”

Froome, who had a six-se­cond deficit at the start of the stage, is en­joy­ing an 18-se­cond ad­van­tage over Aru, who is pay­ing for the weak­ness of his As­tana team. The Kaza­khstan-funded team lost key mem­ber Jakob Fuglsang on Fri­day af­ter he broke a wrist and el­bow, and Aru had not enough team­mates to help him stay at the front.

French rider Ro­main Bardet, the run­ner-up to Froome last year, lim­ited his losses to five sec­onds. He is 23 sec­onds back from the leader, in third place.

In fourth is Rigob­erto Uran, who stuck with Froome on the fi­nal climb. He trails the Bri­ton by 29 sec­onds.

Froome could hardly be­lieve he won back so much time on a stage that, on paper, didn’t seem set up to pose such dif­fi­cul­ties for Aru. He thanked his team­mates for their es­sen­tial role in keep­ing him at the front, al­low­ing him to pounce on the fi­nal climb while Aru was stuck.

In the last fren­zied dash, Froome said team­mate Michal Kwiatkowski was urg­ing him on over their ra­dio sys­tem, yelling: “Froomey, go, go, go! There are gaps ev­ery­where!”

Froome re­mained wary, be­cause the top five were still close to each other. He said he’d al­ways ex­pected this Tour to be very open, with its atyp­i­cal route over all five of France’s moun­tain ranges, a pre­dic­tion that is com­ing true.

“Ev­ery­one is fight­ing for ev­ery se­cond they can get,” Froome said. “The time I made up to­day could be very vi­tal.”

Froome has never faced such a close battle at this stage of the race. In the three Tours he won, he had the race all but wrapped up at this point. He had a lead of 1:47 af­ter Stage 14 in 2016, of 3:10 in 2015 and 2:28 in 2013.

Matthews, who beat Olympic cham­pion Greg Van Aver­maet in the sprint to claim his se­cond stage win at the Tour, said he’d tar­geted the stage win all year, and trained specif­i­cally for the last climb.

BRYN LEN­NON/GETTY IM­AGES

Team Sky’s Chris Froome re­gained the yel­low jer­sey from As­tana’s Fabio Aru and now leads the Ital­ian by 18 sec­onds af­ter Stage 14.

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